A small portion of the death toll inflicted on the earth’s biosphere by human-induced climate change and destruction of natural habitats was acknowledged officially in a recent announcement by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which changed the status of 23 species (including 11 birds, eight freshwater mussels, two fish, a bat and a plant) from endangered to extinct under the terms of the Endangered Species Act (1973).

These species include the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Bachman’s warbler, and the Kauai O’o, a Hawaiian forest bird. This is the largest single group of species designated as extinct since the act went into effect, a reflection of the increasing pace of extinctions. In the nearly 50 years since the law was passed, only 11 species in the US had previously been determined to be extinct.

Ivory-billed woodpecker, now extinct

By contrast, a conservative estimate (National Wildlife Federation, 2018) suggests that in the US alone at least 150 species have already gone extinct and another 500 are likely to have suffered that fate. One-third of US species are considered “vulnerable,” with one in five “imperiled.” A total of more than 1,600 species are currently listed as endangered.

The impact of the Endangered Species Act on the rate of extinction is limited and decreasing. The inclusion of new species to the protected list is extremely slow. A 2016 study found that species waited a median of 12 years to receive safeguards, during which time they continued to be under stress. At least 47 species have gone extinct while being evaluated for listing as endangered. News accounts play up the removal of 54 species from the endangered list, supposedly because they are now “safe.” The accelerating rate of extinctions, both in the US and worldwide, indicate that such moves are cosmetic at best.

The significance of this latest finding goes well beyond the loss of these particular forms of life. It represents only a tiny fraction of the ongoing sixth global mass extinction of lifeforms on this planet, the first to be caused by humans.

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