Wood storks may not be so endangered anymore

12/18/12 Janelle Irwin
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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that the wood stork be upgraded from its status as an endangered species to just threatened. Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announced plans to reclassify the species during a conference call this morning.

“Wood storks in the Southeastern U.S. no longer face imminent danger of extinction and that’s thanks to decades of conservation work across the region.”

Wood storks have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1984. At that time, limited numbers of wood storks lived in parts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, but Florida was the only state where the species bred. Today, Ashe says breeding colonies can be found in Georgia and South Carolina too.

“Seeing a wood stork was a rarity when I was a young boy back in the 1960s and 70s and today when I go to Florida with work or on vacation, it’s almost a rarity when I don’t see a wood stork.”

Through regulation and restoration areas across the Southeastern United States, scientists estimate that there are now as many as 9,000 nesting pairs of the large bird live and breed in the region. Ashe says if a proposal to remove the wood stork from the endangered list is approved, it will give private land owners a little more wiggle room in how they are able to use their land.

“Under that threatened determination we can employ some flexibilities in the law, but what we would do, like in similar cases where we have an easement or we have a conservation agreement with a landowner, we might be able to exempt those activities from the regulatory requirements of the law. So, it would be – we can employ flexibilities and we can use that as a way to incentivize conservation.”

But that doesn’t mean agencies are going to stop protecting the species. Cindy Dohner is the Southeast regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The service treats threatened species similar to endangered species with regard to prohibition on take and modification of habitat and director Ashe indicated that we’re still working on some of the wetland and the habitat issues that we need to deal with to protect this species further. We also will have to still consult with federal agencies.”

The Audubon of Florida disagrees with the proposal to change the endangered status of wood storks. Jason Lauritsen, director of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, said during a phone interview that even though the wood stock population is on the rise in northern parts of the state, that may not be the case in southern Florida.

“Their nesting success in South Florida really has never been more in question. We’ve had a Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary which is our nation’s largest historic nesting colony for decades, we’ve had five out the past six years where there has been no nesting and it’s looking like a similar situation this year.”

During the past two decades, 200,000 acres of wetlands have been restored in Florida. But according to Lauritsen, more than 80% of shallow wetland areas called wet prairies have been lost around the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. However, biologists who studied the breeding population of wood storks conclude the species is on the path to recovery. Dohner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says stakeholders and citizens will now have a chance to consider whether or not the proposal to list the wood stork as threatened should be accepted.

“The proposal will be available in the coming days and we’re going to be soliciting comments from the public and other concerned governmental entities and the tribes, the scientific communities. The public comment period will be open for 60-days and we’re looking forward to hearing from interested citizens, partners and the scientific community on this proposal.”

There isn’t a timeline on accepting the agency’s proposal, but officials say these changes are typically adopted within a year. Biologists are optimistic that the latest findings mean wood storks can eventually be de-listed all together. For that to happen, the species would have to have a five year average of 10,000 nesting pairs.

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