When a Species is Endangered

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

the endangered species list means that the remaining populations of that species are badly in need of conservation. Listing generates additional monitoring from Conservation Department researchers, stimulates public education, offers better publicity and may result in additional land protection.

Defining our Terms

Some people insist that we list species earlier so that we have more lead time, more options. Conservation Department biologists, hesitant to use the category endangered unless a species is near extinction, assign other categories of concern. Some species are listed as threatened. Others are rare. Others are uncommon. This is how biologists share their concern about fish, wildlife and plants that are not doing well in Missouri.

If a plant or animal is gone from Missouri, but still lives somewhere else on earth, we consider that species extirpated from Missouri. If a species of plant or animal is gone from Missouri, and no longer exists anywhere else on earth, we label it extinct.

The standards are high and it is difficult to get on the list of endangered species. The endangered species list is not a good list to be on, but it is a necessary list.

Unfortunately for many species, endangered species status--a designation that should generate a response for recovery actions--arrives so late that extraordinary efforts are necessary to prevent extinction. Are we too late for prairie-chickens and prairie fringed orchids?

We were not too late for the bald eagle. Eagle populations declined from low to almost extinct in the 1960s. By the 1970s there were no eagles nesting in Missouri at all. Because of public concern, legal protection and reintroduction efforts, bald eagles have increased to the point that their status has been changed from endangered to threatened. For many plants and animals, endangered species listing was a call for action, and it set the stage for recovery.

COUNTING an Endangered Milkweed

Mead's milkweed is a federally threatened plant. This milkweed is not as robust as the common milkweeds that we see growing along roadsides. It is smaller and more difficult to detect. And this species has not adapted to changes in the land. It does not accept disturbance as readily as more common milkweeds. Remaining populations of Mead's milkweed are few indeed, restricted to remnant prairies or rhyolite glades in the Ozarks.

Even on protected areas, Mead's milkweed is not abundant and, despite our efforts, its numbers continue to decline. A Conservation Department botanist, along with a crew of volunteers, visits one of the largest populations every June to walk the prairie and count milkweed plants. He returns later in the year to count fruit pods to evaluate how many plants are successfully producing seeds.

Efforts like these provide some measure of the current condition of endangered plants like Meads milkweed.

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