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Feds reviewing plight of more than 100 species as two declared extinct

Tue, Oct 18, 2011

Conservation, Wildlife

BY BRUCE RITCHIE

You won’t probably find a South Florida rainbow snake or a Florida fairy shrimp no matter how hard you look. Those species are gone forever, federal wildlife officials say.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month declared both species to be extinct. That was just one of three actions the federal agency has taken on endangered species in Florida this month — leading to the question of whether a new wave of endangered species actions is on the horizon?

Earlier this month, the agency said it would review 374 freshwater species across the southeast, including 114 in Florida, to determine if they deserve legal protection. The agency also declared that eight freshwater species are being declared threatened or endangered.

Florida has always been a hotbed of endangered species issues — at least compared to the rest of the South. There are panthers, manatees, gopher tortoises, bald eagles (formerly endangered), beach mice, flatwoods salamanders, red-cockaded woodpeckers, Everglades snail kites and scrub jays, just to name a few.

The new actions could signal a wave of endangered species legal disputes a few years down the road. Or maybe not, depending on the outcome of the reviews and whether the agency takes action.

“One of the problems is no one really knows” how well the species are doing, said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is based in Tucson, Arizona, with field offices in 12 states.

The center filed petitions that led to the review of the 374 freshwater species and the other agency actions. Curry said the action was needed to force the federal government to pay attention to the species.

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No one, it seems, was paying much attention to the plight of the South Florida rainbow snake. The iridescent snake was seen only around Fisheating Creek west of Lake Okeechobee and hasn’t been found since 1952 despite intensive searches. Little is known about the snake.

The fairy shrimp was found only in one wetland pool south of Gainesville that was developed 10 years ago. While there are other species of fairy shrimp, the Florida fairy shrimp species lived perhaps only in a 40 square mile area, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The recent federal actions resulted from a court settlement agreement reached in July between the agency and the Center for Biological Diversity. The agreement requires the service to make initial or final decisions on whether to add the plants and animals to the endangered species list by 2018.

“We think all the species we’ve petitioned for deserve endangered species act protection,” Curry said. “That would protect the species and their habitats. That means someone who wants to develop would have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before they could move forward.”

Developers also, she said, may find that they have to work within the rules of “habitat conservation plans,” which could be developed to protect a suite of species across a landscape.

But Fish and Wildlife Service officials don’t see the issue quite the same way. They said the point of the legal settlement was to reduce litigation and focus more on species protection.

“We are not saying just because we’ve agreed to look at these species these are all now endangered species either,” said Janet Mizzi, chief of the endangered species program in the agency’s southeast region office in Miami. “This is just a 90-day finding saying we need to take a look at these.”

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Florida has more threatened and endangered species than surrounding states because it a lot of biodiversity and waterways with rare aquatic species, agency officials said. And there was plenty of development over the years encroaching on wildlife habitat along with non-native invading plants.

There are a plenty of tools associated with the federal Endangered Species Act to help protect species in addition to habitat conservation plans, Mizzi said.

But some landowners and developers may be wary of too much agency involvement in Florida.

Keith Hetrick, general counsel for the Florida Home Builders Association, said he’s concerned that federal actions could result in the “federalizing” of species that have been protected by the state.

He pointed to the gopher tortoise as an example of a species for which the state has stepped up protection in recent years. Developers previously could get permits to bury them in their burrows but now must make efforts to move them before construction.

Hetrick noted that the Fish and Wildlife Service in July placed the tortoise on its species candidate list, which means it is deserving protection as a threatened or endangered species but won’t get it immediately.

Despite having its own listing program and protection efforts, Florida is being dragged down by other states that have not provided as much protection, Hetrick said.

“We don’t need the federal government, really, coming in here and telling the Fish and Wildlife Commission how to do its job on Florida-listed species,” he said.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission. South Florida rainbow snake photo copyrighted by Kenneth Krysko, used with permission)

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