Extinct No More

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Hooray!–the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, thought to be extinct for more than 60 years, has apparently been found flying in the Arkansas backwoods.

While I personally mourn the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet, I will venture to pose a very politically and ecologically incorrect question: Would Americans really want billions of pigeons nesting in and befouling huge expanses of forests and hordes of parakeets gobbling up crops? Evidently, earlier and poorer generations of Americans did not. Only a wealthy society can afford and cares to mount expensive efforts to save endangered species.

By the way, no one can argue that the Endangered Species Act saved the Ivory-billed Woodpecker since everyone thought it was already extinct. Further good news is that the privately funded Nature Conservancy has already been buying up land in Arkansas as habitat for the bird. Having made it through to wealthy ecologically-minded 21st century America, the prospects of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's continued survival are pretty good.

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  1. “no one can argue that the Endangered Species Act saved the Ivory-billed Woodpecker”

    This may, or may not be, true in a very narrow sense, but it most definitely can be argued that the ecologicaly-minded efforts of the twentieth century, of which the endangered species act is one, helped save this bird.
    In order to establish whether it is true in the very narrow sense of direct enforcement of the endangered species act, we would have to know more about actual enforcement in the general proximity. It would be much more difficult to establish the slightly less narrow sense of the influences that the law had on prospective development and other factors. Laws have unintended consequences that are not easily deduced, and I thought libertarians were well aware of that.

  2. John James Audubon rode the 55 miles from Henderson, Kentucky, to Louisville one day in autumn 1813, and through the whole long day, he rode under a sky darkened from horizon to horizon by a cloud of passenger pigeons. He estimated that more than a billion birds had passed over him. In 1866, a cloud of birds passed into southern Ontario. It was a mile wide, 300 miles long, and took 14 hours to pass a single point.

    And Paul Bunyan could cut down an entire forest of oak trees with one hand while eating a stack of pancakes as tall as Pike’s Peak with t’other. And he had a pet frog that was as big as 10 castles and could jump over the moon.

  3. theCoach:

    First, the ESA establishes recovery plans for each individual species–since the Ivory-billed was thought to be extinct, there was no recovery plan.

    Second, it may well be that creating forest reserves is what has enabled the species to survive, but that again is the result of a wealthier society–in other words, but setting aside land for nature and environmental regulations are following indicators, not leading indicators.

  4. First, I agree that species preservation is a luxury. Personally, I think it’s a good thing. I do not claim it trumps all other considerations.

    The articles about passenger pigeons Ron links to don’t specifically say that they were killed off for being a nuisance, but rather as a combination of development and being easily hunted (the latter likely being at least partly a tragedy of the commons situation). The parakeet was evidently a nuisance to crops.

    When push comes to shove, one will naturally place one’s own survival above that of other species. Still, I wish we could have reduced these birds’ nuisance without eliminating them entirely. But I also recognize that my own preference in the matter is not the only one.

  5. “no one can argue that the Endangered Species Act saved the Ivory-billed Woodpecker”

    So no development has ever been stopped in the backwoods of Arkansas because of species protection?

    When you protect the habitat of one species, you are protecting the habitat of every species that lives in the same place – whether the fuzzy wuzzy whatever the hell it’s called was referenced in the case or not.

  6. It is interesting that you use the Carolina Parakeet as an example. My reading (and unfortunately there is nothing online to link to) is that the “damage” part of this birds heritage is largley a part of early Euro-american transplant “urban legend”. But that the use of the feathers was a documentable fact. And that it was the later that was the core reason for the extinction.

    Not unlike the oft-repeated, but seldom documented danger of Wolves.

  7. Ron,

    You are correct to note that successful environmental protection requires economic growth. This concept, known has Sustainable Development, came into its own at the Rio conference (also famous for being where John Kerry came into…I’ll stop) has really pushed out the anti-development ethos that used to define environmentalism. I’ve seen some anti-Rio tracts that decry it for embracing development in any form.

