As suggested by the subtitle, this book looks at the people who devote themselves to the conservation of endangered species in the United States and Canada. Mooallem has spent huge amounts of time with these conservationists, interviewing them, following them, even helping out as a volunteer. We get to learn a lot about some endangered species, what it takes to keep them from going extinct, and how dedicated the people are who work to save them.
The book is exceptionally well-written. Mooallem tells many compelling stories, introduces us to a string of memorable characters, past and present, and meditates eloquently on the philosophy of conservation and our relationship with nature. He was motivated to explore this topic when he observed that Isla, his young daughter, is surrounded by pictures, books, and toys depicting wild animals, some of whom will undoubtedly go extinct during her lifetime. This proves to be a rich vein for philosophical meditation as he ponders what kind of world we are leaving for our children and how will they feel about our negligence.
Mooallem explores the history of conservation from the time when all wild animals were killed for sport and economic reasons through the passage of the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s and on to the present. The idea that a species could go extinct was never considered by the early European settlers of the New World. The abundance of wildlife and the vast domain of wilderness conspired with the notion that God would never allow a species to disappear. The extinction of the passenger pigeon and the near extinction of the bison became a sort of wake-up call to human empathy for wild things. Ironically, long before the Europeans arrived, North America had suffered calamitous extinctions (see the The Ghosts Of Evolution Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, And Other Ecological Anachronisms) possibly caused by the first arrival of humans.
The author introduces us (sympathetically) to the many obsessed characters working to preserve such varied creatures as polar bears, butterflies, and whooping cranes. We get to see just how hard they work, how much they have to struggle to save what they can, and how often people generously assist them. The sad story is that the struggle seems so futile. How much human intervention into the lives of these animals can we perform and still consider the creatures wild? Most veteran conservationists end up feeling like it's all been a waste of time.
There is one problem with the book: Readers may lose hope that conserving species is worthwhile. Strangely, this demoralizing "truth" may be crucial to convincing people that humanity's footprint is far too large. If polar bears cause us to get serious about global warming, then they may turn out to be the real conservationists.