Fish Story

The Strip is grateful that Congressman Sam Graves has helped this meat patty understand the feel-good side of biological evolution.

Here this tenderloin was under the impression that the animal kingdom was taking a beating from humanity and its polluting, development-crazy ways.

But no, it turns out all the hand-wringin’ over disappearing animal species has been a waste of time, particularly the misguided Endangered Species Act, which has resulted in a mostly futile thirty-year effort to save U.S. species from extinction. And locally, there’s been a lot of useless worry over a few species that used to flourish in or near the Missouri River but now face oblivion. There’s the pallid sturgeon, a butt-ugly fish with a pointy head and feelers that look like meaty whiskers. That this thing manages to find mates at all is a miracle.

Then there’s the annoying interior least tern, a gangly sea bird that took a wrong turn and ended up about as far from an ocean as it could get. The tern’s obnoxious call prompted Meriwether Lewis to compare it to a squealing pig.

Still, the granola types have been complaining for years because human wranglin’ of the river has made it easier to navigate for the barge industry that depends on it but has screwed with the ugly, noisy critters’ mating and feeding habits.

Enviros whine that the barge industry is a dinosaur that should have been dry-docked a long time ago. After a peak of 5 million tons of goods carried by barges in 1977, today only about 1.5 million tons of sand and cement and grain comes down the river — a tiny amount compared with what gets moved by rail or on the highway. Only .3 percent of American grain makes its way to market downriver.

These misguided animal lovers — backed up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — want to see the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers restore some of the river’s natural ebb and flow, raising the Missouri’s level a few feet in the spring and fall and slackening it in the summer months, which would halt barge traffic for about six weeks out of the year. They argue that the changing levels are key to the sturgeon’s ability to spawn in rising waters and for the tern to nest on sandbars that would be kicked up by a wilder river.

Until recently, this porterhouse had sided with the animal lovers and wondered why the Corps of Engineers, year after year, kept blowing off the Fish and Wildlife Service’s recommendations.

But that was before Sam Graves helped the Strip see the light.

On February 23, Graves, a conservative Republican whose district includes North Kansas City, held a meeting in St. Joseph and invited both barge industry officials and environmentalists. He also put out a newsletter in which he described the obvious solution to the endangered-species problem.

“As a farmer and businessman,” wrote the forty-year-old congressman, “I understand that business should not be suspended because of a bird headed for extinction. The environment changes every day, with new species being introduced every day and species becoming extinct every day.”

That’s right — whereas some Republicans tend to badmouth evolution, Sam Graves can’t say enough good things about its ability to populate the Earth with brand-new animal species every day of the week.

In a follow-up e-mail, after this cutlet asked for details, the congressman pointed out that Costa Rica’s Biodiversity Institute is turning up a new species of critter nearly every tropical day — and hey, this flank steak realized that with Darwinian fecundity working at a rate like that, who would miss a few disappearing fish and fowl too dumb to adapt to a running river?

Quick as a flash, the Strip called up local enviros and biologists with the good news, wondering what they thought about all of those new animals making their way up here from Costa Rica.

“He’s so full of shit,” says Charles Phillips, regional organizer of the Endangered Species Coalition. “I went to his little field hearing in St. Jo. What a phony. This guy knows nothing about endangered species or the Endangered Species Act. He’s just a right-wing hack.” Phillips has not noticed any new Costa Rican species entering the area.

Chad Davis, of the environmental group American Rivers, hasn’t observed a Central American migratory boom to local rivers, either, but he points out that another species would benefit from changing the Missouri’s flow — homo sapiens. “Now, the river is a ditch. It’s deep, fast, channelized and not very inviting to people,” Davis says. “We want to see people getting out there to enjoy the river, boating and fishing and camping. We’re making changes for wildlife, but if you have shallower water, you have more people as well.”

Hmm. This meat patty was beginning to wonder why others hadn’t noticed Graves’ animal-population explosion. So it called up Mizzou avian biology professor John Faaborg, who confirmed that the congressman’s understanding of evolution is retarded.

“It’s just silly,” says the prof, who points out that the new species constantly discovered in the jungles of the Amazon, Costa Rica or New Guinea aren’t newly evolved animals, just ones scientists hadn’t yet spotted and classified.

“I’m sure beetle biologists and people who study fungus can go out and find new things to name,” Faaborg says. “And certainly if you go to the tropics, you can find hundreds of new species, just because we don’t know everything that’s going on.” A new bird species, he says, is described about every year somewhere in the world.

“But really new animals? That process is very slow,” he says. “A replacement species for the least tern might appear in the next 10,000 years.”

That seems like a long time to wait to replace the ones we’ll be losing. But just think how much asphalt we can move down the river in that time!

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