Species are now being lost at fastest rate in history of Earth

By Michele S. Byers

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made headlines by announcing the removal of 23 species from its endangered list, but this was not good news. These species are not recovering, they are extinct and gone forever.

The announcement was a belated obituary for these creatures which have been missing in action for decades. They include the ivory-billed woodpecker of the southeastern United States, whose last confirmed sighting was in 1944; Hawaii’s Molokai creeper bird, last confirmed in 1963; and Ohio’s Scioto madtom fish, last seen in 1957.

It is painful to learn there is no hope of ever seeing these creatures alive again, but the recent announcement has shined a spotlight on a massive extinction of species taking place right now.

“We are losing species at the fastest rate in the history of the planet, one species every five minutes, or more than 100,000 a year,” says Dr. Emile DeVito, New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s staff biologist. “This is completely unprecedented in the history of Earth.”

Before modern times, the Earth experienced five mass extinctions resulting from natural causes such as volcano eruptions and asteroid impacts. Today, what is being called the sixth mass extinction is due to human activity.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services recently warned that humans are exploiting nature far more rapidly than it can recover, driving extinctions up to 1,000 times faster than the “natural rate,” based on fossil records.

The main causes of extinction are habitat loss and degradation (mostly through deforestation), over-exploitation through unsustainable fishing and hunting, competition from invasive species, climate change, and pollution.

For example, the ivory-billed woodpecker was doomed by the removal of ancient, old-growth forests in the 19th and 20th centuries.

More than one in four species on Earth now faces extinction and without immediate action, the level of extinction is expected to rise to 50% by the end of the century. This enormous loss of biodiversity could lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems and food systems, threatening human survival.

But what is happening in New Jersey? This state we’re in has many imperiled plants and animals, but fortunately many are also found in other states, allowing for the possibility of survival if they disappear in New Jersey.

For instance, New Jersey has recovered several bird species from virtual statewide extinction, including bald eagles, ospreys and peregrine falcons.

These efforts were successful largely because the birds were still abundant elsewhere and their New Jersey habitats were intact. These birds also happened to do well in captivity, making them more easily re-introduced.

But many species are much harder to care for and relocate, especially while their habitat is disappearing.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently lists 16 federally endangered species in New Jersey.

Animals include the bog turtle, piping plover, red knot, roseate tern, Eastern black rail, Indiana bat, northern long-eared bat, dwarf wedgemussel, northeastern tiger beetle and rusty patched bumble bee.

Plants include the small whorled pogonia, swamp pink lily, Knieskern’s beaked-rush, American chaffseed, sensitive joint-vetch and seabeach amaranth.

Their chances of recovery are mixed. Bog turtles are being helped by constructing tunnels beneath roads to help them migrate; swamp pink populations are being protected from deer browsing; and several projects are under way to assist piping plovers, American chaffseed and seabeach amaranth.

Northern long-eared bats have been nearly wiped out by white nose syndrome, while Indiana bats are proving more resistant to the fungal disease. Knieskern’s beaked-rush is turning out not to be quite as rare as once thought.

Despite Herculean efforts to help red knot sandpipers (and the horseshoe crabs whose eggs provide an important food source), populations of these long-distance migrants are continuing to drop precariously.

Eastern black rails are almost gone in New Jersey, as are rusty patched bumble bees. Only a few small populations of small whorled pogonia plants remain, but one plus is that they are located on protected state land.

More New Jersey species could be added to the federal endangered list, qualifying them for special protections, but efforts are hampered by a lack of funding and often due to lack of political will.

“Species are declining so rapidly that the listing process is not keeping up,” says Emile. “We are not even keeping up with collecting the data that would reveal declines. So many species are in trouble that we can’t figure out which ones are in trouble fast enough.”

New Jersey, which keeps its own much longer list of endangered species, has a recovery program.

The Endangered and Nongame Species Program within the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife conducts projects to improve wildlife habitats and recover the rarest of the rare species, but they have only a small staff of experts with limited funding.

What can you do to help endangered species in New Jersey and beyond?

First and foremost, support habitat protection, including the permanent preservation of ecologically important lands.

Here in New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state, we have been able to preserve about 30% of our land mass. We must aim higher and thanks to the state’s permanent, dedicated funding for land preservation we can now reset our goal to 50%.

Biologist and author Edward O. Wilson made a strong case for preserving 50% of the planet – both land and oceans – in his 2016 book, “Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.” He believes this is the best way to prevent a mass extinction of species that could lead to the collapse of humanity.

The Biden administration launched the America the Beautiful initiative, a nationwide effort to conserve, connect and restore 30% of lands and waters by 2030.

One of the initiative’s goals is to enhance wildlife habitat and improve biodiversity to keep species from reaching the point where they are in danger of extinction or are too far gone to save. With New Jersey already at 30%, why not set a 50% by 2030 goal?

Individuals can help by making smart choices. Look for foods and other products that are grown, harvested and produced locally and sustainably; and avoid those that are depleting endangered populations, including endangered and threatened fish and wood from the Amazon basin.

Find out everything you can about species that are in peril. Get involved. Follow and support the work of David Attenborough, Syliva Earle and Jane Goodall, and groups like the Species Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Check in with New Jersey’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program and Natural Heritage Program to find out more about New Jersey’s native species.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org