The biodiversity crisis is one of the greatest challenges of our age, with thousands of species at risk of extinction today, according to the IUCN. Human-caused environmental destruction, overhunting and fishing, and climate change have all had incredible impacts on the survivability of species, with at least 14 animal species declared extinct in the 21st century alone.
But human efforts have also been instrumental in saving species from the brink of extinction. In a recent paper released this month, scientists estimated the number of bird and mammal species saved from extinction due to conservation efforts. In total, they found that conservation action prevented 21–32 bird and 7–16 mammal extinctions since 1993 – without which extinction rates would be an estimated 3 to 4 percent greater.
As we enter a new stage in preventing the next wave of mass extinction, the stories of these three North American animals can help us inspire future conservation efforts to bring species back from the brink.
The Black-Footed Ferret is the only ferret species native to North America, and just over 40 years ago, it was thought to be completely extinct. Once common across the vast prairies of the pre-colonial Western U.S and Canada, the Black-Footed Ferret entered a decline in the early 1900s, as large-scale poisoning of prairie dog populations – seen as a pest for farmers –destroyed Black-Footed Ferret populations, which depended on prairie dogs for food and on prairie dog burrows as their primary habitat. Around the same time, a strain of bubonic plague deadly to both ferrets and prairie dogs arrived in the Western U.S. from Asia, serving as the final nail in the coffin for a species already on the decline.
By the 1970s, the entire species was thought extinct through a combination of poisoning, plague, and habitat loss. But scientists were in luck: in 1981, a small population of Black-Footed Ferrets was discovered in North Dakota. By 1987, scientists realized that this last population was at risk of dying out itself, and captured 18 individual ferrets to begin the last chance captive breeding program.
Today, 300 individual ferrets can be found across the Western U.S, Mexico, and Canada, all descended from the original 18 ferrets captured in 1987. To protect the ferrets from their current greatest threat – plague – scientists today vaccinated every species released into the wild, while actively monitoring populations for newborn ferrets that can be captured, vaccinated, and re-released themselves. The ferret’s resurgence also has a lot to thank for the efforts of Native Americans. Today, six reservations now host populations of Black-Footed Ferrets, including the Lower Brule and Cheyenne River Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Navajo.
While the species’ future is still fragile – especially given the ongoing threat of Sylvatic plague, which scientists still do not have a means of protecting entire populations from beyond the expensive process of re-capture and vaccination – the goal of 3000 individuals in the wild now is well within reach.
The largest bird in North America – and one of the largest flying birds in the world – the California Condor ruled the skies above the United States since well before the arrival of humans to the Americas. Condor Hunting following European colonization eliminated the Condor from much of its Eastern and Midwestern range, pushing the species to endangered status by the mid-1900s.
Despite condor hunting being declared illegal since the early 1900s, a combination of illegal hunting and lead poisoning – from feeding on animals killed by lead bullets from hunters — brought the species to only 23 individuals by 1982. Like the Black-Footed Ferret, scientists quickly realized that a captive breeding program was the only hope for the species’ future. This wasn’t without controversy: at the time, some conservationists believed that artificially making the species extinct in the wild was against the spirit of conservation. Nevertheless, in 1987 all remaining wild condors and several unhatched eggs were brought to Zoos across the country, where work to save the species began.
The breeding program quickly proved to be a success: in 1988, the first Condor chick was hatched, and by 1992 – not five years after the breeding program began – the first condors were reintroduced into the wild. Today, over 400 condors soar above the West Coast, and the ongoing breeding program recently celebrated the hatching of its 1000th egg in 2019 from a wild condor in Utah’s Zion National Park.
The condor’s population is still too small to confidently remove it from endangered lists, but a combination of continued captive breeding and conservation measures – such as banning lead-based bullets for hunting, as California has already done – promises a bright future for a species once thought lost to history.
The Vaquita is a unique case: a species in which human efforts have undoubtedly prevented its extinction to date, but whose future still remains incredibly precarious despite conservation efforts. The smallest purpose in the world, the Vaquita – or “little cow”, in Spanish – lives exclusively in the Gulf of California, off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. The species was not in fact known to science until 1958, by which point it was likely already endangered due to gillnet fishing: a fishing method using large nets meant to catch shrimp and fish, but which the small porpoises were easily entangled in as well.
In 1997, just over 500 individuals remained, and gillnet fishing promised to end the species within years if continued. Conservation methods – especially the banning of gillnets in the area by the Mexican government – brought the species back from the brink, giving the Vaquita time to rebuild its population free from the risk of human fishing activities.
Yet if the Vaquita was an early success for saving a species, it now remains a cautionary tale for conservation. While efforts in the 2000s undoubtedly saved the species from immediate extinction, the rate of decline was never entirely eliminated, in part due to continued illegal gillnet fishing (likely influenced by Mexican organized crime, which profited from illegally selling a fish commonly caught in gillnets, known as totoaba, to markets in Asia). In 2016, conservation rules set by the previous Mexican government were allowed to expire under the current president, who has yet to commit to new conservation efforts that could save the species.
By 2016, only 30 individual Vaquitas live in the wild, and the population is once again at the brink. Even an attempt at relocation to safer waters in California was indefinably postponed after an individual died from capture-induced stress during the process.
Today, the Vaquita – like the California Condor or Black-Footed Ferret – might still have a chance to bounce back should new conservation efforts, and especially renewed attention by the Mexican government, take effect. While this offers a faint glimmer of hope, we might now be witnessing the final decline of a species we once brought back from the brink, only 20 years ago.
article by Devin Windelspecht
- Thumbnail: USFWS