Death strikes one last time for the splendid ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 other birds, fish and other species: the US government declares them extinct.
It’s a rare move for wildlife officials to give up hope on a plant or animal, but government scientists say they’ve exhausted their efforts to find these 23. And they warn that climate change, on top of that. other pressures, could make such disappearances more common as a warming planet adds to the dangers facing endangered plants and wildlife.
The ivory-billed woodpecker was perhaps the best-known species that the US Fish and Wildlife Service will announce on Wednesday as extinct. It came out stubbornly and with fanfare, making unconfirmed appearances over the past few decades that sparked an ultimately unsuccessful search frenzy in the swamps of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
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Others, like the flat pig, a freshwater mussel from the southeastern United States, have only been identified in the wild a few times and have never been seen again, meaning that by the time they got a name, they were gone.
“When I see one of these really rare animals, I always have in mind that I might be the last to see this animal again,” said Anthony “Andy” Ford, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Tennessee which specializes in freshwater mussels.
The factors behind the disappearances vary: too much development, water pollution, logging, competition from invasive species, birds killed for their feathers and animals captured by private collectors. In each case, humans were the ultimate cause.
Another thing they share: All 23 were thought to have at least a slim chance of survival when they were added to the endangered species list from the 1960s. Only 11 species have already been deleted due to their extinction in the half-century since the enactment of the Endangered Species Act. Wednesday’s announcement kicks off a three-month comment period before changes in the species’ status become final.
Worldwide, some 902 species have been documented as extinct. The actual number is believed to be much higher as some are never formally identified, and many scientists are warning that the earth is in an “extinction crisis” with flora and fauna disappearing at 1,000 times the level. historical rate.
It is possible that one or more of the 23 species included in Wednesday’s announcement will reappear, several scientists said.
A leading figurehead in the ivory-billed woodpecker hunt said it was premature to cancel the effort, after millions of dollars spent on research and habitat preservation efforts.
“Little is gained and much is lost” with a declaration of extinction, said Cornell University bird biologist John Fitzpatrick, lead author of a 2005 study that claimed the woodpecker had been rediscovered in the east. of Arkansas.
“Such an iconic bird and this representative of the main old-growth forests of the southeast, keeping it on the endangered species list, keeps attention on it, prompts states to think about habitat management s’ it still exists, ”he said. .
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a Swiss-based group that tracks extinctions around the world, does not put the ivory-billed woodpecker in its extinction column because birds may still exist in Cuba, said the group’s Craig Hilton-Taylor.
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Hilton-Taylor said there can be unintended but damaging consequences if extinction is declared prematurely. “Suddenly the (conservation) money is gone, and then suddenly you are driving it to extinction because you stop investing in it,” he said.
Federal officials said the declaration of extinction was driven by a desire to clear a backlog of recommended status changes for species that had not been processed for years. They 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 these efforts fail are creatures that are often uniquely adapted to their surroundings. Freshwater mussel species like the ones the government says have become extinct reproduce by attracting fish with a lure-like appendage and then sending a cloud of larvae that attach themselves to the fish’s gills up that they are old enough to fall and live on their own.
The odds are slim against any mold that survives into adulthood – one in a million, according to Ford of the Wildlife Department – but those that do can live a century or more.
Hawaii has the most species on the list: eight woodland birds and one plant. This is in part because the islands have so many plants and animals that many have extremely small ranges and can become extinct quickly.
The most recent to go extinct was the small po’ouli, a type of bird known as the honey creeper discovered in 1973.
By the end of the 90s, there were only three left: a 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 plight of Hawaii’s birds has helped push Duke University extinction expert Stuart Pimm into his field. Despite the grim nature of the government’s proposal to move more species to the extinct column, Pimm said the toll likely would have been much higher without the endangered species law.
“It’s a shame we didn’t reach these species on time, but when we do, we are usually able to save cash,” he said.
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Since 1975, 54 species have moved off the endangered list after recovering, including the bald eagle, brown pelican and most humpback whales.
Climate change is making species recovery more difficult, leading to droughts, floods, forest fires and temperature swings that exacerbate the threats species already face.
The way they are saved is also changing. The focus is no longer on individual species, let alone individual birds. Officials say the larger goal is now to preserve their habitat, which is a boost to the species of all types that live there.
“Hopefully we’ll be up to the challenge,” said biologist Michelle Bogardus of the Hawaii Wildlife Service. “We don’t have the resources to unilaterally prevent extinctions. We need to proactively think about ecosystem health and how to maintain it, given all of these threats. “