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U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service Plans To Classify 23 Species As Extinct

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Twenty-three species could soon no longer be considered endangered, but officially extinct. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the list yesterday, which includes one plant and animals, like fish, mussels and birds, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Now, the last confirmed sighting of the elusive bird was way back in 1944. So how could all of this happen?

Tierra Curry is a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. She joins us now. Tierra, welcome to the show. So what made the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decide to classify these 23 species as extinct and not endangered?

TIERRA CURRY: So these species have been extinct for decades, if not for half a century or longer. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to delist them because they think that they're gone forever. And really, this was heartbreaking news. This is the largest announcement of extinction in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service history.

MARTINEZ: So in a way, were we all kind of just holding out for hope that somehow one would pop up somewhere?

CURRY: Absolutely. And, you know, we still are. Hopefully, some of them will pop up again. But really, we've made a mistake that can't be reversed. So the species are gone, and the places where they live are forever changed.

MARTINEZ: Now, we mentioned the ivory-billed woodpecker. There have been many searches over the years to try and find it. Can you explain why this particular bird represents such a loss?

CURRY: This was the largest woodpecker in the States, and it's a beautiful bird, and people really were drawn to it. And so its last patch of habitat was intentionally logged, and that is heartbreaking. And it's a lesson for us not to make those mistakes again, not to choose economics over the survival of a species.

MARTINEZ: When it comes to the woodpecker, I mean, what does this do to the ecosystem? What does the woodpecker do that, you know, kind of contributes to it all?

CURRY: So woodpeckers are keystone species. The cavities that they peck into trees provide houses for other animals. So because this one is gone, all the other animals that counted on it to be a cavity nester were basically made homeless when it disappeared.

MARTINEZ: Wow. So one thing connects to the other, and that's how eventually we get to the point that we're at. In terms of the bigger picture, Tierra, what does the loss of these 23 species mean for the environment and the ecosystem overall?

CURRY: So scientists say we're at risk of losing a million species. And here in the United States, we've already lost 150 confirmed species to extinction, and around 500 more are missing in action. So this couple dozen species, unfortunately, are just part of our heritage of loss that we need to take action to reverse now.

MARTINEZ: So what or who is to blame for their extinction?

CURRY: Well, the freshwater mussels were - they declined because of damming and then water pollution. The Hawaii species declined because of invasive species. And the ivory-billed woodpecker and Bachman's warbler were lost because of widespread logging. And so we can look at these losses and these mistakes and take action to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

MARTINEZ: And I know there's a federal law, supposed to protect animals and plants. Has the Endangered Species Act of 1973 overall been effective?

CURRY: Absolutely. The Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of 99% of the plants and animals under its care, and it's done this with minimal funding. So if we really funded the act so that the Fish and Wildlife Service had the money they need to list and recover species, it would be amazing.

MARTINEZ: One more thing quickly, Tierra - any other endangered species that concern you right now?

CURRY: There are hundreds of species waiting to get put on the list of endangered species, and the monarch butterfly is one of them. It's declined by 85%, but it's not even going to get a decision for three more years.

MARTINEZ: Tierra Curry, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. Thank you very much.

CURRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.