Billings, Mont. – Death toll for the magnificent ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 more birds, fish and other species is knocking: the US government is declaring them extinct.
It’s a rare move for wildlife officials to give up hope on a plant or animal, but government scientists say they have exhausted efforts to find these 23. And they warn that climate change, on top of other pressures, could make such disappearances more common. A warming planet adds to the threats facing endangered plants and wildlife.
The ivory-billed woodpecker was perhaps the best-known species that the US Fish and Wildlife Service will declare extinct on Wednesday. It turned out stubbornly and pompously, unconfirmed appearances in recent decades ignited a frenzy of eventually fruitless discoveries in the swamps of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
- Sign up here to receive The Climate Barometer, delivered every week of climate and environmental news to your inbox
Others such as the flat pigato, a freshwater mussel in the southeastern US, were only identified a few times in the wild and never seen again, meaning that by the time they got a name, they were extinct from existence. .
Anthony “Andy” Ford, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Tennessee, said, “When I see one of those rare ones, it’s always on my mind that I might be the last person to see this animal again.” I can.” Specializes in freshwater mussels.
The factors behind the disappearances varied – too much development, water pollution, logging, competition from invasive species, birds killed for feathers and animals captured by private collectors. In each case, humans were the ultimate cause.
Another thing they share: All 23 had the least chance of survival when they were added to the endangered species list that began in the 1960s. In the nearly half century since the Endangered Species Act was signed into law, only 11 species have previously been decimated to extinction. Wednesday’s announcement kicks off a three-month comment period before the species’ status change is final.
Worldwide, about 902 species have been documented as extinct. The actual number is thought to be much higher as some are never formally identified, and many scientists warn that the Earth is in an “extinction crisis” and that flora and fauna are now disappearing at 1,000 times the historical rate. are.
It is possible that one or more of the 23 species included in Wednesday’s announcement may reappear, several scientists said.
A key figure in the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker said that after spending millions of dollars on exploration and habitat conservation efforts, it was premature to call off the effort.
With an extinction declaration “little is gained and much is lost”, said Cornell University bird biologist John Fitzpatrick, lead author of a 2005 study that claimed the woodpecker was rediscovered in eastern Arkansas. Was.
“A bird it is coveted, and this representative of the major old-growth forests of the southeast, keeping it on the endangered species list, cares about it, keeping states thinking about habitat management on the off chance is,” he said.
The group’s Craig Hilton-Taylor said the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a Switzerland-based group that monitors extinctions globally, is not putting the ivory-billed woodpecker in its extinction column, Because it is possible that the birds are still present in Cuba.
Hilton-Taylor said there could be unintended but harmful consequences if a premature extinction is declared. “All of a sudden (preservation) money is no longer there, and then all of a sudden you drive it to extinction because you stop investing in it,” he said.
Federal officials said the extinction declaration was driven by a desire to clear a backlog of recommended status changes for species that had not been acted upon for years. He said it would free up resources for conservation efforts on the ground for species that still have a chance to recover.
What is lost when those efforts fail are organisms often uniquely adapted to their environment. Freshwater mussel species such as the one that the government says are extinct, reproduce by attracting fish with a lure appendage, then sending up a cloud of larvae that attach to the fish’s gills until they leave and begin their own journey. are not enough to live on their own. .
According to Ford of the Wildlife Service, the odds against any mussels surviving to adulthood are slim — a one in a million chance — but those that do may live for a century or more.
Hawaii has the most species on its list – eight woodland birds and one plant. This is partly because the islands have so many plants and animals that many have very small ranges and can blink quickly.
The most recent to go extinct was the tiny pouli, a type of bird known as the honeycreeper that was discovered in 1973.
By the late 1990s only three remained – one man and two women. After failing to mate them in the wild, the male was captured for potential breeding and died in 2004. The two females were never seen again.
The fate of Hawaii’s birds helped push extinction expert Stuart Pym of Duke University into his field. Despite the dire nature of the government’s proposal to move more species into the extinct column, Pimm said the toll would probably be much higher without the Endangered Species Act.
“It’s a shame we didn’t reach those species in time, but when we do, we’re usually able to save the species,” he said.
Since 1975, 54 species have left the endangered list after recovery, including bald eagles, brown pelicans, and most humpback whales.
Climate change is making species recovery difficult, bringing droughts, floods, wildfires and fluctuating temperatures that threaten species already facing habitat loss.
How they are saved is also changing. The focus is no longer on individual species, let alone individual birds. Officials say the overarching goal now is to preserve their habitat, which fosters all kinds of species that live there.
“I hope we are up to the challenge,” said Michelle Bogardus, a biologist with the Wildlife Service in Hawaii. “We don’t have the resources to prevent unilateral extinction. We have to actively think about the health of the ecosystem and how we maintain it given all these threats.”