  8. fyodor:

    Please read the 2nd Passenger Pigeon link again. They don’t appear to have been agricultural pests, but see especially the section about tons of dung killing off forests and so forth. I can just imagine how modern suburbanites would react to a flock settling in for a month in Arlington VA or Westchester NY.

    Nevertheless, think that a wealthier society would have put up with whatever nuisances the birds caused rather than exterminate them.

  9. joe:

    Free market capitalism is sustainable development. For my take on fastasy versions of SD see URL: https://www.reason.com/0212/co.rb.wilting.shtml

  10. “Would Americans really want billions of pigeons nesting in and befouling huge expanses of forests and hordes of parakeets gobbling up crops?”

    Yeah, and they are called “deer”, “beaver”, and “fisher” (some call them Martens) where I live. Nuisances, all.

  11. “fantasy versions of SD”

  12. Ron Bailey,

    Now you seem to be speculating that current Americans would not put up with the Passenger Pigeon’s ways rather than saying that earlier generations made a conscious decision not to. There’s a difference. Whether they would have and whether they would even have needed to, since the development that played a large role in killing them off may have at least deterred them from developed areas even if they had managed to survive, are questions we’ll never know the answer to.

    I’m not sure I understand your last sentence, but agreed that a wealthier society is more likely to be interested in species preservation, if that’s what you’re saying. As joe points out, this has gotten through to some environmentalists, even if my guess is right that they would primarily only apply that to poorer, “developing” societies. Am I wrong joe?

  13. Laws have unintended consequences that are not easily deduced, and I thought libertarians were well aware of that.

    In other words, it is hard to say whether the law helped, hurt, or did nothing.

    For example, if I found several of those “extinct” critters on my land, and knowing the implications of restrictive environmental law, it might make sense to “dissapear” them–at least if I intended to do anything with the land.

  14. “no one can argue that the Endangered Species Act saved the Ivory-billed Woodpecker”

    So no development has ever been stopped in the backwoods of Arkansas because of species protection?

    Here in Southern California, the “joke” is if you find natcatcher (or similar protected species) on your land, you “eliminate” it so you can develop. Of course, the penalty is high if you get caught, but the risk of getting caught doesn’t seem to be high.

    In other words, strict environmental protections can drive one towards destroying endangered species. Granted, unintended consequences is probably too subtle of a concept for a lefty to grasp, but there you have it.

  15. So no development has ever been stopped in the backwoods of Arkansas because of species protection?

    I dunno. Has it? If so, have the habitats where they found this bird been affected? Burden of proof is on those who favor government control and intervention, so pony up, joe.

    Arkansas ain’t exactly Orange County. I don’t think there’s much demand for development there, as I don’t think there has been much population growth there in quite awhile. According to the Arkansas Secretary of State “the state’s population grew from 1,311,564 in 1900 to 1,909,511 in 1950 and ultimately 2,673,400 in 2000.” That’s, what, an average of just under 14,000 people per year over the last 50 years? Or an average growth of about one person per square mile every three years? Oh yeah, I’m sure the mighty economic engine that is Arkansas was only barely turned aside by the ESA from bulldozing the woodpecker.

    http://www.soskids.arkansas.gov/ar-abstract_population.html

  16. Don:

    That response to the ESA is known as “shoot shovel and shut up.”

    fyodor:

    You’re right–I wasn’t clear–I suppose I’m thinking of 2 cases–(1) would modern people vote to bring back species that would be nuisances?; and (2) assuming that the nuisance species were still around I doubt that modern Americans would choose to exterminate them.

  17. I’m waiting for the wooly mammoth to make a comeback.

    Now that?ll require some wealth!

  18. –(1) would modern people vote to bring back species that would be nuisances?

