Unable to sleep one night last fall, I reached for my bedside stand and did the thing you should never do at 3 a.m.: check the news. In the cold glow of Twitter came a warning call. According to the World Wildlife Fund, global vertebrate populations declined by an average of 60 percent between 1970 and 2014. Don't click the link, I thought. You'll never fall asleep if you click the link.
I clicked the link. In the guts of the report, I learned that WWF had based its findings on the Living Planet Index, which is sort of like Nasdaq for biologists. Managed by the Zoological Society of London, the index aggregates government research, online databases, and other survey data to measure population abundance in thousands of animal species worldwide.
WWF found that the most commonly reported threat to wildlife was habitat destruction. The picture was especially grim in Central and South America, where deforestation and other human activities had led to a nearly 90 percent decline in mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians.
When I'd had enough, I put my phone away and stared at a small crack in the ceiling. If only our fragile ecosystems could be so easily patched, I thought. If only my two kids, who were fast asleep across the hall, didn't have to inherit this mess. If only I hadn't drunk that coffee after lunch.
A few weeks later, in a more sensible state of mind, I met with staffers from the DNR's Minnesota Biological Survey. "Talk me off the ledge," I said. "How accurate are studies like the World Wildlife Fund report?"
"I'm not sure I can help you," said program supervisor Bruce Carlson. "They're usually in the ballpark."
I asked the MBS team how they stayed sane in the face of serious environmental challenges. "When we share our data, we start with the dire news," said Hannah Texler, an ecologist and botanist who specializes in plant surveys. "But then we make it positive. Yes, we have lost a lot of native habitat in Minnesota. But we can use our data to help preserve what's left."
Texler's pragmatism felt like cold water to the face, a reminder to celebrate and protect what we still have, and to not get too bogged down in the headlines. Lucky for us Minnesotans, there's plenty to cheer for. Like the fact that you can ice fish right in Duluth harbor. Or ski in the same state park where an Olympian once trained. Or forage for fiddleheads in the spring, seal them in brine, then enjoy them year round.
And let's give a special New Year's toast to the miracle on ice known as the headwaters chilostigman caddisfly. This mysterious little insect thrives in winter and has been observed scuttling across the snow in northern Minnesota, an image I find oddly inspiring. But as with so many things in nature, the sheer fact of a cold-weather caddisfly is infinitely more interesting than whatever metaphor we might graft onto it. The fact of a cold-weather caddisfly is reason enough to take a break from the news, put away our phones, and appreciate the wonders around us.
Chris Clayton, editor in chief