Recently, my six-year-old son and I were looking at a map (on his placemat) and I pointed out Mauritius. “That’s where the dodo bird lived before it went extinct,” he whispered to me sadly.
Unfortunately, today’s announcement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declaring 23 species extinct means that the dodo bird won’t be the hallmark face of extinction for much longer. Instead, extinctions are speeding up, with the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) predicting that one million species face extinction, many within decades.
Unless we change course—and quickly—extinction will be an everyday occurrence, not something children reference in the hushed, incredulous tone they use when referencing Voldemort.
The species declared extinct—which include 11 birds, 8 freshwater mussels, 2 fish, a bat, and a plant—are gone forever, reminding us that we humans have the power to render species non-existent if we choose to treat nature as disposable. The silver lining is that hopefully this is a reminder that we must act immediately to reverse this crisis. Here are five things that need to happen immediately to help prevent future extinctions and biodiversity loss:
1. Restore Endangered Species Act (ESA) Protections – The Trump Administration weakened species protections under the ESA in some pretty severe and terrible ways. While the Biden Administration is reviewing these changes, it has begun to correct only a small fraction—and is seemingly poised to retain many others. We need the Biden Administration to FULLY and IMMEDIATELY restore the ESA to its former glory. Case in point: most of the species declared extinct yesterday were functionally extinct—or almost so—by the time the ESA passed in 1973. If the law had been in effect, chances are these species wouldn’t have been driven to the brink given the ESA has prevented extinction of 99% of the plants and animals under its care.
2. Fully Fund the ESA – A 2016 study found that Congress provides only about 3.5% of the funding that the Service’s own scientists estimate is needed to recover species. And roughly 1 in 4 species receives less than $10,000 a year toward recovery. We need to change that by passing legislation that increases funding for imperiled species (e.g., H.R. 2026, H.R. 1569, H.R. 3396) and ensuring large funding packages like appropriations bills contain ample funding for FWS. Recently, the Senate passed a reconciliation bill that failed to provide the Service with any funding at all (thankfully, the House version does), an abysmal failure on the part of the Senate and the Administration to fight for endangered species.
3. Implement a Robust, Science-Based Plan for 30x30 – The leading cause of species extinction on land is the conversion of wild lands for agriculture, development, and resource extraction. The ocean faces similar threats and increased pressure from new industries like energy development, aquaculture, and deep-sea mining. Protecting 30% of our lands, waters and ocean areas by 2030 (known as “30x30”) is critical to preventing more news like today’s sad announcement. President Biden committed to 30x30 during his first week in office. Now, his administration needs to move forward swiftly with a robust, science-based and locally-driven plan to implement this essential national project.
4. Protect Against Species Exploitation – Species exploitation—including wildlife trade—is the second greatest driver of terrestrial species loss (and the greatest driver for marine species), in part due to the increasing connectivity of global markets and transportation (e.g., shipping). Species are killed and traded in domestic markets and around the world for food, traditional medicines, handbags, pets and aquariums, and myriad other purposes. What’s more, a lot of these species have the potential to transfer zoonotic viruses, like COVID-19. As one of the world’s top importers of wildlife, the U.S. should lead the way in restricting the number and types of species that enter our borders. It should also lead the world in strengthening the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)—the only treaty dealing with international wildlife trade—to align with the current reality of impending biodiversity collapse.
5. Nominate a Visionary and Effective FWS Director – Nine months into his term, President Biden has yet to nominate a director for the Fish and Wildlife Service. We are at a critical turning point in terms of biodiversity loss, meaning we need a director bolder than anyone we’ve had in the past. Further, the Administration must give this individual authority to make sweeping, innovative changes. As a recent IPCC-IPBES workshop report indicated, we can't solve climate change without addressing biodiversity loss and vice versa—the two are intimately intertwined. Time for the Administration to acknowledge that.
There is no time to waste—we learned that 23 species are lost forever. So many more are on the brink. We must act now. Our children and all future generations are depending on us.