Heath hen’s boom could echo again on Martha’s Vineyard

Geneticists say new biotech can bring the heath hen back from extinction, will seek community support for feasibility study.

Dr. Alfred Gross tenderly holds the last surviving heath hen, "Booming Ben," before releasing him after banding in 1931. — Dukes County Intelligencer

The last heath hen on Earth, nicknamed “Booming Ben” by conservationists struggling to save the species, died on Martha’s Vineyard in 1932. He roamed the State Forest, established as a heath hen preserve, for years before he disappeared forever.

Revive & Restore, an offshoot of the San Francisco-based Long Now Foundation that proposes to use new genetic biotechnology to revive extinct species, will seek community support to bring the heath hen back from extinction. They will unveil their plan at a public forum next week at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury.

“We are organizing what should be a pretty extraordinary gathering,” said Revive & Restore cofounder Ryan Phelan in a conversation with The Times. “On Thursday, July 24, we’ll host a major public event at the Ag Hall along with key experts in conservation, de-extinction, and Island ecology to provide background on the heath hen, its ecology, and what would be involved in an Island conservation project of this kind.”

The presentation begins at 6:30 pm and will be followed by a panel discussion that will include Ms. Phelan and Stewart Brand, president of the Long Now Foundation and Whole Earth Catalog, as well as naturalist Matt Pelikan of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), writer Tom Dunlop, and ecologists Josh Donlan and Tom Chase, also of TNC.

“We see this as a great way to involve the community in this discussion,” said Ms. Phelan. “There will also be a special Ag Hall exhibit on the heath hen at 5 pm on Thursday to demonstrate the rich history of the heath hen on the Island and the extraordinary effort Islanders made trying to save the species.”

Ms. Phelan and Mr. Brand will also speak about de-extinction and the heath hen at 5 pm on Wednesday, July 23, at the Chilmark Public Library as part of its summer lecture series.

How and why

“We hope that there will be a good turnout and that the community is willing to think seriously about possibly being the first community to bring a beloved extinct animal back to life,” said Ms. Phelan. “It will require funding and community support. If the Island is interested, the first step would be to complete a feasibility study.”

The study would cost $250,000. Full revival and restoration would require several million dollars, but Ms. Phelan and Mr. Brand are undaunted by the price. “In the same ballpark, the Charles W. Morgan whaling ship cost $8 million to restore, and it won’t live on for eons,” she said. “The heath hen is a famous extinction story in our country and one of the most tragic losses.”

Ms. Phelan says Martha’s Vineyard is the ideal location. “There are many successful reintroductions of species on islands,” she said. “Martha’s Vineyard has demonstrated a dedication to conserving this species and funding from private individuals might be more readily accessible. Martha’s Vineyard could once again be a globally significant pioneer in conservation.”

She is especially enthusiastic because the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest was established as a heath hen preserve. “The heath hen could be an ‘umbrella’ project for restoring historic habitat, leading to a reduction in predators such as skunks, helping Island conservation organizations to work together, and inspiring a generation of school kids with interest in everything from Island history and ecology to cutting-edge biotech.”

The heath hen’s last stand

“One extraordinary aspect of the Heath Hen’s latter days is that of all the bird species decimated by men in North America, it was the first by nearly a hundred and fifty years to have any legislation to protect it,” wrote Maitland A. Edey Sr. in a book that was not published before his death in 1992 but which appeared in a May 1998 issue of “The Dukes County Intelligencer.”

In 1708 New York state passed a bill protecting the bird, which was followed decades later in 1791 by a $2.50 fine for killing heath hens during summer. These measures failed due to widespread poaching and a lack of enforcement. “So it was on the Vineyard where, in the late 1800s, the bird established its final refuge,” Mr. Edey wrote. There, too, legislation failed. In 1842, Tisbury voted to restrict heath hen hunting, a law that was widely ignored. Then, as it became apparent that the heath hen was going extinct, museums and private collectors sent hunters so that they could get a specimen before it vanished.

