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Silent Alarm: Florida Species on the Brink of Extinction

The threatened and endangered species lists ring the final warning on the survival of several Florida wild creatures—many of which live in our backyards without us even realizing they are there. Will we notice when they are gone?

// by Josue Cruz 

As recently as 2005, a carefree walk along the tributaries and estuaries of Lake Okeechobee may have provided glimpses of a beautiful, iridescent blue-black snake with red stripes running lengthwise down its back and sides. The South Florida Rainbow Snake, a nonvenomous aquatic reptile, known to commonly grow to 60 inches long as an adult, rested in the grasses that line the edges of the waterways. Spending much of its day below the waterline, the serpent, also known as an “eel moccasin,” would emerge to hunt and warm its body in the Florida sun.

However, in recent years, these sightings have become infrequent; herpetologists and conservationists, already cognizant of the declining numbers, grew alarmed. The rainbow snake, typical to Florida, was distributed throughout the Southeast, but it was no longer present in South Carolina, Georgia or Alabama. By 2010, conservationists made an emergency plea to place the snake on both the State of Florida and the federal government endangered species lists, hoping to circumnavigate the lengthy and laborious red-tape and secure immediate funds and security for the fading reptile.

In 2011, the Florida Rainbow was declared extinct. It was completely gone off the face of the Earth, never to return. It was joined that year by another little-known native species, the Florida fairy shrimp, wiped out by loss of habitat due to development just south of Gainesville. The extinction of the two species did help streamline emergency protection designation for future species in peril. It did not, however, stop three different species of butterflies from joining them in oblivion in 2013.

“If an animal makes it onto the endangered species list, we’ve already failed them,” says Arlo Kane, regional private land coordinator for the Northwest Florida sector of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The list Kane refers to is actually comprised of two lists: Florida's Endangered and Threatened Species List and the federal Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants list. Both are ominous, a last-ditch effort to save a species from extinction. Animals included on the federal list are also included in the state list, but the state may have recovery plans in place for species that have yet to make it onto the federal register.

Gopher tortoise; Florida Fish & Wildlife

“There are different designations for animals on the list, the most serious being ‘endangered,’” says Kane. “Species enter the conservancy as a Species of Special Concern and from there they can move to State-designated Threatened and Federally designated Threatened. If the recovery plans do not help, they are designated as ‘endangered.’”

According to Kane, having a species labeled “endangered” is misleading, as the point is not to be on the list at all. “There are many people in this field who want more animals listed, but, in reality, it is a bad thing to be on that list. An animal anywhere near that list is an indicator that something is seriously wrong,” he says.

Quinton White, executive director of the Marine Science Research Institute at Jacksonville University, studies the West Indian Manatee, better known as the Florida Manatee. The mammals have been on the state list since the early 1970s and have been federally protected since the eighties. Manatees are sometimes touted as a state success story, having been recently delisted by the federal government. But the state still recognizes the animals as threatened and will continue to do so for some time. “Manatees have enjoyed a good public presence in Florida. These gentle giants are what we call ‘charismatic megafauna,’ animals that have a popular public profile,” says White.

Florida manatee; Florida Fish & Wildlife

“The last 20 years have seen a significant uptick in the number of Florida Manatees. From a low point of approximately 1,200 in the early 1980s, to over 6,000 today,” says White. The large mammals have been known to travel outside of the state, though that behavior is atypical, as they are creatures of migratory habit within the state boundaries. Sea cows, to which manatees are often referred due to their placid nature, migrate from North Florida to South Florida following water temperatures that dictate their diet of sea grass.

“The manatee is a critical herbivore in our state ecosystem, and disrupting their migration disrupts their survival,” says White. The primary disruptions, according to scientists, are habitat change and destruction. In the case of the manatee, humans have created warm water outfalls, typically near power plants, that falsely elongate the amount of time they spend in northern waters. As water temperatures drop, the manatees find themselves crowded in colder waters without food. Every year during extreme cold spells in Florida, manatees die from stress and starvation.

Kane concurs that the largest threat to animals in the state come in the form of habitat disruption and destruction. “There are a number of different events that have to occur for an animal to become threatened or endangered,” says Kane. “Very few species are on the [endangered] list because of overhunting. Animals that lose food sources and habitats and are not on the public’s radar.”

Florida panther; Florida Fish & Wildlife

While most Floridians are familiar with manatees and beloved creatures like the Florida panther, many smaller animals are in danger of falling off the food chain. “There are small insects that are unknown to the public that will be wiped away because humans have changed the landscape in one way or another,” Kane adds.

Gerard Pinto, associate research scientist at the Marine Science Research Institute housed at Jacksonville University, is the principal investigator on the State of the River Report, an annual compilation of data on the health of the St. Johns River. Pinto points to species in the river ecosystem that have benefited from conservancy efforts, such as the bald eagle and wood storks.

“There are success stories, but there are still animals that are nowhere near safe,” says Pinto. “The gopher tortoise is a key species, because it builds habitats for other animals, such as the indigo snake. In the case of the gopher tortoise, when we destroy its habitat, we are destroying habitats for numerous other animals.”

The gopher tortoise is a burrowing herbivore considered a keystone species, one on which other animals depend—such that if it were to go extinct, the surrounding ecosystem would change dramatically. The gopher tortoise’s burrows not only ensure protection from the sun, elements and predators of the reptiles themselves, but once vacated, provide safe harbor for any of nearly 400 other species of animals that can take up residence in the underground shelter.

Flatwoods salamander

To help save the threatened tortoise and, by extension, a myriad of other animals, the state approved its revised Gopher Tortoise Management Plan in 2012. The 243-page document covers everything from costs of preserving the animal to the expected economic impact should the plan succeed. “These campaigns are about raising awareness, educating and reeducating people. Boards of Directors change, commissioners and executive directors change, mayors change and every time there is a change, we must reengage and re-educate,” says Pinto.

Species management and recovery plans can take years to compile and adjust in order to receive approval. It is one of the reasons why listing an animal can be difficult. It is equally difficult to delist an animal species. The reticulated flatwoods salamanders were listed endangered in 1999 but, unlike the gopher tortoise, salamanders have yet to receive a recovery or management plan. That’s partly due to a lack of knowledge of what is causing their decline in Florida, even as the state has recognized habitat disruption as a key factor. But the lack of a recovery plan is also due to a backlog of work.

Male red-cockaded woodpecker

“There are over 400 species that require recovery or management plans in the Southeast alone,” says Kane. Each document requires thousand of verified and reverified man-hours and data, demanding attention by a number of folks. The inter-agency coordination needed to create a recovery or management plan also slows the process. The silver- grey salamanders, reaching up to five inches in length, may not have that much time left. The Center for Biological Diversity, a multi-state awareness and action non-profit organization, estimates the number of the salamanders as low as 20.

“Awareness is important, but the biologists and the scientists have to act within the cumbersome confines of bureaucracy to save these species,” says Kane.

Over the past decade, the timbre of the conservation conversation has moved from helping animals on the endangered species lists to keeping animals from being placed on the list at all. Across the conservation landscape, forward-looking scientists and conservationists are planning ahead, says Kane. “Species of special concern need us to look into the future and adjust our behavior accordingly now, in order to prevent habitat loss and food-source disruption.”