MAHB Dialogue with Mike Phillips, Executive Director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund
Geoff Holland – What is biodiversity? And why is it so important to protecting the health and resilience of the biosphere we all depend on?
Mike Phillips – Back in 1997, Ted Turner and I co-founded the Turner Endangered Species Fund and the Turner Biodiversity Division. The fund is a nonprofit, private operational charity that focuses on imperiled species that are listed as threatened or endangered under state or federal law. As for the biodiversity divisions, we realized early on that we were interested in species that were imperiled but not quite so to need to be listed. For the species we formed Biodiversity Divisions. Every ranch that Mr. Turner owns has a Biodiversity Division.
What is biodiversity? Biodiversity is the sum total of all life on Earth and their interactions. The biodiversity of the planet occupies the biosphere, the living zone of the planet. Interactions between species are of paramount importance. It’s all well and good for a gray wolf, to run around the woods. But it’s really important for a gray wolf to run around the woods and do what predators do. It’s the interactions of life that give a richness to the biosphere. What’s being lost with the extinction crisis, or the biodiversity crisis, is not just species, but their interactions.
GH – You lead the Turner Endangered Species Project launched by Ted Turner in 1997. Can you summarize your approach to restoring the health and resiliency of wild eco-systems?
MP – We acknowledge that the health and resiliency of wild ecosystems are both critically important. If you’re healthy, you’re resilient. If you’re resilient, you’re healthy. Then we acknowledge that ecosystems are exceedingly complex. You can make a case that a square foot of living planet, a square foot of some wild ecosystem is the most complex, complicated thing in the universe. Because of the complexity we break our work down to simple pieces, the species themselves. For example, the Bolson tortoise is absent from a great deal of suitable desert grassland habitat in New Mexico. We believe its presence would add to the health and resiliency of that setting. So, we put them back. Other species we work with at present but in such small numbers that they are not secure. A good example here would be the Chiricahua leopard frog. You can find Chiricahua leopard frogs on the Ladder Ranch, but not in the numbers that indicate security. For such species we implement population augmentation efforts.
GH – You are also associated with the late great EO Wilson’s half Earth project. Can you explain your Wilson’s vision and the urgency behind it?
MP – Well, Ed was a friend, and I miss him. He was a true hero of mine. And I am honored to serve on Ed’s Half-Earth Council, a collection of people that believe the notion of affording proper consideration of non-human life across 50% of the planet is extremely important, not only because that life has value in and of itself, but that life is essential to the safety and security and prosperity of humankind.
I believe that ‘Half-Earth’ matters because it celebrates life. And it acknowledges that life on Earth is under assault and has been for a long, long time. The extinction crisis is very real, and has been real for a long, long time…for centuries. We’re currently in the grip of the sixth great extinction crisis to sweep across this planet over something like 450 million years. The fifth such crisis occurred about 65 million years ago when an asteroid slammed into the planet. That rock measured about six miles across. It was traveling at something like 45,000 miles an hour. It brought an end to the age of the dinosaurs in what it was essentially a geological instant.
The sixth great extinction crisis is not being precipitated by an asteroid, but rather by the activities of humankind, at least since the late 18th century and the advent of the Industrial Revolution, if not centuries earlier. It is planetary in scope. It is affecting all types of life forms, and it’s growing worse by the day. The extinction crisis is profoundly important, and evidence that the health and resiliency of the planet is being significantly weakened through humankind’s activities. Why should this matter?
Well, I would have you believe it should matter to everybody because of the relevance of life to all of us. Let’s assume for a moment that you’re a person of faith. How can you love the Creator and not love the creation, which is the handiwork of the Creator? And how can you stand by and watch something you love be needlessly destroyed without rising up in defense? Or let’s take the flip side of that logic, let’s assume you’re a secular humanist and you believe that rather than faith, it’s data and facts and logic and empiricism that matter most. Well, the best science indicates that the fate of humanity has been and will always be decided by the health of local landscapes the world over. And yet the extinction crisis, the biodiversity crisis, makes clear that the landscapes around the planet are not the least bit healthy. So, no matter who you are, the extinction crisis should matter and be understood. Acknowledging the problem is the first step. But then you have to develop a response. An effective response to the extinction crisis, the biodiversity crisis is Half-Earth’.
GH – One of the your projects is focused on revitalizing populations of Prairie Dogs and the extremely endangered Black Footed Ferret, which are dependent on healthy, undisturbed populations of prairie dogs. Can you tell us, how is that project going?
MP – I am quite proud of our work with Prairie Dogs and Black Footed Ferrets. The Black Footed Ferret is arguably the rarest carnivore in the world. In large part it is so very rare because the Prairie Dog has been persecuted for a long, long time in this country as a pest and a problem for ranchers. Prairie Dogs eat grass, and cattle eat grass and consequently some believe on occasion there’s competition. If you kill the Prairie Dogs, you make it easier for a livestock operation to go forward. Prairie Dogs have been intensively persecuted in this country for many decades. The Black Footed Ferret is an obligate carnivore on Prairie Dogs. That’s all they eat. They are completely dependent on Prairie Dog colonies. The Black Footed Ferret is an ecological specialist.
Ted Turner is the largest rancher of Bison in the country with a herd that includes 40,000 to 50,000 animals. Back in 1997, when Ted and I co-founded the Turner Endangered Species Fund, I knew that he was a determined Bison rancher, and it only made sense that the Turner Endangered Species Fund follow the Bison trail, and act on conservation opportunities that presented themselves because of the bison operation. One of the greatest conservation opportunities presented by Bison ranching is Prairie Dogs and Black Footed Ferrets. The program is going very well. We aim to make substantive contributions to the federal recovery program for the Black Footed Ferret, and I have hoped that someday the Black Footed Ferret will be so secure on Prairie Dog colonies stretching across the Great Plains, that it will be proper to remove federal protections because it is no longer endangered or threatened. It’s a perfect metaphor for what Ed Wilson wanted to see with the Half-Earth project.
