Environmental group could sue to protect two Florida species from the dangers of sea level rise
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02/22/13 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Friday | Listen to this entire show:

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An environmental group hopes the threat of a lawsuit could help to protect two Florida species that face threats because of rising sea level.

Wednesday the Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not adequately protecting a bird known as the MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow and a reptile called the Florida Keys mole skink.

Jaclyn Lopez is a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s office in St. Petersburg.

note: this is a longer version of the interview than was aired

"The sparrow is a coastal species. It's actually a sub-population with about 5 or 6 other sub-specie cousins, but it's the southernmost and it historically extended down into Volusia county and in more recent years has been experiencing decline due to habitat impact. Habitat impacts such as sedimentation, fragmentation, development along our coastlines. It extends all the way up to North Carolina but it's mostly a Florida species with the majority of the breeding and the nesting going on around Duvall and Nassau counties."

"The mole skink, which has an unattractive name but is actually quite beautiful. It's about 5 inches long and it's a slender...slinks are a lizard-like species except they're sort of glassier looking, they have smoother scales and the Florida Keys mole skink is beautifully colored pink and white and it's a coastal species as well so it nests in our loose sands down in the Keys where it gets it's name. It's a species that's not very well understood but the best estimates are that it's experiencing about a 10 to 30 percent decline more recently. And again the threats are similar to the sparrow in terms of historic impacts to habitat with coastal development."

And coastal species like that could be threatened by sea level rise. Tell us about what causes sea level rise and how much of an impact you might expect in Florida?

"Sea level rise is primarily driven by climate change. What the means for sea level rise is we have thermal expansion due to warming waters but we also have melting sea and land ice which is contributing to the overall global mean sea level rise. We've been able to trace this historically so over the last hundred years it's been about 7 to 8 inches of global sea level rise. I keep saying global because it's not equal along all coastlines. In Florida, northern Florida is actually on track or above the global estimates for the next hundred years. So by the end of the century our conservative estimates are about 2 feet of sea level rise. The estimates that track what we're currently on on our greenhouse gas emissions because you can track the two sort of side by side indicate that we could be up to 6 feet. This has significant impact for not just our coastal species but, of course, coastal Floridians. In Florida no one's really more than 75 miles away from our coasts so this has profound impacts for our entire state."

What do you think that sea level rise, whether it's a couple of feet or more, how could it affect the skink and the sparrow?

"The impact for coastal species is particularly acute with sea level rise because they face a phenomena known as coastal squeeze which means that they're existing habitat which is totally dependent along coastal ecosystems, for the sparrow it's brackish marshes, for the skink it's our sandy shorelines, and with the rising sea levels on the one side and coastal development on the other it's habitat and where it can escape to as far as suitable alternative habitat is quickly diminishing."

The Endangered Species Act is supposed to protect species that are threatened or endangered. What types of protection should these organisms, the skink and the sparrow, be getting from the Endangered Species Act?

"The lawsuit that we've launched is intended to provide Endangered Species Act protection. The skink is already recognized in Florida as a species of special concern. The sparrow doesn't really share that designation but under the federal Endangered Species Act the protections include everything from direct harm, so collecting the species or killing it, those types of activities where it's a very physical tangible immediate impact, to impact the habitat and the designation of critical habitat which attatches another series of protections which insures that the activities that we undertake don't impact the quality of that habitat so the species at least has a place where it can continue to go on with it's basic life functions. Things like breeding, eating, nesting."

You're suing the US Fish and Wildlife Service, what do you hope will be the outcome?

"We're hoping that the Service will move forward with a listing designation for the species. Species are not guaranteed any of the protections of the Act until they have formal protections or listing so we're asking the service to move forward with a final decision on these species. We had initially petitioned the agency to list these species under the act a few years ago and the act because of the purpose of which it's charged to deal with is the imminent extinction of species, Congress also attatched to the act mandatory deadlines to push through these listings when the science indicates that that's what needs to happen. And in this case the agency has made an initial determination that listing may be warranted and now we're asking it to make that final step and give it the proposed and final listing rules."

Finally, reptiles and amphibians in particular are being affected quite a lot, for example the skink. What makes amphibians so vulnerable?

"The southeast is blessed with a remarkable array of biodiversity and in particular reptiles and amphibians but also crawfish and the less sexy species like mussels. We've seen a dramatic decline in the Southeast in particular. Historically that has been due to the way that we treat our fresh water resources between impoundments and pollution loading and strains on our groundwater and those factors combined have diminished the quality and quantity of the flow that we have in our fresh water. For reptiles and amphibians in particular that threat is multiplied by pollutants in our environment such as pesticides. They're particularly sensitive to these things because they're skin is somewhat permeable and they're a lot more vulnerable to those threats so all of these historic impacts from our human built environment coupled now with the threats of climate change, in particular in Florida, sea level rise is really pushing the species to the brink."



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