It’s hard to imagine now, but at one time massive flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the skies in North America. One flock could take hours to cross a single spot.

Those stories were common in the mid-19th century. Commercial hunting, however, effectively wiped out the birds by the turn of the 20th century, and the last of the species died – in a zoo – in 1914. That would have been unthinkable 50 years earlier, but it happened.

You know the other stories. The buffalo was nearly wiped out by hunting but has recovered, some. The bald eagle was nearly wiped out in the Lower 48 by the heedless use of pesticides but has recovered well. In Missouri, wolves, bears, elk, mountain lions, otters and others were wiped out.

And those are just what are sometimes called “charismatic megafauna” – think tigers, panda and polar bears – that grab the attention of humans and are handy for environmental fundraising. They are not the lesser known plants, fungi, bugs and other species that also have been decimated or exterminated.

Some critters have come back. The state of Missouri brought back otters, and now there are enough to support a trapping season. Elk are on the same trajectory. Bears from Arkansas and mountain lions presumably from points west of here have moved in. Bear hunting seems to be a matter of time. (My view is if you shoot it, you eat it or give it to someone else. I’ve had bear. It ain’t that great.)

Not all would count this as progress, but I would, including the hunting part. Respect the animals for what they are, manage the resource, and aim for a balanced, diverse and stable ecosystem. That means giving some attention to noncharismatic nonmegafauna as well. It all matters.

But sheer depravity exists too. The state has about 170 elk in southeast Missouri after a reintroduction program earlier this decade. Obviously it’s not yet legal to hunt them, but there’s been some poaching.

A particularly horrible incident was carried out earlier this month. Two elk were killed, and the person or people who did it didn’t even bother to take the antlers or meat. The animals were left to rot. They were apparently killed, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, “for fun or out of spite.”

“Out of spite” is a particularly chilling phrase. How can it be that some people cannot respect the idea that there really are things they’re not meant to touch? Who have to deprive others of beauty or progress?

Our State Legislature has chosen in recent years not to impose tougher penalties for poaching, although the sponsor of one bill to do so says the fines in some cases are less than a legal license. Here’s the deal: People respond to incentives. Policies do matter. Leaders are obligated to lead. But there’s no legislative solution for cruelty.

There’s some thought that the poaching bill has a better chance this year. We’ll see.

I had a college buddy who liked to wear a T-shirt that said. “Nuke the whales.” At the time, we thought it was a joke.

– Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s editor. Reach him at 816-350-6365 or jeff.fox@examiner.net.