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The importance of biodiversity

Biodiversity is a big deal in ecology circles these days. The dictionary defines it simply as the variety of living things in a particular area or region. Opinions on the importance of biodiversity vary, but to me the loss of any plant or animal species means something’s wrong, and rightfully raises some concerns.

There are an estimated eight million species of life on the planet. The United States is blessed with having around 122,000 native species of plants and animals. The secret to our lush diversity is a temperate climate that through overlap can also support cold and warm adapted species. The United States has six hotspots of biodiversity that include a high number of rare species. One of them is the southern Appalachians, our home.

Biodiversity is in the news a lot because it is threatened by human activity. There are around 1,300 species listed as threatened or endangered in the United States. There are several reasons species are in trouble, the biggest one being loss of habitat, which affects 85 percent of the threatened/endangered species.

We’re converting a lot of wild land to something else. Forty-nine percent of the species in trouble are affected by invading alien species, more than 4,500 species of them, which choke out native plants and animals. Pollution also affects many species, hitting aquatic ones the hardest. The fourth leading cause of biodiversity loss is over-exploitation (we’re eating too many of them). Finally, diseases (both foreign and native) affect 3 percent of the species in trouble.

The southern Appalachians stretch through east Tennessee/Kentucky and western Virginia. Our mountains are old, and over the centuries they have supported a diverse population of species, including the world’s richest concentration of freshwater mussels, crayfish, salamanders and cave creatures. Several threatened or endangered species are found here locally, including many mussels in the Clinch and Powell rivers.

What can be done to prevent the loss of biodiversity? It can be as simple as reading the pesticide label carefully so chemicals are applied properly and don’t end up in streams; planning farm work and home construction to minimize soil erosion; keeping your tires properly inflated to save gas and cut back on pollution; use best management practices when harvesting timber to minimize soil erosion, protect streams and assure a sustainable forest. The list is long on how we can all help, but it comes down to being aware of the impact of the day-to-day things we do.

Steve Roark is a retired area forester from Tazewell, Tennessee.