Joe Roman

Author and Fellow, Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, University of Vermont

The Endangered Species Act is a zero-tolerance law: no new extinctions.

With a pish and a whoop and a bang on the bole, Ryan Garrison clawed at the base of a 50-foot flattop pine, where a male bird had been spotted entering a nesting cavity on a wooded lot. He banged his field notebook against the tree. When the bird flew straight into the mesh of an extendable net he had just placed over the hole, Garrison reached in and gently grabbed it.

“What are y’all doing?” a woman yelled. She was standing on her deck, awash in a pink housecoat. Hammond walked over. “You’re not taking my woodpecker, are you?” He told her we were just banding it. We would place it back in a few minutes.

“Good,” she said, “Because I love having it around.”

“People with houses love woodpeckers,” Hammond said when he got back. “To a lot of owners, woodpeckers are Satan.”

Garrison blew on the feathers of the bird’s head, revealing a bright red cockade. He drew some blood, and spat some tobacco. The bird weighed 49 grams. He passed it to Hammond, who put two light green bands separated by a black-and-white one, the colors of Cluster 14, on the right leg. On the left went a dark blue band and an aluminum U.S. Geological Service tag. Wherever this bird flew, observers could now identify it with this tree.

“Hey, it could be worse,” Hammond said of their efforts to protect the woodpecker. “It could be a butterfly.” Butterflies were easy, I thought. I would soon go see a couple of clam species that the governor of Georgia had accused of endangering the lives of his state’s children.

Matteson laughed. “Woodpeckers are pretty, but mussels?” And so it goes.

Once it was banded, I was given the honor of letting the woodpecker go. Shaken up from the nest rattling, the bird-catcher’s net, and the several minutes under the pliers, it was still in my palm, light as a few thousand feathers. For a moment, it eyed me across the taxonomic divide.

The bird embodied the hope, the surprising boldness of the Endangered Species Act. Without it, this male—and many of the red-cockaded woodpeckers in Boiling Spring Lakes (and throughout the South)—would have been lost. It may be underfunded and at times mismanaged, but the Endangered Species Act is an unprecedented attempt to relegate human-caused extinction to the chapters of history we would rather not revisit: slave trade, the Indian Removal Act, the subjection of women, child labor, and segregation. The Endangered Species Act is a zero-tolerance law: no new extinctions. It keeps eyes on the ground with legal backing—the gun may be in the holster most of the time, but it’s available, if necessary, to keep species from disappearing. I discovered in my travels that a law protecting all animals and plants, indeed, all of nature, might be as revolutionary—and as American—as the Declaration of Independence.

As I opened my hand, the bird hesitated, then hopped to a nearby branch, with talons tight on the rough bark. The moment passed. Through the trees, out of sight, he flew.