The age of extinctions is upon us


Newspaper articles were upbeat and almost optimistic in reporting that a
rare bird, the ivory-billed woodpecker, thought extinct and unseen since
1944, had been spotted in Arkansas. There was almost a congratulatory sigh
of relief as reporters recounted how the woodpecker was known to be
endangered in the 1920s. The problem was that the old-growth forest which
was its home was being leveled. Its last refuge was thought to be an area
of forest owned by Singer Sewing Machine Co.

Preserving habitat to keep an endangered bird from extinction does nothing
for the bottom line. People pleaded for the bird's life; but Singer sold
the trees to a logging company, it was logged, and no one saw the bird
again until 2004. It appeared as a kind of ghost out of the past, a victim
from the cold case files, forgotten until discovered alive for the moment.

At about the same time, reports appeared that the bluefin tuna, which once
enjoyed spectacular populations, is endangered. It's quite a fish. Some
weigh 1,000 pounds and can bring $50,000 apiece in Tokyo.

There's the problem. It's a favorite in sushi restaurants, and it's being
fished to death. Small fishing towns that have hunted the tuna for 500
years are getting out of the business because there are no fish in their
waters. Modern fishing methods, inadequate regulation, politics and the
sheer size of the fishing community are nudging this magnificent fish
toward extinction. It doesn't seem possible that the great oceans can be
completely emptied of such a prized species of fish, but it is.

John James Audubon, the famous painter of bird life, once described the
ivory-billed woodpecker as a piece of art. In 1813, however, he was
traveling from his hometown of Henderson, Ind. to Louisville, Ky. on the
Ohio River. He reported that he soon saw a huge flock of passenger pigeons
headed his way. The flock was enormous. He said it stretched as far as the
eye could see to the east and west, to the north and south. They flew close
together, and "... the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse."
Audubon's journey was 55 miles and he arrived at sunset. All that time, the
flock flew past, from horizon to horizon at 60 miles an hour in
undiminished numbers. Men and boys rushed to the edge of the Ohio River and
fired into the flock, killing many.

Audubon tried to calculate how many pigeons he had seen. He calculated that
on that day, during the hours he watched, about 1.115 billion birds crossed
the Ohio. In all, the flock crossed for three days. It was but one flock:
there were others. Three billion, three hundred forty-five million birds? I
couldn't find a solid estimation of how many flocks there were.

This pigeon was to the Indians of the Northeast forest as the buffalo was
to the plains. Each year, the pigeons were harvested, smoked and eaten.
Hominy and smoked pigeon stew with brown beans was a staple among the
Seneca. One hundred years later, the pigeons were all gone. They had lived
with the Indians for 10,000 (or tens of thousands) of years, and were
thriving as late as 1813.

The Seneca National Museum at Allegany has one of the last passenger
pigeons. It was a beautiful bird, about the size of a grouse. It was an
almost inexhaustible food supply, an answer to hunger at least for part of
the year. No one could have predicted it would be hunted to extinction.
Ever hear of clay pigeons? They weren't always clay.

OK, let's do the math. Three billion, three hundred forty-five million over
100 years is 33,450,000 per year divided by 52 is 643,269 birds per week
divided by seven is 91,896 birds per day. Divided by 24 hours, that's 3,829
per hour. People killed 3,829 birds 24 hours per day, 365 days a year, for
100 years. If you start with 3.345 billion birds, even disregarding birth
and death rates, the big important factor in their demise is the entrance
of Industrial Era humans. You can challenge the exact numbers because they
are unknown, but you get the point.

Somebody's going to object, saying the numbers are all wrong; that Indians
were guilty of species extinctions too; and that no one really wanted to
kill all the pigeons - it just happened. There are similar accounts by
historian Francis Parkman of buffalo herds of incomprehensible size that
were driven to extinction in a few decades.

And not only birds, but fish and animals have also faced extinction. At
about the time the passenger pigeon disappeared, a fungus arrived from Asia
and over four decades destroyed some 4 billion American chestnut trees.
American chestnuts, once the dominant tree in the Northeast, have hovered
on the edge of extinction ever since.

We live in an age, and in the shadow of an earlier age, of extinction. The
claim that ancient Indians drove the large animals of the Pleistocene Era
to extinction through slaughter is often brought up to tell Indians, "You
did it too." But that theory requires giant mastodons to be unafraid and
completely defenseless against hunters.

Elephants and humans lived together for very long periods with no elephant
extinctions. The megafauna did not survive a period of climate change; and
while Indians certainly did eat some, the evidence that Indians were the
primary actors in their extinction is without adequate merit, mostly done
in an effort to deflect the inescapable conclusion that Industrial Age man
is the murderer of species for economic gain and as collateral damage.

There are many species on the earth which our grandchildren and
great-grandchildren will probably never see in the wild and which may fall
entirely to extinction: the ivory-billed woodpecker, to be sure; the
grizzly bear; and the bluefin tuna. Animals, plants and fish great and
small are disappearing - victims of habitat destruction and the biological
impact of globalization (which commenced in earnest in 1492), and in the
wake of pure human (and corporate) foolishness.

America, which puts the dollar before all else, is a serious player in this
process: but not the only player. Every industrial and developing country
in the world has choices to make, and most are based on priorities that
have little to do with promoting the health of the natural world. Humans
seem confident that we will be standing at the end, victors in the game of
extinction. Then what?

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an associate
professor of American Studies and director of Indigenous Studies at the
State University of New York at Buffalo.