Beyond the northwoods nook
-with Kaylee Faltys, Curator
If you live in the secluded northwoods of northern Wisconsin, you know that the earth’s natural habitat here is largely untouched and very well protected compared to most of the United States lands. You also are aware of the vast diversity of species that live here. Mammals, birds, fish, herptiles, plants, and invertebrates. When I moved here from the plains states of the central Midwest, I was shocked that I could see to the bottom of the Namekagon River.
I could see to the bottom of Lake Owen. I could walk two blocks from my desk in the cave and wind up in the middle of an untouched forest. Everything is so natural and pure. There is more habitat available to species than just an agriculturally polluted stream or some narrow buffer strips bordering a row crop field managed solely for pheasant hunting. I had grown accustom to murky and muddy agriculture streams where the second you stick your hand in the water your hand disappears. I had forgotten that naturally clean water existed in the US…until I moved to Cable, WI. Now, living in Cable for most of a year, I have grown accustom to water so clean you can see the stream bed. Air not constantly hazy with dust from farmings operations. Untouched forest surrounding the highways and more diversity of species than I could ever imagine. Living up in the northwoods, I think it’s easy to lose sight of what is really happening to our species diversity in our own country, let alone the whole world. Most notably with insects.
Insects are often overlooked but represent the largest percent of the world’s organisms. There are about 1 million documented insect species and an estimated 4 million yet to be discovered. This puts insects at representing 40% of all documented species (2.5 million) globally. Unfortunately, insects (and most invertebrates) are in sharp decline and there is reason to be worried about it.
A German study found a drop from 117 butterfly and moth species in 1840 to only 71 species by 2013, a 60% decline since the start of the Industrial Revolution. But declines of invertebrates are hardly limited to Germany. Another recent study has found that invertebrate abundance has shown a 45 percent global decline in the past four decades. Of the remaining species, 42 percent are classified as threatened with extinction. Also, just in the past 10 years, three species of moth have gone extinct in the United Kingdom. These three species only add to the 62 other U.K. moth species that have gone extinct in the 20th century. And these few examples are only the tip of the iceberg of insect decline. But why does it matter?
Entomologists, scientists who study insects, are well aware of this pressing issue. But it’s probably easy to slip the minds of most people who get to live in such a rich and specious areas of the country, such as the northwoods, which is FULL of a diversity of insects. It slips mine even! The loss of insect species may be hard to notice or comprehend when living in the middle of the woods, but it is still happening beyond the nook of the northwoods and it still affects each one of us. The threats of insect decline have been studied and compiled by the Zoological Society of London. They have found that these worldwide insect declines are hindering food suppliers of larger animals by limiting pollination of crops. The same crops that are the root of insect decline! Monocultures of row crop, which cover 40 percent of all United States land area, extensively use pesticides to kill insect “pest” species to the specific crop. Unfortunately, these pesticides also are quite detrimental to non-targeted insect species, which is a recent and widespread concern.
Monocultures create “biological deserts”, void of native plants or ponds/wetlands where insects could reproduce. Pesticide use along with increases of crop land, urbanization, and habitat destruction are only adding to the insect declines. With less invertebrate pollinators to help out, human food sources could be in trouble in the near future. But it’s not just humans and pollinators that are suffering, it’s ALL species of insect which has it’s own suite of natural food chain consequences.
People are attracted to the northwoods every year to do partake in incredible birding during migration season. Aerial birds eat insects. Lots of insects. Perched birds eat seeds. Lots of seeds. This 2010 study found that the aerial birds depending on insects to feed themselves and their young have suffered more decline in recent years than the perching birds that depend on seeds. North American has one billion fewer birds than it did 40 years ago. Now, this is not solely due to the declining insect populations, but it’s a large part of the cause. The decline of all insect species not only affects northwoods people’s foods but the economy as well. When growing up in agricultural areas, it becomes normal to not see incredible diversity of species. But the northwoods is a rare and unique place, unlike most of the Midwest. So how can we keep the species diversity of the northwoods intact and use it as a model for other areas of the country that are devastated with agriculture? We try our best to preserve and conserve what we do have.
Final thought: Okay, so species are declining, but what can I do? The loss of species has a lot to do with land use and habitat. What kind of land use do you support? Is there any ways that you can reduce your global footprint though your lifestyle choices? Think about what most of the agriculture is used for. Lake Namakagon is made up of trillions of water drops. Every drop counts to make that lake the way it is. Make your drop count-because it does matter.