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Yes, 23 species would be the most declared extinct from Endangered Species Act

Just 11 species have ever been removed from the Endangered Species Act for extinction prior to the recent Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to remove 23 species.
Credit: AP
An ivory-billed woodpecker specimen is on a display at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. Death's come knocking a last time for the splendid ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 assorted birds, fish and other species: The U.S. government is declaring them extinct. It's a rare move for wildlife officials to give up hope on a plant or animal, but government scientists say they've exhausted efforts to find these 23. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

In late September, news media nationwide reported the U.S. had declared 23 species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, extinct.

Those animals and plants were protected by the Endangered Species Act, and the Fish and Wildlife Service was proposing to remove or “delist” them from the act, because of their extinction.

THE QUESTION

Would 23 species be the most species that have ever been delisted from the Endangered Species Act for extinction at once?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, 23 species would be the most declared extinct from the list of Endangered Species Act plants and animals in the Act’s history. In fact, the Endangered Species Act had only delisted 11 species for extinction ever prior to these 23.

WHAT WE FOUND

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) became law in 1973 and has since provided federal protection to species that are threatened or endangered. A species can be delisted from these protections because of recovery or extinction. The FWS says it delists species so it can focus its attention and resources on saving “more imperiled” species.

On Sept. 29, the FWS proposed 23 species be delisted from the ESA because of extinction. One of the species was a plant and 22 species were animals.

The proposal leaves 60 days for public comment before any final decision is made. It would be by far the largest number of species ever delisted from the ESA for extinction at once. In fact, only 11 species have ever been delisted from the ESA for extinction prior to this proposal. No more than two species had ever been delisted for extinction at the same time.

The FWS does not track extinct species aside from those delisted from the ESA because of extinction, but the Center for Biological Diversity says about 650 U.S. species have likely gone extinct.

Why did these species go extinct?

Habitat loss or alteration was among the causes of extinction for most of the species, the FWS said in its press release.

For the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Bachman’s warbler, the loss of mature forest habitat specifically led to the species’ extinction.

All eight species of freshwater mussels that could be delisted are located in the Southeast and are reliant on healthy rivers and streams with clean water.

The 11 species from Hawaii and Guam the FWS proposes delisting were endemic to the Pacific islands, meaning they could only be found on those islands. Endemic Pacific island species “face a heightened risk of extinction due to their isolation and small geographic ranges,” the FWS said in its press release.

When did these species go extinct?

These animals didn’t all go extinct at once. Some of the species even may have been extinct before they were ever put under protection.

“The purpose of the ESA is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend,” the news release from the FWS said. “For the species proposed for delisting today, the protections of the ESA came too late, with most either extinct, functionally extinct, or in steep decline at the timing of listing.”

The last confirmed sighting of the lone plant among the 23 species, a flowering mint plant from Hawaii, was in 1914. The last confirmed sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker was in 1944. The most recent confirmed sighting of any of the 23 species was a sighting of a Hawaiian bird called the Po'ouli in 2004. Another Hawaiian bird, called the kauai nukupuu, was last officially seen more than 100 years ago in 1899. 

In total, the last confirmed sighting of 14 of the 23 potentially delisted species was before the species was listed for protection.

A FWS spokesperson explained that after the FWS completes rigorous assessments on species status, a period of time must also pass before proposing species for delisting due to extinction to ensure the species is in fact extinct.

At least some of these species have been spotted unofficially much more recently, including many famous sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker. But the FWS relies on verified records for sightings, which it failed to gather for the ivory-billed woodpecker “despite decades of extensive survey efforts.”

So are these species gone for good?

At least for some of these species, their extinction is up for debate.

A FWS spokesperson explained a species was delisted for extinction based on detectability of the species, adequacy of survey efforts and time since last detection. The FWS attempted to minimize the possibility of prematurely determining a species extinct or assuming a species still existed when it was already extinct.

The IUCN Red List, the world’s most comprehensive list on extinction status of global species, still lists the ivory-billed woodpecker as critically endangered worldwide, and possibly extinct in the U.S. The Bachman’s warbler is also still listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, although its geographic range suggests it’s possibly extinct.

Protection and conservation efforts typically end when a species is classified as extinct, so authorities like the FWS and IUCN are typically cautious when it comes to classifying a species as such. Still, some species are mistakenly classified as extinct before they are later rediscovered — leading the IUCN to give the species a special classification called “Lazarus” species.

The FWS will consider any substantive comments and science on the status of the 23 species before finalizing any action, its spokesperson said. The FWS says on its website that it seeks the opinions of independent species experts, other federal agencies, state biologists and the public.

For what it’s worth, the IUCN has classified many more species extinct all at once than the FWS has. It lists 902 extinct species in total and classified 60 as extinct at once in one of its 2020 assessments.

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