October 02, 2021

I received a notice to my email this week saying last Wednesday the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared 23 species extinct, including one of the world’s largest woodpeckers, dubbed the “Lord God Bird”.  The announcement came via a proposal to remove the birds, mussels, fish, as well as a plant and fruit bat, from Endangered Species Act protections because government scientists have given up on ever finding them again.  “With climate change and natural area loss pushing more and more species to the brink, now is the time to lift up proactive, collaborative, and innovative efforts to save America’s wildlife,” said interior secretary Deb Haaland.  The most iconic species was the Ivory-billed woodpecker, with the last indisputable evidence of existence coming in the 1940’s.  This woodpecker has been the Holy Grail for birders in recent decades, with numerous unconfirmed sightings over the years in the southeastern US.  Sadly, I was not one of them.

When I checked online, I found the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 is the primary law in the US for protecting imperiled species.  The Act was designed to protect critically imperiled species from becoming extinct as a “consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.”  The ESA was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 28, 1973.  The US Supreme Court called it “the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species enacted by any nation”.  Since the ESA was enacted, it has prevented the extinction of 99% of plants and animals under its care.  This includes the whooping crane, which numbered as few as 16 birds in the 1940’s but have since recovered to 500 to 600.  Today’s endangered species must also contend with the pressures of climate change, as rising seas and higher temperatures change and destroy habits.

John Fitzpatrick, director emeritus of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology said, “The fundamental thing that drove the woodpecker down to near extinction was the loss of the southeastern first growth forests, which really started taking place after the Civil War.”  Fitzpatrick was part of efforts to search for the bird in Arkansas and other regions in the mid-2000’s.  He still believes there is hope for the Ivory-billed woodpecker.  The species was revered not just by Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon, called the founding fathers of ornithology, but by collectors who hunted them.  Fitzpatrick said the nickname, “Lord God Bird,” was said to be derived from the expression “Lord God, what a bird.”  Now it is extinct.

Thoughts:  Tiera Curry, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, praised the current administration for requesting a US$60 million increase in endangered species protections, but criticized the fact a new FWS director had yet to be appointed.  “Extinction is not inevitable.  It is a political choice.  Saving species isn’t rocket science.  As a country we need to stand up and say we aren’t going to lose any more species to extinction.”  Sadly, unless we make immediate changes, critical endangered species will continue to become extinct.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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