President's Note, December 2021

Written by John Seager, President and CEO | Published: December 13, 2021

Photo of John SeagerFar from eastern Africa’s Lake Tanganyika, on whose shores Jane Goodall conducted her pioneering research with chimpanzees, Big Darby Creek flows for 84 miles through northwestern central Ohio, skirting around Columbus before emptying into the Lower Scioto River. The Ohio Nature Conservancy reports, “Wetlands in the area support such plant species as marsh marigold, skunk cabbage, trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, and cottonwood and, along with the surrounding forests, sustain wild turkey, eastern screech owls, and great crested flycatchers.”

Part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system since 1994, Big Darby Creek has been considered the only home on earth of the Scioto madtom, a tiny catfish that, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “prefers stream riffles of moderate current over gravel bottoms.”

No more, it seems. The Scioto madtom, the only vertebrate species known to be endemic to the Buckeye State, has recently been proposed for removal from the endangered species list due to extinction—along with 22 other species including Bachman’s warbler and the vaunted ivory-billed woodpecker. The Scioto madtom’s actual demise may predate preservation efforts along Big Darby Creek, since it was last seen in 1957. Impoundments, siltation, and pollution could have driven the species to extinction. We know with certitude who is responsible for these disruptions: Homo sapiens.

Species declared extinct have later been found, so it’s important that extinction announcements not be used as pretexts for lessened conservation efforts. Big Darby Creek now benefits from some protection due to the presence of other endangered species. Yet threats of urban development and sprawl caused it to be named to the list of our nation’s 10 most endangered rivers by American Rivers in 2019.

Before the modern era, we coexisted with nature—if only because we lacked the ability to bend it to our selfish will. Not only did we lack modern technology, there were far fewer of us. The population of Ohio in 1800 was less than 45,000. Today, it’s close to 12 million. Numbers matter.

For the past two centuries, we’ve generally acted as if we are the only creatures on earth. To call our own human species heedless is a gross understatement, as our global numbers soar toward 8 billion and beyond. No room for a tiny catfish in our mad rush toward a perilous future.

Certainly, there are vital exceptions to our folly—as with sustained conservation work by the Ohio Nature Conservancy, which includes creation of the 900-acre Big Darby Headwaters Nature Preserve. Yet the diminutive Scioto madtom may have already succumbed—one more victim in an era of looming mass species extinction unprecedented during our own time on earth.

Many of the world’s travails—ecological and otherwise—can be traced directly to our failure to recognize both the rights of women and the laws of nature. We could do much to prevent catastrophes by lessening population pressures. If every woman had reproductive freedom, family planning knowledge, and access to modern contraception, family sizes would plummet. Benefits would accrue to our own species, and to the natural world that sustains us all.

We may reasonably conclude that the Scioto madtom ceased to exist because of human overpopulation. The apparent end of this little-noticed fish deserves our respectful attention as we heed Jane Goodall’s calls to action to save our living world. Tragedies and threats of extinction, whether in Tanzania or Ohio, remind us that one vital way we can radically reduce our human footprint is by working toward zero population growth.