    This is actually possible whenever a region has an extinction for an animal that survives elsewhere. Reintroduction of wolves, elk, mink, trout and the like have been undertaken. I don’t have the answers, but it would be interesting to know _which_ animals are selected from the regionally extinct list for reintroduction. (nuisance vs. pure cute, etc.) I know it is not quite the same as passenger pigeons, since they exist elsewhere, but it is costly and selective, so apropos of the question. No sitings of wild American Bison yet here in PA.

  19. Ron,

    Shoot, shovel, and shutup is such a popular saying, that it has been applied to a wide range of other issues that can be handled the same way. I’m ashamed to admit, the Three S’s didn’t come to mind when I wrote my responses above, thanks for reminding me.

  20. I’m waiting for the wooly mammoth to make a comeback.

    Japanese scientists want to try cloning a mammoth from frozen remains in Siberia, if they can find a suitable source. That would be cool.

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%2Bjapan+%2Bcloning+%2Bmammoth

  21. Trey,

    Don’t they have wooly mammoth DNA? They had a program on the wooly mammoth they recovered in the ice several years ago. My wife’s aunt, who is from Ecuador, assured me that the mammoth won’t come back–wasn’t part of God’s Plan. I wasn’t rude enough to ask her how she knew God’s Plan.

    Phil,

    Were bison ever in PA? Reminds me of the Indian Chief’s speech that was “reinvented” for the first Earth Day: references to animals the real chief’s tribe would have never encountered where they lived (on the other hand, perhaps 1,000 years ago their ancestors . . .)

  22. Mammoths, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves

    Get you tickets for “Pleistocene Park”!

    That would be very, very cool!!

  23. Were bison ever in PA?

    Apparently, yes, at one time.

    http://www.bisoncentral.com/history/map.asp

    But as you note, it’s been a while. 🙂

  24. I want the Irish Elk to be brought back. Or some of those huge early mammals, like the titanothere or the giant sloths and armadillos.

  25. Those would be nice, Jon, but I’d rather see the peckerwood go extinct.

  26. Trey–

    That was covered in Clifford Simak’s “Mastodonia” (a/k/a Catface) in ’78.

  27. RC Dean,

    To be fair to joe, he wasn’t arguing that the ESA saved the pecker but rather that it was not necessarily impossible to make that connection based purely on Ronald Bailey’s logic.

    BTW, hooray for the Nature Conservancy!!

  28. Irrespective of one’s views on the ESA, this is pretty neat news. Nice to see the Nature Conservancy continuing to put its money where its mouth is by buying habitat lands; I much prefer it to the Sierra Club approach of spending membership funds on lawyers and lobbyists (and more fundraising efforts, of course).

    Maybe there is a stray parakeet or two fluttering around South Carolina . . .

  29. fyodor,

    “a wealthier society is more likely to be interested in species preservation, if that’s what you’re saying.” As joe points out, this has gotten through to some environmentalists, even if my guess is right that they would primarily only apply that to poorer, “developing” societies. Am I wrong joe?”

    The concept of sustainable development is just as applicable to wealthier industrial countries. One example of environmental policies “going easier” on the developing world is Kyoto. Restricting Laos to its current CO2 levels over the short and medium term would shut off growth there, whereas the United States could make the transition without counterproductive restrictions on growth.

    And no, I’m not interested in arguing the merits of Kyoto, just answering fyodor’s question.

    Dan, diving population growth by total land area is misleading. First of all, growth doesn’t happen that way – it’s concentrated in certain areas. Second, greography varies across states, and no growth in the, I don’t know, wooded uplands doesn’t mean that the marshy plateau region hasn’t been overbuilt.

  30. Kind of an aside here, but it does have to do with the environment…

    Has anyone been catching the PBS series “Strange Days on Planet Earth”? I won’t go into a lot of details, but I found it funny that in the very first show, they say how they’ll talk about the environment and man’s impact on it from a balanced point of view. However, I have found that it ain’t balanced for shit. Global warming, invasive species, water inundated with chemicals, etc. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t necessarily argue against a lot of the points made in the show (nor for, for that matter), but I haven’t heard anything really positive on it yet about how our increasing wealth has created the ability to now rigorously test these things, possibly prevent certain negative things, and even reverse damage that may have already been caused.

