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Death has come knocking a last time for the splendid ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 more birds, fish and other species: The US government is declaring them extinct.
It is 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 climate change, on top of other pressures, could make such disappearances more common as a warming planet adds to the dangers facing imperiled plants and wildlife.
The ivory-billed woodpecker was perhaps the best-known species that will be pronounced extinct on Wednesday by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It went out stubbornly and with fanfare, making unconfirmed appearances in recent decades that ignited a frenzy of ultimately fruitless searches in the swamps of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
Others, such as the flat pigtoe, a freshwater mussel from the southeastern US, were identified in the wild only a few times and never seen again, meaning that by the time they got a name, they were fading from existence.
“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,” said Anthony Andy Ford, a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Tennessee who specialises in freshwater mussels.
The factors behind the disappearances vary – 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 were thought to have at least a slim chance of survival when added to the endangered species list beginning in the 1960s.
Only 11 species have been removed due to extinction in the nearly half-century since the Endangered Species Act was signed into law.
Wednesday’s announcement kicks off a three-month comment period before the species status changes become final.
Around the globe, some 902 species have been documented as extinct. The actual number is thought to be much higher because some are never formally identified, and many scientists warn the earth is in an “extinction crisis” with flora and fauna now disappearing at 1,000 times the historical rate.
It is possible that one or more of the 23 species included in Wednesday’s announcement could reappear, several scientists said.
A leading figure in the hunt for the ivory-billed woodpecker said it was premature to call off the effort, after millions of dollars spent on searches and habitat preservation efforts.
“Little is gained and much is lost” with an extinction declaration, said Cornell University bird biologist John Fitzpatrick, lead author of a 2005 study that claimed the woodpecker had been rediscovered in eastern Arkansas.
“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 said.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a Switzerland-based group that tracks extinctions globally, is not putting the ivory-billed woodpecker into its extinction column because it is possible the birds still exist in Cuba, said the group’s Craig Hilton-Taylor.
Hilton-Taylor said there can be unintended but damaging consequences if extinction is declared prematurely. “Suddenly the (conservation) money is no longer there, and then suddenly you do drive it to extinction because you stop investing in it,” he said.
Federal officials said the extinctions declaration was driven by a desire to clear a backlog of recommended status changes for species that had not been acted upon for years.
They said it would free up resources for on-the-ground conservation efforts for species that still have a chance for recovery.