by Whit Gibbons

December 14, 2008

Reports about the U.S. economy have had few upsides in the last few months, and a recent one was that more than a half million jobs were lost in November. I realize that such economic barometers can be viewed and interpreted in different ways, but it seems hard to draw anything good from that one. In fact, last month's downturn in that particular jobs category was the worst since the mid-1970s.

At the risk of sounding too Pollyannaish, the fact that we hit an even lower bottom thirty years ago and recovered nicely might be viewed as a hopeful sign that things on the economic front are going to get better. But I am an ecologist not an economist, so I am in no position to comment on where jobs, mortgages, bank loans, or the stock market will go tomorrow, next month, or next year. (Of course, considering the recent success of people who declare themselves to be economists in predicting the future of the economy, some of them might be better off with a change of careers. Maybe they should consider ecology.)

In any case, I can't comment on the human economic condition, so I will look at the issue from the perspective of an ecologist. Can any parallels be drawn between human jobs and the natural world? For that matter, does taxation relate to wildlife species? In other words, do wild animals have jobs and pay taxes? The answer is a resounding yes.

Raccoons, rabbits, and possums, for example, spend part of each day looking for food. That's their job, and all of them work constantly. Beavers work at cutting down trees--to repair dams and build lodges. Social insects like ants, bees, and wasps exemplify an organized labor union, but without strikes or contract negotiations. They carry out daily job duties: defending the colony, bringing food to the nest, serving as nursemaids to the queen. Yes. All wild animals have jobs and all have to earn a living to support their families.

One reason to have a job is to acquire necessities that are basic to all animals: food and shelter. Health care, defense, and transportation are also requirements--for both humans and wild animals. If a business shuts down or reduces production, human jobs are "lost." The same is true for wild animals. The endangered wood stork's job is to find fish and tadpoles in shallow wetlands. Destroying wetlands that abolish wood stork business sites eliminates wood stork jobs. The unemployment problem that wetland loss creates for wood storks is one example of the economic toll we take on wildlife when we do not manage our natural resources properly. Thousands of wetland species have had their workplaces eliminated in recent years, as have species living in forests, deserts, and oceans. This is in no way intended to minimize the human job losses occurring in our country but only to demonstrate that job loss inflicts hardship on all species.

Do animals pay taxes? Absolutely! Humans place a heavy tax burden on animals. We eat them, wear them, make medicines out of them. Some of our taxation of wildlife does not even benefit us at all, such as death tolls of animals on highways. As we overtax our native wildlife, the national wildlife deficit increases, and we are the ultimate losers in that situation. Most people would agree that the welfare of humans is of critical importance in any calculation. But as we continue to put other species out of work--some permanently--their losses are passed on to us. These natural systems provide many services essential to our own existence. Our natural heritage is not something we can do without in the long run.

With economic difficulties increasing, most people's attention is not on wildlife and the environment. But when our own economy begins to prosper again, which some say will be within a year, we need to emerge with a strong environment to go along with a strong economy. Let's not put any of our wildlife out of business while we wait for things to get better for us.

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