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NH News

New Hampshire has a biodiversity crisis. There aren't easy solutions.

A grey butterfly on a yellow flower
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
/
Wikimedia Commons
The karner blue butterfly is one of several endangered species in New Hampshire.

Many species across the globe are endangered, but species who make their home here in New Hampshire are also facing threats to their survival.

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Kurk Dorsey, an environmental historian at the University of New Hampshire joined NHPR Morning Edition host Rick Ganley to talk about the threats to biodiversity in New Hampshire.

Takeaways:

  • Several animal species, like cod and cliff swallows, in New Hampshire are seeing a steep decline in population. 
  • Certain insect populations are also declining, which threatens the survival of insect-eating birds in the state. 
  • Habitat loss is the main threat to New Hampshire animals. That includes paving and converting farmland into commercial or residential land. 
  • Dorsey says an international strategy to preserve biodiversity and habitats is necessary. If a habitat is destroyed in a country on the southern end of a bird’s migration, that will affect its survival in New Hampshire, the northern end of its migration. 
  • Ecosystems are very complex. We still don’t know some of the consequences of the loss of biodiversity in our state. For instance, if we lose pollinators in the state, agriculture and soil fertility could be threatened.  
  • Dorsey says habitat preservation is a priority, and development should be paused to further study local biodiversity. 

See some of the endangered species in New Hampshire

Transcript:

Kurk Dorsey: Here in New Hampshire, it's not as bad as it is in some places in the world, but we know that there is a clear loss of biodiversity in the state. For instance, for decades there have been breeding bird surveys, and we know that we're finding fewer and fewer species on those surveys over the years. So there is clear evidence of that.

And then even some species that maybe wouldn't show up on breeding bird surveys, for instance, that eat insects out of the air, cliff swallows and chimney sweeps and things like that, have shown a steep decline. So we are seeing it even with relatively common species around us in the state.

Rick Ganley: What about some other species besides birds?

Kurk Dorsey: Every once in a while we think, "Oh, the cod are coming back." But the number of cod and other things in the sea compared to what abundance used to be is way down. We know that moose are less common in the southern part of the state. So we're seeing it with, as they say, the charismatic megafauna as well as birds.

But it's all in many ways tracing its way back down to a decline in insect species. Hence, we're having fewer birds that eat insects. And in terms of the moose, it's an increase in ticks that is eating away at the moose and causing the young not to survive. So it's a combination of things.

Rick Ganley: Of course, everything is related to each other. There's a domino effect: less insects mean less birds [and] the food chain is disrupted. What other factors brought on the decline in these species' populations?

Kurk Dorsey: Well, by far the biggest thing is just habitat loss. You know, there's not really been a reversal of habitat. People are moving out into the suburbs, or farms are being converted into subdivisions, for instance, or shopping malls, and that never goes back. That's the issue. We might save a farm. We might set aside something as conservation land, but it's very rare that we take a subdivision and plow it back up and turn it back into open space.

So more than anything, it's a habitat loss question, and not just habitat here. To come back to birds, which I know best, you know, a lot of our species migrate south and they migrate to other countries. So we might take steps here in New Hampshire. But if nobody has taken a step to save the habitat they need at the southern end of their migration, then it won't matter much here.

But in the long run, what we really need to have is an international strategy to try to address biodiversity and habitat protection. But that's very challenging politically.

Rick Ganley: I can imagine so, yeah. So some people might say it's a shame that certain insects or birds are declining in population, but it's not a top button issue. Can you explain what's at stake when populations of certain species are declining?

Kurk Dorsey: Well, we rely on a very complex ecosystem for survival, even at the most basic level. I mean, we think about pollinators, for instance, all the things that require pollinators. Well, pollinators don't live by themselves. They live in a complex ecosystem. And if we pick out certain species we don't like or we try to exterminate certain species or we say we don't really need this habitat, you can be creating a cascading effect where you lose, say, the pollinators, or you lose a part of the ecosystem that makes the soil fertile.

And part of, I think, what we need to do is adopt Aldo Leopold's logic. He had a term I think we could use called humility of ignorance, that we don't we don't know so many things. He and Rachel Carson did the same thing. And we should be really careful about what we destroy if we don't understand how it works. A healthy ecosystem provides balance across the board. You should have as much diversity in your ecosystems as possible, and we should be more cautious about those sorts of things. In the long run, we'll be better off.

Rick Ganley: What are some of the solutions you think to preserve biodiversity in our state?

Kurk Dorsey: Well, the first solution is to set aside as many pieces of habitat as we can. Just say, “OK, are there places that we can stop developing?” And then I think it would help if at, say, at a state level there was a commission that would really emphasize what the strategy should be for those landscapes to maintain as much biodiversity as possible. I'm sure the people at Natural Resources are doing a lot of this and thinking about it.

But what we as citizens can do is support that. To say that it is really important for towns to maybe give up some of that tax base that they really would like to have, but instead to have those open spaces.

So these issues are really complex, and I think we just need to make sure we keep biodiversity in these discussions. And the problem with it is the rewards are not obvious. When biodiversity disappears, it's too late, and that's when we find out we have a problem. And you know, again, a simple thing like pollinators disappear and you don't have fruit trees or you don't have a garden, and then it's too late to get it back. And so we have to think about things that we can't wait until they're gone to try to save them.