Passenger pigeons’ legacy lives on

Monday marked the 100th anniversary of bird’s extinction

DENVER – This Labor Day weekend many Coloradans enjoyed the fresh air and wildlife – but there’s one sight they didn’t see.

Monday marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, when the last one – named “Martha” – died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The commemoration was used to urge protection of other species that may face the same fate – and of the Endangered Species Act, which protects them.

“The 100-year anniversary of Martha’s death is a time to renew our nation’s defining values for conservation,” said Ya-Wei “Jake” Li, director of endangered species conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, “and to remind our political leaders that they cannot continue recklessly attacking the ESA.”

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, but a bill that recently passed in the U.S. House could make it more difficult for the public to hold agencies accountable when they fail to comply with the law, according to the bill’s opponents. Supporters say the legislation was introduced in response to an increasing number of plant and animal species qualifying as “endangered” under the current law.

The passenger pigeon once was the most abundant bird in North America, with as many as 5 billion, but the population died after decades of hunting and habitat destruction. Li said hundreds of other bird and animal species across the nation also could disappear if the ESA is not protected.

“There are about 1,500 species in the U.S. that are threatened or endangered with extinction,” he said, “and about 95 percent of these species are threatened by habitat loss, many of the same factors that actually caused the passenger pigeon to go extinct.”

Amphibians, common in Colorado’s rivers and lakes, also are threatened, and Li said some of the reasons are reversible, if people will put in the effort.

“Putting aside disease, there is extensive habitat loss,” he said, “and that’s something that is entirely within our control to prevent.”

He said Defenders of Wildlife, based in Washington, D.C., believes the Endangered Species Act to be “an incredible success” in the past 40 years, protecting more than 2,000 species from extinction.