Wildlife conservation benefits popular species. The hellbender could change that Bald eagles have soared back from the brink. Grizzly bear numbers are rebounding. But thousands of less charismatic species are competing for scarce conservation resources in the United States.

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Wildlife conservation tends to save charismatic species. That may be about to change

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Bald eagles have soared back from the brink. Grizzly bears are on the rebound. But thousands of less charismatic species, the kinds you might not see on a poster or a bumper sticker, are threatened with extinction. NPR's Laura Benshoff reports on a federal bill that would spend more to protect U.S. wildlife.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: In a stream near Binghamton, N.Y., a half-dozen people in waders and snorkel gear are trying to catch a kind of giant salamander called the eastern hellbender. It's not clear how they got that name, but one theory is because they're kind of funny looking. Biologist Michelle Herman disagrees.

MICHELLE HERMAN: They're just so unique among all other salamanders in North America. Yeah, I find them pretty charismatic.

BENSHOFF: Hellbenders are brown with flat heads and wide tails. They can grow to be more than two feet long and live under giant rocks in the stream bed. As a part of her master's thesis, Herman helped repopulate them in this area. And she's back to give them their annual health checkup. At a folding table set up by the banks, she takes some measurements, checks them out...

HERMAN: Toes are all good. Tails good.

BENSHOFF: ...And swabs each one carefully for a kind of invasive fungus.

HERMAN: The first one snapped at me when I did the chin rub. It's very feisty.

BENSHOFF: People like Herman, who are passionate about a species, can make a difference. But conservation is expensive and a lot of work. Her collaborator and fellow hellbender enthusiast, Peter Petokas, has tried crowdfunding. He inspired a group of high school students who lobbied to get the animal named the state amphibian of Pennsylvania.

PETER PETOKAS: They borrowed my hellbender costume, which is really cool.

BENSHOFF: It took two years, but they did it.

PETOKAS: So it was exciting. The problem was in terms of it bringing more attention in terms of funding, is that that never really happened.

BENSHOFF: There's not enough funding to go around. For every species saved from the brink of extinction, there are thousands of others like this one teetering closer to the edge. Mark Humpert is with the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

MARK HUMPERT: Nationally, there's 12,000 different species that are considered species of greatest conservation need.

BENSHOFF: But federal funding only provides about 5% of what's needed to help all those species. Since the 1930s, the U.S. has taxed hunting licenses, as well as guns, ammo and other equipment to pay for conservation. Mike Leahy with the National Wildlife Federation says that money tends to help the species that hunters and anglers care about, like deer and elk.

MIKE LEAHY: There has been this gap in getting enough funding to the species that aren't hunted and fished.

BENSHOFF: A bill that passed the House of Representatives this summer and which has bipartisan support in the Senate would change that. The Recovering America's Wildlife Act calls for spending $1.3 billion a year, a huge increase over existing funding. But it's unclear how the measure would be paid for and if it will come up for a vote this session. But Leahy says if it does, it would also shift the focus towards species that don't get a ton of support right now.

LEAHY: Recovering America's Wildlife Act brings funding to all wildlife. There is this kind of unheralded crisis in wildlife, and it's a little less well known because it tends to be the less charismatic species.

BENSHOFF: Many conservationists talk about this crisis like flying a plane while slowly removing each bolt or a game of Jenga. Each species lost weakens whole ecosystems. But Peter Petokas, the hellbender scientist, sees it differently.

PETOKAS: If we think about all the unique species on the planet that we go to see in the zoo - we go there to see tigers and lions and elephants and giant tortoises and rare birds. And I think that's the real value of conserving a really rare and unique species, is to have it there for the future for everybody else to enjoy.

BENSHOFF: He says we should care about wildlife all the time, not just when it's in danger. Laura Benshoff, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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