Extirpated, Eradicated, Extinct

Passenger pigeons: From many to none.

We were walking down our pasture loop yesterday, and for some reason, I remembered when we first walked this path in 1999, we often saw flying squirrels that would drive the dog-of-the-day crazy. Not any more. It’s been years since we saw the last one.

And ruffed grouse: We’d hear their low-frequency drumming in the woods almost every time we went down the valley, some times of the year.

Red squirrels: Mountain Boomers, they’re called. I’d see them from the back porch, three or four at a time, chasing each other or the gray squirrels they seem to have a natural loathing for.

Whippoorwills: we heard them without fail every spring for the first ten years we lived here. Nope. None for the past decade.

Fortunately, these species are not gone completely and forever. They are only missing from our local landscape by my observations, and maybe all these kinds of macro-vertebrate animal have come to where you live and you see them regularly. I hope so. But I have little reason to think that’s the case.

It would be hard to tease out exactly why the range of some animals changes from year to year. But looking at global numbers of plant and animals species and populations, the news is not good. And it is not just local range retractions but large-scale ecosystem declines of entire webs of inter-related plants, animals, fungi and microbes taking place with increasing frequency and breadth across all biomes.

Two hundred species go extinct every day, the latest studies project.

Imagine: today, the Eastern Chipmunk. Thursday, the robin. Friday the raven. Saturday, the Monarch Butterflies. Sunday the silver maple.

These are conspicuous, named and familiar creatures we’d miss if they weren’t there. We’d be alarmed if we could actually see extinction, like so many lights across the globe that wink out suddenly. The very last one of its kind dies, and that is the end of the genetic line forever. We can’t see those lights going out, but be assured it is happening. And this Sixth Great Extinction is not new and it is not something we can blame on natural cycles.

The increasing number of humans on the Earth; the voracious appetites we have for stuff and the enormous footprint we leave in our wake of resource consumption; and now the extra heat our carbon era has left in the atmosphere—all of this disturbance of natural checks and balances is rapidly leading to a planet unlike the one experienced by living things, maybe not EVER, but certainly over the 200k years of hominid presence or the 10k years of proto-civilization.

Every living organism on every continent and in every biome is being challenged by the changes Homo sapiens has created. And our arrogance has us thinking we will be just be about our business of doing what is best for our own kin, corporation or country. And in the end, it will be self-absorbed indifference and willful ignorance that will do us in.

Extirpated. Eradicated. Extinct. As species disappear, we are burning the precious books–the last and only existing copies–from the Library of Life. Few of the species whose way of life has brought this about seem bothered by this emergency. Humankind may yet be a self-terminating species, but it will not be because we did not see it coming.