On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the extinction of 23 wildlife species.
Novice and professional birders alike can attest to the excitement they feel when tracking an elusive bird. There’s the rush of adrenaline at the blur of a red-tipped wing and the dogged concentration that pushes them through brush with held breath. But for conservationists tracking endangered birds and fish, this cautious optimism can be replaced with dread as species go years and decades without sightings. Now, those fears have been confirmed.
Among the losses is the ivory-billed woodpecker, whose striking coloring and size earned it the name “Lord God Bird” in reference to the exclamations made by those who saw it. Native to the American southeast, the last confirmed sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker was in the 1940s, according to a statement from U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
These 23 species join what scientists already estimate is a loss of 3 billion individual birds since the 1970s. Together, these losses are sombering evidence of the damage that climate change and habitat loss are causing the natural world, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.
“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,” Haaland said.
In addition to the ivory-bill, the new extinctions include 10 other bird species, eight freshwater mussels, two fish, a bat, and one plant. 11 of these species were lost from Hawaii and Guam alone.
The extinction of these 23 species will take them off the U.S. Fish and Wildlife endangered species list created as part of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. While 99 percent of species on this list manage to avoid extinction or are delisted due to species recovery, scientists say that these conservation efforts came too late for many of the species removed from the list on Wednesday.
The ivory-billed woodpecker, for example, has been battling extinction since the 1800s when they became a common target of collectors and hat makers. Likewise, many of the bird species lost in Hawaii have been suffering from an onslaught of avian malaria carried by mosquitoes that came to the island aboard colonial ships.
As climate change continues to worsen and humans extract more resources from these natural areas, conservation and protection of wildlife is more important than ever, scientists say. This is something that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife department hopes that the Biden-Harris Administration’s “America the Beautiful” initiative can help rectify. This initiative pledges to “conserve, connect, and restore” 30 percent of the country's land and water by 2030. This plan is similar, albeit distinct, from a global initiative called 30x30, which pledges to globally protect the same percentage of land and water.
Through these efforts, Haaland says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife department plans to continue its work to ensure more species leave the list through species recovery and not extinction.
As for the 23 species declared lost, there is still a sliver of hope that they might be saved. The extinction proposal is now in a 60-day comment period—ending on December 29th—for scientists and the public to come forward with proof that these extinction claims may be incorrect.
A reversal is unlikely, as many of these species have been seen in many decades, but director emeritus of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, John Fitzpatrick, told The Washington Post that he’s still not giving up just yet.
“I’m not ready to call it extinct,” he said. “It’s looking bad, but it’s been looking bad for 60 years.”