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How Some Animals Cash In on Economic Crises

A few U.S. endangered species may find a silver lining in financial downturns.  

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the lowland coquí, a dime-size frog native to Puerto Rico, as endangered.


The song of the lowland coquí rings throughout Puerto Rico, from late afternoon when the first pre-dinner cocktail is shaken at the El San Juan hotel until the last margarita glass is salted past midnight.

But the chorus of ko-kee chirps from the dime-size amphibian is getting quieter in recent years: The species is declining due to the island's development boom.

Now listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the butternut squash-colored frog only lives in one freshwater wetland. It also breeds on just one type of plant, the bulltongue arrowhead. (Read about how frogs are disappearing worldwide.)

But lately, the lowland coquí has an unexpected safeguard: The Puerto Rican debt crisis, which has halted large-scale building projects that have previously dumped toxic substances in the environment, ruining wildlife habitat.

The island’s Home Builders Association announced the recession resulted in 40,000 lost housing jobs across the commonwealth in 2015—one-sixth the sector’s total. With some 13,000 homes going unsold this year, there’s no need for new construction. In August, Puerto Rico failed to settle up its $58 million bond debt.

Why This Invasive Lizard Is Bad for Puerto Rico

Over the past few years, Puerto Rico has been dealing with an exploding iguana population.

“The financial crisis here is generally something that has been positive for conservation,” says Raimundo Espinoza, Puerto Rico conservation coordinator for The Nature Conservancy.

Though the U.S. commonwealth’s inhabitants may be distressed by the economic turmoil, the lowland coquí's population has stabilized amid the downturn, he says.

The lowland coquí's situation is not unusual: Here are other species have also cashed in during economic recessions.

Greater Sage Grouse

Some 400,000 greater sage grouse, a bird native to the American West, survive today, down from a high of 16 million—a drop attributable in part to oil and gas development.

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A male greater sage grouse puffs out his chest to attract a mate. After years of a dramatic population decline, reduced oil drilling has given a recent boost to the bird.


The U.S. oil glut has recently moved crude toward 11-year lows at $35 a barrel, wreaking havoc on oil and gas companies that have little incentive to drill if a profit is meager or not possible.

Though this phenomenon has caused an industry-wide recession and hurt drillers in Wyoming, for example, the greater sage grouse has profited, says Jason F. Shogren, an environmental economist at the University of Wyoming. (Related: "How An Iconic Western Bird Is Stepping Back From the Brink.")

That's because the current decline in oil prices is “offering some reprieve” for the species, says Holly Copeland, a spatial ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming.

“The downturn is allowing us to do more planning and monitoring work—understanding wildlife, where grouse are, what their needs are—so that when drilling picks up its pace, we have new and better data,” she says.

Moapa Dace

Sin City’s real estate boom in the 1990s threatened the Moapa dace, an endangered fish that lives in small trickles of water in southern Nevada's Las Vegas Valley.

But just when the species looked on the verge of extinction, the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis resulted in one of the nation's biggest real estate plunges, and the gold, finger-size fish found its own good fortune.

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In the 1990s, the endangered Moapa dace fish was on the verge of extinction—until the subprime mortgage crisis hit Las Vegas.


Moapa dace numbers increased as construction fell, with the fish’s population jumping from 459 individuals in February 2008 to 1,126 in February 2013. Though conservation efforts drove most of the uptick, a reduction in new homebuilding certainly helped.

“The Moapa dace has benefited some by reduction in groundwater pumping in the area due to the lower demand/reduced hookups from the recession," Amy M. LaVoie, manager at the Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge, says by email.

Delhi Sands Flower-Loving Fly

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The Delhi Sands flower-loving fly has profited from the Great Recession: Development of its sandy habitat has slowed.

 

The endangered Delhi Sands flower-loving fly benefited from California's housing crisis during the Great Recession, particularly in and around Colton, a town east of Los Angeles that comprises most of the species’ habitat.

But that temporary gain is not a cause for extended celebration, according to Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Insect Conservation.

“If you don’t capitalize on the recession to take the appropriate action to protect the habitat, then it is only a short-term gain,” Black said.

Case in point: A development project on several hundred acres—a non-starter just a few years ago, Black says—has gained momentum.

Not Out of the Woods

Indeed, though recessions allow temporary relief for some species, there’s still anxiety long-term, The Nature Conservancy's Espinoza cautions.

In fact, he says, savvy hedge funds are buying up cheap land on Puerto Rico while it’s discounted. Pent-up demand will invigorate future development projects that could threaten the lowland coquí. (See National Geographic's pictures of vanishing amphibians.)

That reality has stepped up efforts to protect the frog, he says. For instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Neftalí Ríos López, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Humacao, are planning to breed the lowland coquí in captivity, which could help establish a new population elsewhere on the island.

Otherwise, the consequences become irreparable.

“It’s really hard to replace the Caribbean,” Espinoza says.

Ross Kenneth Urken is a writer based in Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter and Tumblr.

 

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