GH – Can you give us another example of Endangered Species Projects you are working on?
MP – Well, we have a number of projects that I’m focused on at the Turner Endangered Species Fund. Some are historic in scale and scope. For example, our work with Red Cockaded Woodpeckers in the American Southeast, an endangered species…another habitat specialist. I’m proud that we put in place back in 1998, the largest, most significant restoration effort ever for that species. It was most significant because it was a project that aimed to establish the Red Cockaded Woodpecker to a forest that had never before supported the species. Now, that said, the forest at the Turner Avalon plantation is well within the historical range of the Red Cockaded Woodpecker. But the original forest had long since been cut down. The Red Cockaded Woodpeckers had left, and a new forest had grown up, and the birds had never come back. Now, why would the birds not come back? Red Cockaded Woodpeckers are unique in the woodpecker world. They’re the only woodpecker that has cavities that are constructed in live pines. So, they need a relatively mature forest to have access to pines that are big enough that allow the woodpecker to create a cavity in the heartwood without killing the tree. These cavities are critically important to Red Cockaded Woodpeckers. They will not survive a night or two or three if they can’t get into one of their nest cavities. When we did the restoration work at the Avalon plantation the forest had lots of big mature pine trees, but there were no cavities. We had to provide all of the cavities with inserts. No one had ever done that before.
GH – Can you summarize some of the other endangered species restoration projects you’re working on?
MP – I mention ed that we’ve done significant work on behalf of the Gopher Tortoise, and also significant work on behalf of the Black Footed Ferret, the Black Tailed Prairie Dog, and the Gunnison Prairie Dog. We are responsible for the most successful effort ever to restore Desert Bighorn Sheep in the Southwest at the Armendaris Ranch, specifically to the Fra Cristobal Mountains. We have made substantive contributions contributions to the Chiricahua Leopard Frog Federal Recovery Program. We are building out a one-of-a-kind effort on behalf of the endangered Chupadera Springsnail. We have a historic effort underway on behalf of the Bolson Tortoise in the Desert Southwest. We have done fantastic work, historic work on behalf of restoring Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout in New Mexico, and the Westslope Cutthroat Trout in Montana. When we finish the trout work, probably at the end of 2022, we will have restored those two species to over 200 miles of streams and creeks of the Rocky Mountain West. That’s a scale of work that even a state or federal agency has a hard time achieving. We have made substantive contributions to wolf recovery in the northern Rocky Mountains and the Southwest. And we were the driving force behind securing a restoration mandate for the Gray Wolf to be restored to Western Colorado. That’s just a quick summary of some of the work that we’ve been involved with over the last 25 years.
GH – What can we learn from the world’s indigenous people about how to live sustainably and in harmony with nature?
MP – Now by no means am I an anthropologist. So, you’re taking me outside of my wheelhouse of expertise, which is not very big in the first place. But I think at least from indigenous people, we can learn the value of greater ecological literacy. I do believe it’s true that indigenous peoples lived closer to the land than we do today. That was probably by necessity, not out of choice. I suppose that lots of indigenous people in the 16th and 1700s would welcome the luxuries we enjoy today. They just didn’t have them. But I think they’ve done a better job at retaining ecological literacy. I think many people around the planet are, however, ecologically illiterate. And they don’t understand that we are never going to be any better than the planet’s ability to provide for our needs. We are exhausting the natural capital of the planet at an alarming rate. We would be less inclined to exhaust that capital, if we were more ecologically literate. I do believe indigenous peoples could help us acknowledge the importance of ecological literacy.
GH – I may have got the focus wrong here, but I was taken by the fact that the Turner Foundation has this motto, ‘Save Everything’. Is that really something that’s possible, or just an ambition?
MP – It is an important aspiration for Ted Turner. Some of the most important aspirations are probably not possible, but they still serve to inspire. And that makes more possible than would be otherwise. I think people who are inspired, accomplish more than people who are uninspired. A great way to inspired is to offer a lofty aspiration. What could be loftier than aspiring to save everything?
GH – What would you like to see the social media doing to inform and energize the public about the consequences of their own eating and living habits on our earth’s rapidly diminishing biodiversity?
I would really appreciate it if the world of social media would point out that we need to account for all of the costs of production, distribution and consumption today, so that people are paying a fair price for whatever it is they’re buying, and not passing some cost to some future generation. We are very good at denying the real cost of production, distribution and consumption and putting a burden on future generations without compensating them for it. People have to be mindful that it’s important to pay their fair share. Those of us here today are not paying our fair share. If we were paying our fair share, we would not be exhausting our Earth’s natural capital. I would like to think social media could help everybody understand it is only right to pay our fair share today.
GH – What kind of planetary scale cultural commitment do we need if we are to save ourselves from our own worst instincts?
MP – We need to acknowledge that the extinction crisis is a clarion call for readjusting our relationship with Mother Earth and with one another. The extinction crisis is caused by many, many things. It’s caused by climate change; it’s caused by habitat degradation; it’s caused by over-exploitation. Because it is caused by so many things, it is a very effective clarion call for change.
Mike Phillips is a Research Biologist and Co-Founder of the Turner Endangered Species Fund and Turner Biodiversity Divisions.