America is home to more than 1,300 threatened or endangered animal species. That number has steadily increased for decades, despite billions of taxpayer dollars — and billions more in private spending by environmentalists — devoted toward conservation.
Globally, the problem is even worse. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, one of the world’s premier environmental groups, counts over 16,000 animal species as vulnerable or endangered, more than double the 7,700 species listed in 2006, less than two short decades ago.
These animals hail from many different habitats, from lynxes — the secretive nocturnal cats that inhabit the contiguous forests of the northern United States and Canada — to lemurs, the small primates that reside in the jungles of Madagascar and a few islands off the coast of Africa.
But they all face a common threat: relentless human encroachment on their territory.
This encroachment isn’t malicious. It’s simply the inevitable result of rapid population growth, which is occurring in developed and developing countries alike, albeit for different reasons. America’s population has more than doubled in my lifetime, rising from about 162 million in 1954 to 330 million today. And Madagascar’s population has exploded, from 4.4 million then to 29 million now.
Population growth in Madagascar, which has one of the lowest median per capita incomes in the world, is fueled by high birth rates — an average of 4.1 children per woman — stemming from a lack of cultural acceptance and access to birth control. The ensuing rampant poverty has forced inhabitants to cut down and sell “exotic” trees, and also turn fields and forests into rice farms. As a result, there are now more long-tailed lemurs in zoos around the world than in their native Madagascar.
By contrast, population growth in America, which boasts one of the highest median per capita incomes in the world and has a sustainable birth rate, is driven overwhelmingly by migration from other countries. The U.S. population is on track to exceed 441 million by 2065, and 88% of that population increase will come from immigration, according to the Pew Research Center.
Of course, lynxes and lemurs can’t see our bank accounts. It doesn’t matter to them whether we’re destroying their homes for a luxury condo development or to make way for a rice paddy. The end result is the same — they can’t live there anymore. Wealthy countries like the United States have tried to blunt the effects of this growth by spending enormous sums on conservation. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 has saved some species from outright extinction by protecting wildlife and stopping pollution.
But even the most dedicated, well-meaning conservation efforts can’t offset the consequences of relentless growth. Just consider the plight of another big cat, the Florida panther, which is in dire straits due to the massive population surge in the Sunshine State. There are only about 230 panthers left in the wild — and 24 were killed by cars in 2021 alone. The Endangered Species Act is powerless to save these felines from accidental collisions with the 19 million additional people who have come to live and drive in Florida since the 1950s.
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To protect our remaining biodiversity, environmentalists will have to target chief drivers of population growth. In places like Madagascar, that means investing in education for women and expanding access to birth control, so that people who want more sustainable families can choose to have them.
In countries like America, though, it means making the hard choice to scale back migration. Many environmentalists are understandably reluctant to do so, worried that their actions will be deemed xenophobic or racist. But there’s nothing xenophobic about wanting to preserve wildlife populations and ensure that all U.S. residents — regardless of where they were born — can enjoy nature. We can love our immigrant friends and neighbors, while acknowledging that the influx of millions of future arrivals isn’t environmentally sustainable.
And in fact, moderating immigration doesn’t just help wildlife — it also helps historically marginalized Americans. Roy Beck’s 2021 book, “Back of the Hiring Line: A 200-Year History of Immigration Surges, Employer Bias and Depression of Black Wealth,” documents how limiting immigration has led to tighter labor markets that empower Black workers to win better wages and working conditions.
We’re on track to lose the lynx, lemur and thousands of other species unless we return the global growth rate to a sustainable level. Here in America, that means taking a hard look at our immigration system. It won’t be politically easy. But it’s our moral duty. And if we fail, future wildlife lovers will never forgive us — nor should they.
Karen Shragg is an author and environmental consultant.