Just a few weeks ago, I was at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History remembering an unfortunately dark moment in conservation history – exactly a century before, on September 1, 1914, the last known passenger pigeon died in a Cincinnati zoo. You can see “Martha,” as they called her, on display at the museum – stuffed, mounted and behind glass.
And now today, we mark an historic milestone of a far different sort on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. At Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and I were privileged to announce that thanks to concerted conservation efforts by area landowners and other partners, the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel has recovered from the brink of extinction.
So why did the passenger pigeon become extinct, while the equally common fox squirrel now thrives across much of its historic range?
The answer is simple. Unlike the passenger pigeon, the Delmarva fox squirrel was protected and aided in its recovery by the Endangered Species Act.
In fact, the fox squirrel was one of 67 species listed under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1967 and later extended protection by the federal law that succeeded it, the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
The successful recovery of the Delmarva fox squirrel is a testament to the dramatic benefits provided by the ESA. Prior to its protection, the species experienced a dramatic decline as the forests it depended on in the Delmarva Peninsula were cleared for agriculture and development. Its range was reduced by more than 90 percent, and in the mid-1960s there was a very real possibility that it would vanish entirely.
Yet here we are, less than 50 years later, with the Delmarva fox squirrel thriving again. And it wouldn’t have happened without the tools and protections provided by the ESA. Delistings like this one also remind how the Endangered Species Act can catalyze improvmements to natural habitats that promote ecosystem and community resilience in the face of a changing climate, and how it can be an incentive for community investment by improving regulatory predictability and providing certainty for people and businesses.
The ESA has been an unheralded gift to the nation — an expression of our deep desire to conserve biodiversity, the health of the habitat that sustains wildlife and humans alike, and our willingness to work for it. For more than 40 years, the law has been remarkably successful, preventing the extinction of more than 99 percent of the species listed as threatened or endangered since 1973. Its protections have helped the Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners reverse the death spiral of hundreds of species, while recovering dozens more. We can take enormous pride in the recovery of species such as the bald eagle, American alligator, Steller sea lion and other species against astounding odds – just like the Delmarva Fox Squirrel today.
If we want a world with polar bears, condors, and salmon, then we have to make deliberate choices to find a place for them. But as the Delmarva fox squirrel shows, it can be done.
If you could step back in time and prevent the extinction of the passenger pigeon, would you? If you answered yes, you have a historic chance to prevent many other equally senseless tragedies; to change the course of history by taking a stand, here and now in favor of species conservation.
The challenges we face today are daunting, but no more so than those faced by our ancestors a century ago. Like them, we need to have the courage to envision something better and grander than the status quo. Thankfully, we have the Endangered Species Act to help us bring people together across the landscape to make our shared vision of healthy, sustainable ecosystems for both wildlife and people a reality.
Dan Ashe is Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.