fb-pixelIvory-billed woodpecker officially declared extinct, along with 22 other species - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Ivory-billed woodpecker officially declared extinct, along with 22 other species

An ivory-billed woodpecker specimen on a display at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.Haven Daley/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The “Lord God Bird” is dead.

The ivory-billed woodpecker, a ghostly bird whose long-rumored survival in the bottomland swamps of the South has haunted seekers for generations, will be officially declared extinct by US officials after years of futile efforts to save it. It earned is nickname because it was so big and so beautiful those blessed to spot it blurted out the Lord’s name.

Even the scientist who wrote the obit cried.

‘’This is not an easy thing,’’ said Amy Trahan, the US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who reviewed the evidence and wrote the report concluding the ivory bill ‘’no longer exists.’’

Advertisement



‘’Nobody wants to be a part of that,’’ she added, choking up in a Zoom interview. ‘’Just having to write those words was quite difficult. It took me awhile.’’

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal Wednesday to take 23 animals and plants off the endangered species list — because none can be found in the wild — exposes what scientists say is an accelerating rate of extinction worldwide. A million plants and animals are in danger of disappearing, many within decades. The newly extinct species are the casualties of climate change and habitat destruction, dying out sooner than any new protections can save them.

The species pushed over the brink include 10 types of birds and bats found only on Pacific islands, as well as eight types of freshwater mussels that once inhabited riverbeds from Illinois to Georgia. The best available science suggests these creatures are no longer swimming, scampering, or soaring on this planet, obliterating the need for any federal protection.

With a range that once spanned from the coastal plains of North Carolina to the bayous of East Texas, the ivory-billed woodpecker’s numbers suffered their most precipitous drop during the 1800s. Marksmen gunned them down for private collectors and hat makers, while loggers felled the old-growth stands where the birds roosted and foraged for grub.

Advertisement



‘’The fact that this bird is so critically endangered has been true since the 1890s, and it’s fundamentally a consequence of the fact that we cut down every last trace of the virgin forest of the southeastern US,’’ said John W. Fitzpatrick, director emeritus of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. ‘’We took all that away.’’

But occasional sightings sustained hope for recovery. Teddy Roosevelt spotted three in 1907 during a bear hunt in Louisiana’s swamplands. In 1924, famed Cornell University ornithologist Arthur ‘’Doc” Allen took the world’s first photograph of the ivory bill in Florida — just days before two collectors shot the mating pair. A decade later, after the bird was believed to be extinct, Allen’s team returned to make the world’s only undisputed recording of its hornlike calls.

The ivory bill was one of the first animals recognized in the United States as facing extinction, and its decline helped spur Congress in 1973 to pass the Endangered Species Act. The law made it illegal to ‘’harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect” imperiled species and seeks to protect their habitats.

The law’s proponents point out the vast majority of species under its protection — 99 percent — have not gone extinct. It has served as a model for other nations writing their own conservation legislation. Among the animals it is credited with saving are icons such as the bald eagle, brown pelican, gray wolf, and American alligator.

Advertisement



But the newly confirmed extinctions show the limits of a law that, at nearly half-a-century old, came far too late for the ivory bill and other animals. And the act is under attack from many conservatives who call it ineffective, pointing out that only about 3 percent of the species listed for protection ever recover.

Jonathan Wood, a vice president of the Property and Environment Research Center, a free-market environmental think tank, said that the law punishes property owners with endangered creatures on their lands by preventing farming and building.

‘’We should instead be rewarding landowners,’’ Wood said, by better compensating them for maintaining vulnerable wildlife on their land.

In some cases, critics contend, species get costly protections they don’t really need. Last month, federal wildlife officials announced the snail darter, a tiny fish first found in the Tennessee River system, had recovered after being transplanted and found in the wild elsewhere.

‘’It is good the snail darter is off the endangered list, but, unfortunately, the agency continues a tradition of claiming ‘recoveries’ that are in part or even entirely a result of data error,’’ said Rob Gordon, who worked on endangered species as a Republican staffer on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Heeding these critics’ calls, the Trump administration worked to overhaul the law, making it easier to remove protections for threatened species and allowing wildlife managers to consider the economic cost of conserving an animal when weighing new protections.

Advertisement



The law’s proponents point out the vast majority of species under its protection — 99 percent — have not gone extinct. It has served as a model for other nations writing their own conservation legislation. Among the animals it is credited with saving are icons such as the bald eagle, brown pelican, gray wolf, and American alligator.

But even fenced-off ecosystems can’t be fully protected from a changing climate.

Throughout the rivers of the Southeast, for instance, freshwater mussels were once so plentiful, they were harvested to make buttons before the era of plastic. ‘’We still sometimes find punched shells in the river,’’ said Tyler Hern, who now breeds them in captivity at Tennessee’s Erwin National Fish Hatchery to help restore their numbers.