When 1,600 acres, the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, were set aside for the bird in 1908, only 45 heath hens remained on Earth.

The heath hen became a favorite conservation success story, and the population rebounded to around 2,000 by 1916. “All concerned were greatly encouraged. The birds spread over most of the Island and their survival seemed assured,” wrote Mr. Edey. “Their optimism soon died.” On May 12, 1916, a fire wiped out an entire generation of heath hen eggs and young. Hunting continued. By 1925, there were 25 birds.

That number dropped to three, all male, in 1928. Two were dead by the end of the year. The last bird was seen sporadically for several years. A conservationist caught him in 1931 and placed an aluminum band on his left leg and a copper band on his right for identification, smoothed the bird’s feathers, and released him.

He saw the heath hen again on March 11, 1932 and then never again. Here Mr. Edey ended his story: “Today, somewhere on the Great Plain, two small metal bracelets lie beneath the scrub oak duff.”

The science

George Church, a Harvard geneticist working with Revive & Restore to bring back woolly mammoths and passenger pigeons, explained de-extinction science in a telephone conversation with The Times.

“I’m particularly attracted to the heath hen because it’s basically a slam dunk,” he said. “We can just make a few adjustments to the DNA of the greater prairie chicken by synthesizing heath hen DNA. That would take days, thousands [of dollars], nothing. As an engineering project, birds are easy.”

Dr. Church says the science part of heath hen de-extinction would be straightforward. “I would say half a million dollars. Less, actually, and a couple years,” he said. “I think it’s a totally feasible project. These projects get pushed forward because of the biomedical applications. There’s tremendous value in this so the prices come down and progress increases.”

Jeff Johnson, a geneticist and conservation biologist at the University of Northern Texas who does not work with Revive & Restore and is not involved with Dr. Church’s research spoke with The Times via telephone. His speciality are prairie grouse like the endangered Attwater’s chicken, close relatives of the heath hen.

“From a technological standpoint, I think there’s a lot of promise,” he said. “I’m optimistic.”

He explained what to do after heath hens hatched. “If the habitat doesn’t exist, the species won’t persist,” he said. “Restoring habitat is a really good idea, not just for the heath hen but for a lot of other living species. I don’t think it should stop with Martha’s Vineyard. From a conservation and biotechnology standpoint, Revive & Restore should look at restoring the entire east coast. The heath hen was an important species.”

A distraction

Revive & Restore is not without critics. “A few years ago de-extinction was science fiction,” wrote the editors of Scientific American in an editorial this May. “Now researchers may be able to re-create any number of species once thought to be gone for good. That does not mean that they should. With limited intellectual bandwidth and financial resources, de-extinction threatens to divert attention from the modern biodiversity crisis. Already conservationists face difficult choices about which species and ecosystems to save, since they cannot hope to rescue them all. Should we resurrect the mammoth only to let elephants go under? Of course not.”

A professor of population studies at Stanford University, Paul Ehrlich, agrees. “Spending millions trying to deextinct a few species will not compensate for the thousands of species lost due to human activities,” he wrote in an online article for Yale Environment 360. “If people take this seriously, they will do even less to stop the sixth great mass extinction.”

Revive & Restore community consultant, Susan Johnson Banta of Chilmark, addressed these concerns in a conversation with The Times.

“If this takes X number of dollars, shouldn’t that money be going to protecting our endangered species, affordable housing, health care,” she asked rhetorically. “This is new money coming to the Vineyard. Instead of taking a piece of the current pie, it’ll make a much bigger pie.”

Ms. Banta said the heath hen would also boost off-season tourism. “Even back in the 1800s, the heath hen attracted tourists,” she said. “There is a love-hate relationship with tourists, but it would attract more in the offseason time, especially around the Christmas bird count, so it’d be a boon for the Vineyard.”

“My main goal for the presentation at the Ag Hall on July 24 is that we raise the public awareness and have a true conversation,” she said. “I think this will move forward and we’ll see a heath hen back on the Vineyard.”