by Whit Gibbons

November 2, 2014

The question never goes away. What good is it? People often ask ecologists and environmental educators what good is this or that animal or plant.

The question is seldom malicious. People really want to know what justification exists for protecting certain species. Providing a good answer is not always easy.

The answer I give varies. Not because I keep changing my mind, but because the question has lots of acceptable answers. Many people want to understand why protection of endangered or seemingly insignificant species is important.

Others ask why we should protect species that can be dangerous or that restrict economic development. People want the justification to be relevant to their own lives.

Because people relate differently to different answers, I try to pick the best one for the particular audience.

I well remember a talk I gave to a group of deer hunters. As I was showing them a canebrake rattlesnake, someone said, “What good is it?” That’s a fair question to ask, but the man did sound a tad hostile, like I was the reason his hunting dog had recently been bitten on the face by a rattler. So I paused to consider the right response, especially when I eyed the shotgun lying on the floor beside him.

But before I could speak, another hunter in the room looked at the man and said, “I can answer that. What good are you?”

Two others chimed in with “Yeah. Yeah.” My suspicion is that the other hunters were more interested in jabbing their buddy than standing up for the rights of rattlesnakes, but their point was actually valid.

In some situations and with some groups, one way to respond is to point out that other species could ask the same question of us. This is especially true for certain individuals.

If I had responded to the hunter, I might have advocated for the environmental value of rattlesnakes by describing a situation I had heard of in a another town.

One winter, local residents destroyed a hibernation den where rattlesnakes congregated. The next year the community was overrun by rats and mice. Apparently the townsfolk had exterminated the rodents’ primary predator.

This argument might have little sway with the hunter who had the snake-bit dog, but others in the room might well have embraced a new perspective.

From a purely people-centric point of view, one reason to champion a species is because it has research value that can result in tangible benefits to humans.

Turtles, for example, have been used to detect unsuspected radioactive contamination in the environment.

In one situation turtles lived in a lake near a nuclear reactor. Scientists discovered the lake was contaminated by radioactive cesium and strontium.

The turtles had incorporated low levels of radiation into their bodies and shells. In a research program that sampled turtles moving overland between lakes, we detected radioactive turtles and were able to demonstrate that a contaminated habitat was present somewhere in the vicinity.

The turtles served as environmental sentinels that cast a spotlight on a bad situation. We subsequently were able to pinpoint the source of the radioactive contamination so that a cleanup process could be undertaken.

I am certainly not alone in asserting that to be good stewards, people must protect the natural environment and the plants and animals that inhabit this world with us.

Nonetheless, some folks will maintain that certain species should be eliminated because they pose a threat to humans.

For them, I have one more valid answer to the question “what good is it?” And that is “we don’t know yet.” Sometimes species can have on overall value that exceeds the problem they can cause in specific instances.

Any plant or animal in the world could have some behavior or genetic makeup that might be of value to us.

Rattlesnakes and turtles have already proven they have such traits. For most species we just haven’t found out yet what those qualities are.

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