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US Government Declares 23 Animal Species Extinct

Extinct species
A pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers interact in 1935. These birds, along with 22 other species, were declared extinct by the US government on Wednesday. Credit: Arthur A. Allen/Public Domain

The ivory-billed woodpecker, the best-known American species that had been declared threatened years ago, was declared extinct, along with 22 other species, by the U.S. government on Wednesday.

The iconic bird — which several bird watchers believed they saw just a few years ago in a swamp in the South — along with a range of other birds, fish and other animals, is now considered extinct.

In a move rarely taken by federal officials, hope has now been given up on trying to locate surviving individuals of the species, while they warn that climate change, working in tandem with other dangers to their welfare, could lead to more such declarations.

Bird lovers have been combing the swamps and forestlands of the South in recent years, sure that the fleeting images captured by several of them in past decades showed ivory billed woodpecker individuals.

The ivory-billed woodpecker is perhaps the best known — and certainly best-loved — species that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare extinct. The declaration may come as especially disturbing to wildlife overs after making unconfirmed appearances in recent years that spurred innumerable fruitless searches in swamps throughout  Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

The grainy black and white image above, from 1935, part of newsreel footage, comprises the last proof of ivory bills in the wild.

Other, less famous, species, including the flat pigtoe, a freshwater mussel which also lived in the southeastern U.S., were identified in their natural habitat only a few times. Never seen again, by the time their existence was recorded their numbers were dwindling drastically.

Anthony “Andy” Ford, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Tennessee who is a specialist in freshwater mussels, is always on edge when he is fortunate enough to see unusual wildlife. “When I see one of those really rare ones, it’s always in the back of my mind that I might be the last one to see this animal again,” he says in an interview with CBS.

Declaration of extinction may be counterproductive for efforts to save almost extinct species

Although there are always many complex reasons why species decline and disappear entirely, they always are tied to humans and their impact on the environment. On top of  incorrect development practices, water pollution, and logging, birds have sometimes been killed for feathers and animals captured by private collectors to the point that they have become extinct.

In addition, there can also be fatal competition from invasive species that show up in the habitats of any animal.

Now, it appears that all 23 of the species declared extinct today were thought to have at least a chance of survival fifty years ago, when they were added to the endangered species list.

After their inclusion, in the early 1960s, only 11 of these animal and bird species have been removed due to extinction in the intervening years since the Endangered Species Act was signed into law.

Today’s announcement marks the beginning of a three-month-long public comment period before their status of extinction is made final.

“Little is gained and much is lost”

Although the real number can never be known, at least 902 different species are now documented as being extinct; many scientists warn that the Earth is experiencing an “extinction crisis,” as both flora and fauna are now disappearing at 1,000 times the rate seen previously.

Extinction status does not mean that there are absolutely no individuals left belonging to a certain species; indeed, it is still possible one or more of the species included in today’s declaration could be seen again, according to scientists.

Actually, such a declaration may even hamper the desperate efforts to locate and help what remaining ivory bills may still be out there. Cornell University bird biologist John Fitzpatrick, the lead author of the 2005 study that claimed the woodpecker had been rediscovered in eastern Arkansas, was disappointed in the announcement.

Saying that it was premature to call off the effort to locate the woodpeckers, after millions of dollars had been spent on searches and habitat preservation efforts, Fitzpatrick noted “Little is gained and much is lost” after such a declaration.

“A bird this iconic, and this representative of the major old-growth forests of the southeast, keeping it on the list of endangered species keeps attention on it, keeps states thinking about managing habitat on the off chance it still exists,” he explained.

Recently, Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison told CBS News’ Steve Hartman earlier this year that they are positive they saw an ivory-billed woodpecker in an Arkansas swamp seventeen years ago.

After he had finally spotted the elusive bird himself, he was able to convince his colleagues at Cornell to conduct a massive search operation — which resulted in the procurement of a blurry video that may indeed portray an ivory bill.

The news, however, swept the county, with bird lovers flying into a frenzy in a bid to get their own sighting of the endangered woodpecker, with “60 Minutes” showing a feature on the supposed rediscovery.

However, regardless of whether or not the ivory bill still lives in the thickets of Southern swamps and forests, other individuals belonging to the species may be hiding out in Cuba.

This possibility is prompting organizations such as Switzerland’s International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which tracks extinctions around the world, to put off listing the bird as extinct.

Craig Hilton-Taylor of the IUCN said there can be unintended consequences if extinction is declared prematurely — consequences which may be completely counterproductive.

“Suddenly the (conservation) money is no longer there, and then suddenly you do drive it to extinction because you stop investing in it,” he explained.

However, US wildlife officials say that today’s announcement was spurred by a need to clear a backlog of status change recommendations for species that had not been looked at closely in years.

They added that making the species officially extinct would free up resources for existing conservation efforts for this animals that still have a chance to build up their numbers.

The islands that make up the state of Hawaii have the dubious distinction of having the most species on the list, including eight woodland birds and one plant.

However, this is partly because the islands are so rich in plants and animals that many have extraordinarily small ranges, and so they can quickly be at risk when development or other threats impinge on their habitat.

The year 2004 marked the most recent extinction declaration of a Hawaiian species, with the tiny po’ouli, a bird also known as a honeycreeper, which was first discovered in 1973, was declared extinct.

Facing threats in their small range, only three individuals remained in the wild by the late 1990s — a male and two females. Scientists made an attempt to mate them in the wild to increase their numbers, but when that came to nought, the male was captured for potential breeding purposes, dying in 2004.

Tragically, the two female honeycreepers were never seen again.

Stuart Pimm, a researcher at Duke University who specializes in studying extinction events, was for spurred to enter the field due to the precarious nature of survival for Hawaiian birds. Interviewed by CBS, he acknowledges that whatever one may think about the final declarations of extinctions, the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, has enabled many more animals and plants to survive and thrive once again.

“It’s a shame we didn’t get to those species in time, but when we do, we are usually able to save species,” he said.

A total of 54 species have been taken off the endangered list since 1975; perhaps most spectacular success was the bald eagle, of which there are now approximately 300,000 in the United States, after having quadrupled their numbers in the lower 48 states since 2009

The brown pelican, which now numbers almost 650,000 across the Americas, and humpback whales, are some of the most thrilling success stories as well, with humpbacks now numbering approximately 80,000 from a low of 10-15,000 at one point.

Climate change, however, I shaving a deleterious impact on the recovery of animals, despite the ongoing efforts to improve their habitats in every other way possible.

Lingering droughts, catastrophic floods, wildfires and temperature swings add to the threats already faced by species that are already near the brink.

Experts say that a broader effort is underway, helping preserve habitat for all plants and animals, rather than focusing on the survival of any one species.

Biologist Michelle Bogardus, who works in the wildlife service in the state of Hawaii, is still concerned. “I hope we’re up to the challenge,” she said, adding “We don’t have the resources to prevent extinctions unilaterally. We have to think proactively about ecosystem health and how do we maintain it, given all these threats.”

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