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Going, Going, Gone PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jim W. Harper, BT Contributor   
October 2014

When it comes to endangered species, we’re tops

SPix_GoingGreen_10-14anta’s saddest list came early this year.

Nine species native to Miami would join the U.S. Endangered Species Act in September and October. Within a few weeks and in one section of Florida, federally listed species increased from 130 to 139, or nearly seven percent. The total U.S. domestic list stands at more than 1500 species.

The nine newly added species depend on two of the world’s most threatened ecosystems: coral reefs and pine rocklands. The federal listing of five Caribbean corals, all found in Florida, was part of a larger listing that includes 15 Pacific corals. All 20 corals will be added officially on October 10 at the level of “threatened,” meaning they are likely to become endangered soon. It represents the most complex and largest marine listing ever.

The four species from pine rocklands qualify as “endangered,” meaning they have high potential to become extinct within a short time. The two imperiled flowers and two butterfly species, respectively, are the Carter’s small-flowered flax, Florida brickell-bush, Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak, and Florida leafwing.

“These flowers and butterflies have been waiting for protection for decades,” says Jacki Lopez, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity that petitioned for the nine species to become listed “Their perilous status serves as a reminder of what South Florida once was and what it could still be if we take a stand today against further irresponsible habitat destruction and climate change.” The two butterflies first became candidates in 1984.

The five listed corals are rough cactus, pillar, and three star corals from the Orbicella genus.

The effect of listings can vary, and it doesn’t stop development already under way. Major questions swirl around the proposal by Ram Realty Services to construct a Walmart and other buildings on pine rocklands property it purchased in July from the University of Miami (see “The Butterfly Effect,” September 2014).

An endangered listing requires designation of critical habitat, and the Federal Register states that each butterfly species has approximately 11,000 acres of critical habitat in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Most viable habitat exists within Everglades National Park and on Big Pine Key; outside of the national park, only two percent of Florida’s pine rocklands habitat remains.

The large number of listed and candidate species calls into question the efficacy of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Created in 1973 to save individual species, its impact on private land and unprotected areas can be limited. Many listed species lack mandated recovery plans, including the first two corals ever listed in 2006, the staghorn and elkhorn.

Major success stories of the act include rebounds of the bald eagle and the American alligator. The South Florida rainbow snake never became listed because it vanished decades before its 2010 petition, although the Center for Biological Diversity disputes the extinction.

A report by the Washington Post in 2008 accused the Bush administration of blocking the advancement of candidate species, which had been growing steadily under each successive president. Under President Clinton, 522 species were listed, as compared to 62 under President George W. Bush. The annual rate under President Obama has risen slightly.

The pace of endangerment is so severe that it has spawned the naming of a new era: the Anthropocene, meaning the Age of Man. The 2014 book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert explores species on the brink worldwide. The title refers to the previous five mass extinctions known only from the geological record.

Climate change is pushing many species into new territory and trapping species unable to relocate. Corals live as sessile (immobile) colonies in one spot, and a single colony can live for hundreds of years. They are very sensitive to water temperature and quality.

Butterflies have very short life spans and very specific host plants. Both Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak and Florida leafwing butterfly depend on pineland croton, found only in pine rocklands. The Florida leafwing (Anaea troglodyta floridalis) likely exists only within Everglades National Park.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission listed 133 threatened species as of 2013, excluding plants, of which 61 were not listed federally. It listed pillar coral but not the other four corals and two butterflies that became federally listed. The state regulates more than 500 plants and claims 55 plant taxa or units contained within the U.S Endangered Species Act.

What will be the next species to go? Other local butterflies, including the Miami blue, face dire odds, due to the loss of native habitat. Species with small populations and tiny ranges, such as Key deer, are especially vulnerable.

Extinction in the ocean is almost unheard of, and scientists have confirmed only 19 ocean-related extinctions within the past 500 years. The most recent marine extinction in Florida was the Caribbean monk seal, around 1950. Changes in the ocean today, including acidification and overfishing, are pushing entire ecosystems into the danger zone.

 

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