An ecosystem is a natural unit that consists of all the living and non-living components within it. It includes plants, the wildlife that depend upon them for habitat, and the non-living parts such as the soil, and the dead organic matter. An ecosystem functions as a unit, capturing energy and cycling it through its system. The continuous cycling of energy maintains the health of an ecosystem.
In order to understand the impact of endangered ecosystems, let's first put their distribution in perspective. Based on diaries and journals of early European settlers, a dramatic picture forms of the North American landscape. Seas of prairies greeted Europeans whom had never encountered this ecosystem before. Louis Joliet wrote, "...I imagined that it was a country ravaged by fire, where the soil was so poor it could produce nothing." When settlers realized the value of prairies, their fate was doomed.
The prairie is an example of one ecosystem. However, based on its species composition, the generic term prairie can be sub-divided into tall-grass, mixed-grass, and short-grass prairie. Other types of ecosystems include forests, tundra, deserts, wetlands, and shrublands, all of which can be further categorized. Each ecosystem represents a collection of the plant and animal life within it.
While ecosystems are dynamic, changes primarily from human activity, have pushed some ecosystems to near extinction. Today, less than 1% of native prairie remains, according to U.S. EPA reports. The news is just as dire for wetlands. The U.S. EPA estimates that over 50% of historic wetlands have been drained. Regrettably, the numbers continue to rise.
The effects of ecosystem loss are critical for habitat loss begets wildlife loss. Waterfowl number from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show a nine percent decline in population in 2008. Despite the scarcity of native prairie, prairie loss continues.
Wetlands pose additional concerns. Environmental Defense Fund estimates that nearly 70 percent of all vertebrate, i.e., animals with backbones, depend upon wetlands at some point during their life cycle. If losses continue, most American wildlife will be in danger. There are also economic consequences of wetland loss. According to the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, habitat losses have cost the fishing industry over $27 billion a year.
The situation is not hopeless. After the painful lesson of the Great Flood of 1993 that ravaged the Upper Mississippi River floodplain, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has realized the value of flood prevention. Not every flood can be prevented, however, with wetland and floodplain restoration, the devastating loss and damage can be lessened.
With the support of federal, state, local agencies, non-profit organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and National Wildlife Federation, awareness of the importance of habitat preservation and restoration is now being realized. Together, we can act to save our endangered ecosystems.