    They also completely ignore the “tragedy of the commons” effect on fish populations while happily mentioning government intervention solutions – but of course nothing about private property solutions.

    Not saying that I don’t sit through the shows with a lot of interest, but there’s also a lot of muttering under my breath.

  31. I’ll go with the theory that they did go extinct and that these are zombie woodpeckers. We need to make sure that they don’t have a taste for fresh woodpecker brains.

  32. Syd,

    SHOOT ‘EM IN THE HEAD!

  33. I want them to bring back sabertooth cats. They were way cool.

    Someone — and I think it was the major-cool paleontologist Gregory S. Paul — once wrote something about the passenger pigeon. Basically, he said the the vast flocks of poo-dumping, tree-smashing birds were incompatible with a dense human population of the continent — North America literally wasn’t big enough for the both of us. They would have gone sooner or later. And by the way, invading species drive other competing species into extinction all the time. The imperative to preserve all extant species forever is a human-centric desire, based on our economic or — more often — our aesthetic needs.

    I thought the essay was online somewhere, but I can’t find it. Maybe it was in Paul’s book Dinosaurs of the Air: The Evolution and Loss of Flight in Dinosaurs and Birds.

  34. invading species drive other competing species into extinction all the time.

    Stevo, that’s a good point to make to someone who says that humans are somehow evil because we drive other species to extinction, but it doesn’t mean that we have to continue driving other species to extinction.

  35. “invading species drive other competing species into extinction all the time”

    This is true, but misleading. The rate of species extinction occuring today is closer to the five great die offs in earth’s history than to, say, the 10 million years preceding the current era.

    The similarity is superficial, like claiming that a sewer pipe emptying untreated sludge from a city of 100,000 into a river is normal, because coyotes poop on the riverbank sometimes.

  36. would modern people vote to bring back species that would be nuisances?

    Yes. But not in my back yard. Yours, maybe.

  37. A little off topic, but it was 30 years ago today that Newsweek warned us about global cooling and urged some big government solutions.

  38. Hooray for this resilient woodpecker, managing to stay a step ahead of the rapacious sprawl of the Clintons’ Whitewater Development Corp. like that.

    (the preceding post is solely intended as a cheap dig at Joe)

  39. This is true, but misleading. The rate of species extinction occuring today is closer to the five great die offs in earth’s history than to, say, the 10 million years preceding the current era.

    Bullshit. That’s a estimate, not real observed extinctions, which are closer to one per year.

  40. Isn’t the cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker, loosely based on the Ivory-bill?
    … either that or Lyndon LaRouche.
    Stevo Darkly will back me up… or not.

  41. I don’t know where I saw it, but I believe the statement is 98% of all species ever known are now extinct. And the greatest part of this extinction was the large rock that crashed into the earth near Mexico killing among other things the dinosaurs.

    My point is obvious, if 98% of species are already extinct, I’m not sure where Joe would say it’s more rapid today than then.

    BTW- Argee with others that private buying of land to save a species is great. I’m for conservation, just don’t care for a need to make things appear much worse than they are.

  42. It seems that joe, who is surprisingly bright for a Dem-lover, believes everything any enviro-nut says. That rate-of-species-die-off bullshit is no more than a pseudo-scientific urban myth. It’s a total lie promulgated by fanatical green-biologists. It’s truly amazing how many biologists are total freaking prevaricating idiots, and how many reporters believe what they say without double-checking. The worst part of it all is how scientific journals are becoming more and more infected with political bias. It sure would be nice if some people would consider the truth more important than their ideologies.

    (To be fair and honest. I used to believe all that bullshit as well. That’s what happens when you spend too many years at universities listening to ivory-tower liars.)

  43. “That’s a estimate, not real observed extinctions, which are closer to one per year.”

    Wow, what a compelling argument, Don – only direct observation is adequate to draw conclusions in science. So much for evolution, I guess.

