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There are an estimated 230 Florida panthers, living in 5% of their historic range.

23 Species Declared Extinct in US --Many More on the Brink

We’ve said relatively little about the biodiversity crisis in SEI Reports, though not for any lack of interest. Two news items in September provide a good opportunity to redress the balance. The first was word that the US Fish and Wildlife Service was preparing to delist the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Bachman’s warbler, and 21 other species from the endangered species list, owing to extinction. While the 1973 Endangered Species Act has been crucial in saving over 50 species, including the iconic bald eagle, it came

into force too late for these 23. Crucially, these are not isolated losses. From Hawaii to Maine, bird populations are plummeting. In fact, in North America we’ve lost over three billion birds in the last fifty years, leaving a number of species in critical condition. And the threat extends to mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians, with the Florida panther, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, and the Loggerhead sea turtle all high on the list.


The second story last month came from Marseilles, France, where the International Union for the Conservation of Nature convened. Though the gathering was almost entirely ignored in the American media, the IUCN is a leading biodiversity organization, a “global environment parliament, where governments, NGOs and Indigenous Peoples all have a voice.” Its “Red List” is the world’s most complete survey of the conservation status of plants and animal species. Their meetings concluded with a call for a “nature-based pandemic recovery,” for protection of 80% of the Amazon by 2025, and for a halt to deep-sea mining.


The upshot of both reports was a sharp reminder of the enormity of the biodiversity problem. In fact, as Elizabeth Kolbert and others have argued, the accelerated pace of species extinction worldwide strongly suggests that we are facing the sixth mass extinction in natural history, the first since dinosaurs were wiped out 66 million years ago, along with three-fourths of all other animals and plants. Under average conditions only one out of every million species goes extinct annually, but today the rate is 100 to 1,000 times greater. Non-insect animals have been reduced by 70% in the last fifty years, and insects face their own “apocalypse,” with 40% of their known species facing extinction. “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely,” in the words of the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.


It’s a grim, seemingly overwhelming scene, but there’s nothing inevitable about these losses, and many are working to reverse the trends. The most important step taken internationally to date was the 1992 adoption of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which has been credited with pushing countries “to create biodiversity strategies and to expand their network of protected areas.” The fifteenth meeting of signatory nations will take place virtually starting October 11th with the second half in-person in April of next year in China. Unfortunately, owing to Republican intransigence in the Senate (a two-thirds vote is required for a treaty), the US is the only nation in the world not to sign the accord, and that has seriously limited its effectiveness. However, President Biden has made biodiversity loss a priority, and he has called for the preservation of 30 percent of US land and water by 2030. His announcement on Oct. 8th that he was restoring the Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments is part of that effort. Fifty other countries have already committed to the “30 by 30” goal.


There is also some good news to report locally. UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability published its “Report Card for LA County Ecosystem Health” earlier this year, and they awarded the city a “B” for biodiversity. LA County has managed to increase the lands under government protection or held in trust as conservation areas, and the IoES is optimistic that future plans for corridors and annexation of parcels adjacent to protected lands can offset the pressures on the environment that come with an expanding economy and population growth. 


We’ll have much more to say about biodiversity and habitat preservation in future issues of SEI Reports. Meanwhile, make a note that on October 21st the SEI and DAS will present the fourth in a series of seminars on the environment via zoom, and our topic will be “Addressing the Sixth Mass Extinction in Natural History.” Besides a review of the global picture, we hope to pay close attention to local possibilities. (Watch the site for details. These talks provide credit for professional development via the DAS Professional Development College.)


Further Reading:

“Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace”, NYT, 5/5/21

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert—Review

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