If the Ivory-Billed Can Do It . . .

Peter O'Shea at one of the Adirondacks sites where he has spent 23 years searching for the eastern cougar.
Peter O'Shea at one of the Adirondacks sites where he has spent 23 years searching for the eastern cougar. (By David A. Fahrenthold -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

TUPPER LAKE, N.Y. -- Peter O'Shea, a retired police sergeant, has spent 23 years searching the forest trails, sand deposits and snowdrifts of the Adirondack Mountains for cougars. He has seen a grand total of none.

That could mean one of two things.

Perhaps cougars are not here to be found. That is the position taken by government managers -- that the cougar subspecies that once roamed these mountains and the rest of the East Coast has probably been extinct for decades.

O'Shea prefers to think the cougars are just really, really good at hiding.

"Cats, you know . . .," he said. "There's nothing more furtive than a feline."

This is the kind of attitude -- persistence that runs to the edge of absurdity -- needed to look for one of nature's ghosts. It is a common trait among the small group of scientists and environmentalists who are still searching for the 27 creatures, including the eastern cougar, that are classified as "presumed extinct" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To find them, they have braved 20-inch Hawaiian rainfalls, groped along the bottoms of coffee-colored rivers and spent months vainly broadcasting bird songs through snake-filled swamps. They have faced all the tedium of normal biological research, plus the added burden of not knowing if it is all a gigantic waste of time.

This year, one success -- the rediscovery of the presumed-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas -- has improved the spirits of this eclectic group. Maybe, some think, there is more good news out there in the woods.

"We have not given up," said Eric Vanderwerf, a Fish and Wildlife Service researcher in Hawaii who is looking for nine vanished bird species.

The 27 species on this list are the most hopeless among the 394 U.S. animals now classified as endangered, but the government is not quite ready to write them off. In most cases, it was humans that put them in their dire straits -- a startling measure of our impact on the environment, since their habitats are as diverse as the island of Molokai in Hawaii and a single riffle of a single stream in central Ohio.

Some of the damage was done years ago: Hawaiian birds were decimated by a disease-carrying mosquito, which may have arrived on the first European ship to visit the island in the 1700s. The Eskimo curlew, a bird that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands on western prairies, declined sharply during a wave of hunting in the late 1800s.

Other problems are much more recent. Scientists in the Southeast blame dams and federal water projects built as recently as the 1980s, which slowed the flow of rivers. That killed off small freshwater mussels that had evolved to depend on a fast current.


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