02/11/2014 05:00 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2014

The Whooping Crane and the Anthropocene

Last week two endangered whooping cranes were shot in Louisiana. They were a young breeding pair. The female died, and the male was severely injured. The person who shot the birds was not found. While a tragedy, this story revealed both good and bad elements of our culture.

First the Bad:

It is unclear who shot the birds. Some believe that it was a hunter who mistook them for snow geese, and some believe that it was someone out shooting for fun. Let's look at both of these options.

If it was a hunter, it is clear that there are some deficiencies in hunting education in our nation. A snow goose is significantly smaller than a whooping crane. Anyone who has any knowledge of birds should be able to identify the difference between a goose and a crane.

If it was a thrill-seeker, it is clear that we have some deficiencies in basic environmental. We need more Aldo Leopold and less Duck Dynasty and more Ducks Unlimited and less NRA. We live in a time when stand your ground laws are more important to the gun lobby than hunter education, environmental conservation and gun safety.

When I first started hunting, I learned why it was ethical to hunt some animals and not others. I learned gun safety and why it was important to protect habitat. It would be unimaginable for me or other hunters I knew at the time to think about shooting an animal we were unfamiliar with for fun, much less an endangered species.

And Now the Good:

In the 1940s, there were less than two dozen of the birds. Today, there are approximately 600. The loss of the single bird to a gunshot is a tragedy, but it is less of a tragedy today than it was several decades ago. This speaks a great deal to the human spirit and our desire to save these animals.

Collectively, we value these birds. We have laws that protect them, and we have used our precious public treasure to protect them and conserve their habitat. Many individuals have made it their life's work to protect these animals.

Look, for example, at Operation Migration. This is a non-profit group that helps to establish migratory patterns for cranes raised in isolation. Many of you might be familiar with this group. They are the ones who lead the cranes using an ultralight airplane.

The efforts of Operation Migration and any other individual or organization trying to bring these birds back are inspirational. They speak to the inherent goodness we can find in our world and in ourselves.

And from these 600?

We don't know what will happen to the 600 remaining birds. They have not established large colonies or stable migration routes. Many live in isolation under care. Progress has been made, but much more needs to be done to ensure viability.

Many are working to try to restore the population. We can hope. We have examples of endangered and threatened species that have emerged from the brink of extinction. For example, the Florida black bear was recently delisted from Florida's threatened species list.

But we have to understand that we live in a heavily altered world. There are over seven billion people on the planet and that number is expected to swell over eight million by 2025. Many species will survive and many will disappear. However, the 600 whooping cranes and the one dead one provide a potent symbol for the good and the bad in our changing world.