The Passenger Pigeon's Everlasting Mark: America's Most Infamous Extinction

We rarely know the exact date and time an entire species goes extinct, but in the case of the passenger pigeon, we do. Martha, the very last of her species, took her final breath at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1st 1914, marking the end of a species that was once the most abundant in North America. This was America's first infamous extinction.

At the time of the Civil War, the passenger pigeon was the most numerous bird in all of North America, probably even the world. There were as many as 5 billion birds flying the skies. They ranged throughout the eastern United States, parts of Montana and Texas and north well into Canada. Imagine looking up into the sky today and not being able to see the sun because a flock of birds was so numerous it blocked the light for hours and hours.

These birds were intimately woven into many aspects of early American life. Passenger pigeons influenced many of our nation's early writers, composers and artists, including John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau and James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper's novel "The Pioneers," which expresses concern over settlers' destruction of natural resources - including the passenger pigeon, is considered by many to be America's first conservation novel. Historians have also documented human connections and use of passenger pigeons dating back for centuries when they were often used for food. Indeed, passenger pigeons were the cheapest form of domestic meat for the nation's rapidly growing urban centers. There are many examples of the passenger pigeon in Native American art and culture.

The bird's numbers seemed so infinite in the 1700s and 1800s that market hunters erected huge nets to harvest hundreds of birds at one time. Far too quickly though, unrestricted hunting, combined with development from a rapidly industrializing America and loss of habitat, took its toll. The passenger pigeon went from billions to zero in a span of less than 50 years. By 1890, there were only a few small flocks still alive in the wild. By 1910, Martha was the only surviving bird. She spent the last four years of her life as a relic of her species, alone in a cage for crowds to marvel at -- the last of a vanished species.

It wasn't until nearly 60 years later that America enacted the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to save plants and animals facing extinction. Had it been enacted 100 years earlier, it likely would have saved the passenger pigeon from the tragic finality of extinction. Certainly, it would have protected the birds from overexploitation and given the needed resources to scientists and wildlife managers to monitor the health of the species and put it on the path to recovery. Under ESA protection, Americans would have seen the warning signs of the passenger pigeon's decline, signaling an all-hands-on-deck moment for our nation save the species from extinction.

But even if the ESA came too late to save Martha's species, today we can look to the statute as a values statement of America's commitment to protecting our nation's imperiled plants and wildlife for future generations. Since the ESA was enacted over 40 years ago, it has proven an incredible success, today protecting over 2,000 foreign and domestic species from extinction.

The ESA is literally the best tool we have today to save imperiled species sliding relentlessly towards extinction. But instead of using the ESA to protect species, some in Congress are trying to dismantle this bedrock conservation law, piece by piece.

This sort of misguided legislative attack on the ESA flies in the face of the majority of Americans who overwhelmingly support the ESA and wildlife conservation. I would argue that American's traditional conservation ethic is as strong as it is precisely because of past tragic examples like the passenger pigeon. The bird's rapid extinction no doubt left a haunting mark and a stain of human-caused extinction that we still feel 100 years later.

It is my hope that this tragic anniversary reminds our political leaders of what values are at stake. Already, 140 organizations have requested the Obama administration acknowledge the centenary with an official proclamation as a reminder of our nation's responsibility to protect wildlife and nature. We have the know-how, the resources and the public support needed to protect the gray wolf, wolverine and countless other imperiled species - all we lack is the political will and Congressional leadership to do so. And without that political will, we are most certainly doomed to watch this sad chapter in conservation history repeat itself again and again.