    Now Bill’s argument, with it’s irrefutable combination of gratuitious insults and rejection of fancy book larnin’, that THAT’S a compelling argument. “The worst part of it all is how scientific journals are becoming more and more infected with political bias.” Said bias being recognizable, of course, by its failure to publish findings that comport with Bill’s political viewpoint.

  44. SixSigma,

    “My point is obvious, if 98% of species are already extinct, I’m not sure where Joe would say it’s more rapid today than then.”

    Let’s look at this for a second. In 1945, some huge % of all the human beings that ever lived were already dead. Would you accept this as evidence, therefore, that the preceding five years did not see a particularly high rate of mortality?

  45. Just to clarify something I said earlier — just because extinction is a natural phenomenon, I didn’t mean we should be lackadaisical about it. However, we needn’t necessarily freak out over the loss of every species.

    Assuming it’s true the current rate of extinction is unusually high (I’m one of those who believes it is), I think the rate will slow as human beings worldwide get wealthier and wealthier and can afford to worry about species conservation. Eventually the extinction rate will reverse, as we learn to bring extinct species back. “Back to the Pleistocene,” yeah!

    Isn’t the cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker, loosely based on the Ivory-bill?
    … either that or Lyndon LaRouche.

    Stevo Darkly will back me up… or not.

    A distinctive trait shared by both Woody and the ivory-billed woodpecker is the red crest or topknot, so it’s possible. But I think it’s more likely that Woody is based on the much more common pileated woodpecker, which also has the red topknot. In fact, people used to mistake pileated woodpeckers with ivory-bills a lot.

  46. Those extinct species might want to murder us if they came back. After all, when I awoke the dire wolf, six hundred pounds of sin, was standing by my window; all I said was “come on in … don’t murder me, I beg you; please don’t murder me”

  47. The comment:

    “Having made it through to wealthy ecologically-minded 21st century America, the prospects of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s continued survival are pretty good.”

    –is gratuitous wishful thinking at this stage (unless Mr. Bailey has a lot more insight into woodpecker population dynamics than is apparent from his published work). It isn’t even known if there’s a breeding population — and even if there is, it doesn’t mean there’s sufficient genetic diversity for the long haul. So before we pat ourselves and the Nature Conservancy on the back (and kick the ESA in the shins) we might want to gather a bit more objective data.

  48. I’m not an expert in woodpecker population dynamics, so don’t take me too seriously. But the facts that (1) the ivory-billed woodpecker was unofficially given up as extinct about 50 years ago, (2) woodpeckers seem to live up to 10, maybe 12 years tops (as far as I can tell from some quick Googling), and (3) ivory-billed woodpeckers have now been rediscovered … all make me very hopeful that a breeding population does exist. Unless there’s just one single but very damn old individual out there.

    The fact that they are popping up now makes me think their numbers must be increasing compared to 50 years ago — unless we are just getting better at searching for them, which is very possible.

  49. I agree that species preservation is a luxury, but I’m not at all convinced that it is desirable, at least beyond preserving a few specimens for zoos and as potential medical sources.

    The notion of nature as a good worth preserving goes back only to Voltaire in the mid 18th century. Before that, nature was universally regarded as the enemy, and rightly so.

    What people like Sierra Club founder John Muir fail to understand is that the “nature” they set out to preserve and enjoy is not the genuine article. Hiking and other outdoor sports are only safely possible — anywhere in the world — because countless generations of hunters purposely killed off the vast majority of lions, bears, and other creatures dangerous to man. Making the outdoors safe in this way, for men and livestock, is an essential of civilization, and the job needs to be completed, not reversed as the EPA is trying to do. All animals dangerous to humans need to be regarded as public nuisances, and not allowed to exist outside of cages except on leashes.

    The world’s bioshphere needs to be cut back to its proper role as a life support and comfort system for humans. The free market will do so, if governments will just get out of the way and let it.

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