The Endangered Art of Compromise
11:13 am
Sun June 3, 2012

Playing God(dess)

Hanne Small is pretty relaxed for a woman messing around with the lives of Adam and Eve.  When I arrive at Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch to check out New Mexico's largest population of threatened Chiricahua Leopard frogs, Small takes me to a row of beautifully landscaped outdoor cubicles, each containing one or two specimens from the handful of drainages around New Mexico where these frogs can still be found in the wild.  

Until recently, biologists working on captive breeding of Chiricahua Leopard frogs have been trying to keep their genetics as pure as possible.  That's important since, as Randy Jennings points out, the genetics of disparate populations are unique enough to make some resistant to the killer fungus known as Bd, while others are not...and at this point no one knows exactly why.  But what do you do when you've caught the last male and female from a certain drainage...and one of them is infertile?  Do you just let that population die out, despite whatever lessons they may have to offer?  Or do you start playing God?  

As Small explains in the audio clip here, the biologists working on this problem have decided to start meddling. Maintaining a healthy genetic variation is a problem with almost any population small enough to warrant being put on the endangered species list.  In the wolf situation, it's one of Fish and Wildlife's main excuses for the lag in new releases: we don't know enough about their genetics, and don't want to risk introducing hereditary defects into a fledgling population.  Meanwhile, wolf advocates say NOT releasing more captive-bred wolves is making the problem even worse by ensuring inbreeding in the wild. 

It's an ironic tragedy that these animals lives' now depend so heavily on human intervention, when that's exactly what caused these problem to begin with.  But as long as we're here, seeing our doctors, building our cities, eating our beef...playing God is a role it appears we'll have to get use to.