The Yale maps offer surprisingly hopeful numbers, but what may seem even more surprising is what’s going on in some of the reddest places in the country, including Tennessee. People here are getting the message about what’s happening to the natural world — to the oceans, to the polar ice caps, to wildlife — and they want to do something about it. Our elected officials continue to promulgate lies that promote fossil fuels, but they no longer speak for most of us.
And even the red-state leaders can sometimes be brought around by popular support for conservation efforts. In January, Tennessee officials partnered with The Nature Conservancy to protect 43,000 acres of wildlife habitat — the largest conservation agreement in state history. Last year in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, which allocates $400 million to address and prevent habitat fragmentation. “Astoundingly,” the writer Megan Mayhew Bergman noted in The Guardian, “the state senate passed the act — which defines the boundaries of the corridor — with a vote of 40-0, and the house with a vote of 115-0.”
Think about that for a minute: A conservation bill that passed both houses of the state legislature without a single no vote. In Florida.
No wonder, then, that evidence of a mythical bird living in Louisiana could engender such hope. If we can come together to save the Florida panther, why not the ivory-billed woodpecker, too?
Not every avid birder welcomed the news of this possibility, though, and with good reason: If they do exist, the very last thing a vanishingly small population of birds needs is yet another influx of habitat-trampling novelty seekers. “Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are extinct,” tweeted the artist and birder Walter Kitundu. “And even if they weren’t I would still prefer you believed they were and left them the F alone.”
Even a reasonable, carefully documented possibility is still just a possibility, and the paper written by the National Aviary researchers has yet to be peer-reviewed. There is certainly no guarantee that a family of ivory-billed woodpeckers is living in the remnants of hardwood bottomland still left in Louisiana.
But this particular possibility serves as a reminder that what we don’t know about the natural world is still incalculably more than what we do. Many things are still possible, good and bad, and some of those things might surprise us. Some of them might even lift us from our deepening despair.