At what point does “extinct” really mean extinct?

At what point does a species go from endangered to extinct? Is it when the last individual dies? Or is it when the last individual of one gender dies leaving a lone survivor? This may not seem to be a gun related topic; but, here in California, it is. The State’s attempts to “save the condor” affect hunters in particular and gun owners in general. Laws on lead ammunition will ultimately determine the ammo choices, and costs, that even non-hunters will have when they seek ammunition for self-defense or other non-hunting applications.

The popular view of extinction is the latter of the two listed above. When the last male or the last female dies, breeding another generation becomes impossible. Or does it? Cloning might offer hope, some would argue. But recent studies suggest that it was all over for a particular species long before the last breeding pair was parted. This study of Woolly Mammoth populations shows how a species can pass the point of no return even while there may be hundreds of individuals still alive. (Here’s something of a Cliff Notes version from the NY Times.) The study documents the dramatic loss of genetic diversity in the last known mammoth population.

The last mammoths of Wrangel Island died out about 4000 years ago. The DNA of one individual that died about 300 years before that point was compared to the DNA of a mammoth from Siberia that lived 45,000 year ago. The genetic diversity was about 20% lower in the younger sample and showed signs of multiple, deleterious mutations that would have hindered the ability of the Wrangel Island population to survive changes to their environment. The estimate of the island’s mammoth population 4300 years ago is 300 breeding individuals. (There may have been more individuals present on the island, but only 300 or so were actively breeding.) This proved to be too small a population to sustain the species. Harmful mutations built up and natural selection couldn’t weed them out of so small a population.

In 1987, when the last wild California Condor was captured at the start of the State’s breeding program, there were 27 individuals left in the world. Out of that group, only 13 were breeding individuals. All California Condors alive today are descendants of those original 13. Making matters worse, there’s a very good possibility that all 13 were closely related. If that’s the case, then the entire population of California Condors in the world today is descended from less than 13 birds.

Current law regarding endangered species focuses on simplistic census numbers; how many animals exist. 300 large animals on a 2900 square mile island would seem, by this measure, to be a healthy population. It wasn’t. But laws such as the Endangered Species Act were written before science could accurately describe a species’ genome. It assumes that having more individuals in a population is automatically good. But, if all of these individuals are closely related, then even a large population isn’t healthy and isn’t sustainable. Merely counting heads won’t save a species from extinction.

The question to be asked about new or existing laws here in California isn’t “Will this save the condors?”, but rather “Is saving the condors even possible anymore?”. Arguably, the answer to that question is “no”. Gymnogyps californianus is already extinct when one considers their genome. But all of this goes further than condors. Recent studies have shown that some “endangered” wolf species aren’t wolves; they’re coyote hybrids. Under current law, this means that they’re not endangered at all.

It’s time for the law to catch up to science. More than nose counting must be done to determine which species need protection, which do not, and which are beyond hope; and thus, where we should spend our finite government resources. Attempting to save an already extinct species or a hybrid population isn’t a good way to spend the People’s money. Worse yet, we hurt species that can be preserved with these quixotic attempts to “save” extinct species and hybrid populations.