MAHB Dialogue with Mike Phillips, Executive Director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund

Geoffrey Holland | June 16, 2022 | Leave a Comment

Geoff Holland – What is biodiversity, and why is it so important for protecting the health and resilience of the biosphere?

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 did not quite meet the criteria to be listed. For these species, we formed the Biodiversity Divisions. Every ranch that Mr. Turner owns has a Biodiversity Division.

What is biodiversity? Biodiversity is the total sum of all life on Earth and its 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 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 resilience of wild ecosystems?

MP – We acknowledge that the health and resilience of wild ecosystems are 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 this complexity, we break our work down into 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 resilience of that setting. So, we put them back. Other species we work with are 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 E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project. Can you explain 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 nonhuman 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 sweeping across this planet after something like 450 million years. The fifth 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 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 affects all types of life forms, and it’s growing worse by the day. The extinction crisis is profoundly important, and it is evidence that the health and resilience of the planet are being significantly weakened through human 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 its defense? Or let’s take the flip side of that logic, let’s assume you’re a secular humanist and believe that rather than faith, it’s data, facts, 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. 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 your projects is focused on revitalizing populations of prairie dogs and the extremely endangered black-footed ferret, which is dependent on healthy, undisturbed populations of prairie dogs. Can you tell us how that project is 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. Its rarity in large part is because the prairie dog has been persecuted for a long time in this country as a pest and a problem for ranchers. Prairie dogs eat grass; cattle also eat grass and consequently, some believe 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. It only made sense that the Turner Endangered Species Fund follows the bison trail and acts on conservation opportunities that present themselves because of the bison operation. Some of the greatest conservation opportunities from bison ranching are 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. I hope 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 the endangered species projects you are working on?

MP – Well, we have a number of projects in focus 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 in 1998, we put in place 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 in a forest that had never before supported the species. 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, a new forest had grown up, and the birds never returned. Why would the birds not come back? Red-cockaded woodpeckers are unique in the woodpecker world. They’re the only woodpeckers that construct cavities in live pines. So, they need a relatively mature forest with access to pines that are big enough to 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 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 other endangered species restoration projects you’re working on?

MP – I mentioned that we’ve done significant work on behalf of the Bolson, or gopher tortoise, the black-footed ferret, and prairie dogs, specifically the black-tailed prairie dog and Gunnison’s 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 to the Chiricahua Leopard Frog Federal Recovery Program.

We are also building a one-of-a-kind effort on behalf of the endangered Chupadera springsnail. We have done fantastic, 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 we’ve been involved in over the last 25 years.

GH – What can we learn from Indigenous people about living sustainably and in harmony with nature?

MP – By no means am I an anthropologist. 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 many Indigenous people in the 1600s 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 the 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 it more possible than would be otherwise. I think people who are inspired accomplish more than uninspired people. A great way to be inspired is to offer a lofty aspiration. What could be loftier than aspiring to save everything?

GH – How would you like to see social media be used to inform and energize the public about the consequences of their eating and living habits on our Earth’s rapidly diminishing biodiversity?

MP – I would want social media to remind humanity that we are completely reliant on mother Earth and that there are limits to what Mother Earth can do for us.

I would really appreciate seeing social media used to point out that we need to become aware of and take into account all of the costs of production, distribution, and consumption now so that people are paying a fair price for whatever it is they’re buying, and not passing costs on to future generations.

We are very good at denying the real costs 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 be used to help everybody understand it is only right to pay our fair share today.

GH – What kind of 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 cofounder of the Turner Endangered Species Fund and Turner Biodiversity Divisions.

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