What Price Do We Put on an Endangered Bird?

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Last year during the Gulf oil spill, as I watched reports about dead birds and talked with scientists about what might happen to the local ecosystems, I wondered how we might punish the perpetrators of such an ecological crime. BP will eventually pay some fine, based partially on the number of wildlife killed, but how do you place a value on these creatures? Does a copepod, at the base of the food chain, have more or less value than something at the top, like a whale? Does it matter if that creature is rare or endangered?

The court system might be one place to look for guidance, as people are punished there for killing endangered species. So what should we make of the recent sentencing of a young Indiana man and an unnamed juvenile for shooting and killing a whooping crane in 2009? Their sentence: probation and paying court fees of about $550.

And a one-dollar fine.

If we're going to look for symbolism in that symbolic fine, we might conclude that the crane wasn't worth much at all. Of course this overlooks the facts that there are fewer than 400 whooping cranes left in the wild; we spend money preserving them; and the one that was killed, seven-year-old female 17-02, had been hand-raised as part of a breeding program and was the important half of a the only successful breeding pair of cranes in that area. All the time, effort and money that went into raising her and keeping track of her and her life---that is ignored in these calculations, apparently.

We try to save species because they have value to us. Greater biodiversity and healthier ecosystems have some benefits that can be quantified, like fewer infectious diseases, but also plenty that we'll never be able to predict. Who knows what drugs might be hiding inside some plant? Or what undiscovered microbe actually makes life on Earth possible? Or how eliminating a single bird species might affect the rest of the ecosystem, with potentially disastrous consequences for humans?

Not to mention how sad it would be for future generations to never see some of these creatures---haven't you ever wished you could have encountered a dodo in someplace other than a dusty museum cabinet?

There is general agreement that extinctions are something to be avoided, and we invest a lot of money in trying to make that not happen. (We may not be going about it the right way, but that's a discussion for another day.) We could try to quantify those investments in an attempt to estimate a value for the loss of a bird or turtle, but so much of the value of these creatures will remain unknowable, and it will always be difficult to place a number on such a loss.

But certainly it's more than a single dollar.

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