Study: We Need More Reserves to Save U.S. Species from Extinction

04/08/2015 02:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

The United States has done an excellent job protecting the majestic landscapes of the west in national parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite, but according to a new study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has done a less than stellar job of protecting the nation's biological diversity.

Given that our reserve system -- a network of parks, designated wilderness and other protective designations that covers roughly 7 percent of the lower 48 states --was not, in large part, designed to protect biological diversity, it should come as no surprise that many of the areas richest in species have been left out.

One such area particularly rich in species diversity, but with few protected areas is the Southeast.

With its sprawling web of rivers and streams and temperate climate, it's no secret that the southeastern United States is one of the world's truly great centers of plant and animal life. The region is home to 493 fish species -- 62 percent of U.S. species -- more than two-thirds of North America's species and subspecies of crayfishes and more amphibians and aquatic reptiles than any other region.

But those who know the region best also know its dark secret - that it's a national hotspot for extinction, a place where one of the world's most remarkable collections of freshwater diversity is severely threatened.

With a rapidly growing human population, a predominance of privately owned lands and lax regulation, the Southeast's rivers have suffered to the detriment of both people and wildlife. For example, the Mobile River Basin, sometimes referred to as America's Amazon, is home to half of all documented extinctions in North American since European settlement.

In an effort to address species loss in the Southeast, the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, submitted a petition to protect 404 aquatic and wetland species in 2010. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that most of these species warrant consideration for endangered species protections and is slowly working to assess these species for protection.

But as pointed out in the new study, it will be impossible to save these species if we don't protect more of their habitat.

It's hardly the first time that leading researchers have called for doing a better job of protecting the portions of the county - and world - most important to conserving the biodiversity upon which all life depends.

The eminent biologist E.O. Wilson, for example, recently proposed setting aside half the world for conservation.

Our children and grandchildren will have nothing but gratitude for us for every little bit of our natural heritage that we manage to pass on.

The new study presents a smart framework for prioritizing our efforts by identifying nine specific areas that have high rates of species diversity and endemism but lack sufficient protection. These areas are the Blue Ridge Mountains, Sierra Nevada, California Coast Range, Tennessee, Alabama and northern Georgia watersheds, Florida Panhandle and Keys, Klamath Mountains, South Central Texas around Austin and San Antonio, and the Channel Islands off California.

We know what it's going to take to reverse the disturbing trend of increasing extinctions - we must do a better job of protecting the places where plants and animals live.

The nine areas of greatest need identified by the study are a great starting place.