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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

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distributed 4/4/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Carol and Robert Day of Mapleton, Utah. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

My travels in the desert country of Utah and Nevada have given me a perspective that -- oddly enough -- helps me to feel compassion for migrating shorebirds in New Jersey.

The Basin and Range country of the American West is a fascinating geologic region. Vast grasslands and barren salt flats are interrupted by scattered ridges of mountains. It is not hospitable country, and it is very sparsely settled by people.

My family once took a trip across the area, entering the region at Delta, Utah. Driving west out of Delta on a 2-lane highway, there's a big road sign -- like you'd see on an Interstate highway -- announcing, "No services next 95 miles." We turned back and filled the gas tank, just to be on the safe side.

Not only are there no services for travelers along that stretch of the highway, there are no houses, fences, or much of anything else that has been put there by humans. For well over an hour, on a generally empty road, we drove across the flat, dry landscape. When the road finally started to climb toward a ridge of mountains, we came to the small community of Baker, Nevada. (Baker's population has grown to 65 since the Great Basin Natural Park opened nearby.)

Leaving the town of Baker, there's another large road sign: "No services next 57 miles." That one-hour drive took us to Ely, a good sized community where we gassed up again. Turning south on US 6, driving toward Tonopah, Nevada, we found yet another big sign. "No services next 168 miles."

Between Delta, Utah, and Tonopah, Nevada, we drove 320 miles, and passed through two communities where we could get gas or food. That's a longer drive than the trip from Boston, Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Five hours on the road, with just two places to stop for fuel and sustenance.

On such a long, lonely drive, it is easy to realize that -- if the two towns of Baker and Ely shut down -- it would be impossible for most drivers to complete the trip. Without those oases providing essential services, it is just too far to go on one tank of gas.

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My experience of vast open spaces in the western US -- of widely-spaced fueling stations that are absolutely essential -- helps me to care about a bird known as the red knot, and its need for special help in New Jersey.

The red knot is a small shorebird that makes an amazing annual migration. Part of the year, they are found on the southernmost tip of South America. Then, as the seasons change, the flocks head north, all the way to the Arctic regions on the eastern side of North America. It is a one-way trip of 9,300 miles.

If the birds could read, it would be appropriate to put up several signs along their flyway with a warning, "No services next 2,000 miles."

Delaware Bay in New Jersey is one of those rare and essential fueling stations for the migrating birds. It is a spot where red knots -- every year for thousands of years -- have paused on their migration to feast on a special and very necessary treat. In a small area around that bay, the red knots can find the eggs of Horseshoe Crabs. Gorging themselves on this nutritious and high-calorie food source, the exhausted and hungry birds double their weight in a few weeks, and gain strength for the next leg of their journey.

In recent years, though, the number of horseshoe crabs at Delaware Bay has plummeted. They have been "harvested" at unsustainable levels to be used as bait for the local fishing industry. Since there are fewer crabs, they are laying fewer eggs, and the migrating red knots can't get enough food to survive their migration to the Arctic. The killing of crabs in New Jersey has almost wiped out one of the amazing bird species in God's creation.

Last week brought some good news for the birds. The Governor of New Jersey signed legislation that prohibits harvesting of horseshoe crabs. Governor Corzine promised, "This moratorium will be held in place until the populations of both horseshoe crabs and red knots have returned to a level where they will be self sustaining."

One New Jersey legislator gave voice to an ethical perspective that shaped the legislation. "We simply cannot allow an entire species to be wiped out when the ability to halt the red knot's decline is within our reach." A well-organized campaign by birders and environmentalists helped convince the state's politicians that this ethical stance was also good for their political careers.

Even with this new law, the red knots and horseshoe crabs aren't safe. Their numbers are so low that it will take many years for populations to recover, and they face other threats. But the recent New Jersey legislation is a good and essential step in the right direction.

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Just as gas stations in isolated Nevada towns provide an essential service for motorists, migrating animals need habitats and food that may be found only in widely scattered places. The health and vitality of those spots can make or break the whole migration. If the necessary places to rest and feed are there, the journey is successful. But if even one of those spots isn't available -- if the crabs are gone, or a wetland is drained, or a war disrupts a major flyway -- then it becomes impossible for them to get to their destination. And if they can't complete their migration, then the entire species is at risk -- all because of one missing food stop.

Humans have widespread, and often subtle, impacts on the habitats around us. As we evaluate behaviors and propose public policies, it is essential that we recognize that the survival of other species is often perilous and fragile, and may depend on the preservation of just one feeding point on a lengthy migration.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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