The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s move underscores what scientists say is an accelerating rate of extinction worldwide, given climate change and habitat loss

The ivory-billed woodpecker is one of nearly two dozen species of animals and plants that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has officially declared extinct. (Auscape/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
10 min

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 U.S. officials after years of futile efforts to save it. It earned its nickname because it was so big and so beautiful that 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who reviewed the evidence and wrote the report concluding that the ivory bill “no longer exists.”

“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 a while.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife announcement underscores what scientists say is an accelerating rate of extinction worldwide. (Video: Arthur. A. Allen/Cornell University)

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 nine birds, one bat and one plant 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.

In the nearly half-century since the Endangered Species Act came into force, only 11 other species have ever been delisted because they disappeared.

Want to get a morning briefing straight to your phone? Text JOIN to 63706 to sign up.

With a range that once spanned from the coastal plains of North Carolina to the bayous of East Texas, the ivory-billed woodpecker suffered a precipitous drop in numbers 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.

“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 U.S.,” said John W. Fitzpatrick, director emeritus of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “We took all that away.”

But occasional sightings sustained hope for recovery. Former president Theodore 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 sought to protect their habitats.

The law’s proponents point out that 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 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 the law punishes property owners who have 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 that 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.

Here's how Biden is unwinding Trump's environmental legacy

The Biden administration moved in June to reverse those policies. And the president has vowed to set aside nearly a third of the nation’s land and water to protect wildlife, sequester carbon from the atmosphere and ensure that all Americans can access nature.

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 that 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.

Rivers once teeming with mussels — which clean streams by filtering them — have been transformed by industrial pollution, dam construction and rising water temperatures linked to climate change. The invertebrates often can’t escape.

“They’re capable of moving,” said Hern. “It’s just a matter of inches a day.”

For many mussels, their mating habits make them even more vulnerable. Males disperse their seed in the water for females downstream, who in turn spray their young at passing fish, so their babies can grow while attached to the fishes’ gills.

Any break in the long-distance affair could ruin a species.

The loss of animals is even more acute in Hawaii, often called the nation’s endangered species capital due to the sheer number of native plants and animals found nowhere else.

Among the eight Hawaiian birds officially declared extinct Wednesday are the prismatic Maui ’akepa and Moloka’i creeper, and curve-beaked Kaua’i ʻakialoa and nukupu’u. Also gone is the Kaua’i ’o’o, whose haunting, flutelike mating call was last heard three decades ago.

The forest birds, like so many island-bound creatures, have succumbed to wave after wave of invasive species, including feral hogs that root up native seed-bearing plants and mosquitoes that spread an avian form of malaria. Rising temperatures allow disease-carrying mosquitoes to reach elevations once too cool for them to tolerate, going deeper into birds’ territories.

“Rats, cats, pigs are all problems. All those nonnative species are a problem. But I say mosquitoes are the worst of it,” said Eric VanderWerf, a former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who founded the nonprofit group Pacific Rim Conservation.

The campaign to save one bird, the po’ouli, a honeycreeper so unique it has its own genus, came too late. When only three were known on Maui in 2002, wildlife managers captured a female and brought it to a male’s territory. Uninterested, the female flew home.

In a last-ditch matchmaking effort, one of the forlorn males was netted for captive breeding. But a female could no longer be found. It died alone in 2004, and is now an item at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Many other potentially endangered animals don’t get nearly as much attention. And wildlife advocates say that tight budgets at the two federal wildlife agencies — the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service — have complicated rescue efforts.

How the West Virginia coal industry shaped Trump's endangered species policy

On average, species wait a dozen years to receive protection, with at least 47 vanishing while in regulatory purgatory.

The monarch butterfly, in steep decline across drought-plagued Western states, ranks as one of the highest-profile species stuck in limbo. Trump administration officials opted in December not to declare it endangered, citing scarce agency resources, even though they said protection is warranted.

“The Endangered Species Act is not failing,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former Fish and Wildlife Service director from 1997 to 2001 who now runs the Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation organization. “It’s starving.”

Biden officials asked a federal court in August to reject a lawsuit from wildlife advocates aiming to restore federal protections for the gray wolf, as states from Wisconsin to Idaho move to cull wolves that frustrated farmers by feeding on livestock. Yet weeks later, they announced they will consider whether the iconic predator should be listed again.

“There’s a lot of species that it’s politically costly to list, and then protect,” said Center for Biological Diversity scientist Tierra Curry.

The political will to find — and save — the ivory-billed woodpecker never flagged. Artistic works over the years, from John James Audubon’s painting in the 1820s to Sufjan Stevens’s modern indie folk song, have kept the bird in the national consciousness even as its numbers dwindled in the wild.

And then, in 2004, a kayaker spotted what he believed to be an ivory bill in Arkansas. Swarms of scientists, including Cornell’s Fitzpatrick, descended on that cypress swamp, recording at least six other sightings.

But some other ornithologists pushed back. Video footage of the bird was too grainy to reach a definitive conclusion. It could have been a related species, the pileated woodpecker. Subsequent searches came up short. There was a silver lining, though, as Americans scrambled to restore the woods their ancestors had decimated.

“We’ve had so much land acquisition and reforestation occur, just because of those sightings,” said Trahan, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

Even with the official extinction declaration from the federal government, Fitzpatrick doesn’t want to call it quits. The public has 60 days to comment on the extinction declarations before they are finalized.

“I’m not ready to call it extinct,” he said. “It’s looking bad, but it’s been looking bad for 60 years.”

Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

What about your role in climate change? Our climate coach Michael J. Coren is answering questions about environmental choices in our everyday lives. Submit yours here. You can also sign up for our Climate Coach newsletter.