In recent days, the people of Florida learned that protections for one of our most iconic and important birds are under threat. The Wood Stork, as familiar to the great wetland vistas of South Florida as any other animal, has again been thrust into the spotlight. A pro-development lobbying organization, the Florida Homebuilders Association, has successfully petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to revisit this bird’s federally endangered status. The USFWS announced last week that downlisting to Threatened may be warranted, and the agency will spend the next year conducting a “status review” evaluating the bird’s recovery. Make no mistake: mere downlisting is not the homebuilders’ ultimate goal. The legal representation for the Florida Homebuilders Association has gone on the record to call for the stork’s immediate and complete removal from the Endangered Species List, which would pave the way for easier permitting of activities that harm the wetlands upon which these birds depend.
In all status reviews, the USFWS requests data and analysis from the research and conservation communities to inform their evaluation. Currently, Audubon of Florida’s researchers are assembling our data and analysis on Wood Stork breeding success for submission. Since 1958, Audubon has monitored and managed one of the largest active Wood Stork populations in our sanctuary at Corkscrew Swamp, just east of Naples.
When science shows legitimate recovery, Audubon absolutely supports the downlisting and delisting of endangered species. However, we currently have grave concerns based on our field data that the Wood Stork may not yet meet the required criteria. Additionally, increasingly troubling indicators in their historic heartland– the shallow, forested wetlands of the Everglades and South Florida— raise concern for the species’ long-term viability. Recent increases in population numbers are largely attributed to expansion of the Wood Stork’s breeding range to include areas far north of their historic extent. The sustainability of these successes is not yet clear.
Today, water quality, quantity and timing remain issues hindering long-term growth and vitality of Wood Storks and Florida as a whole. “South Florida no longer functions as it should for storks, and recent population gains have resulted from range expansion.” said Julie Wraithmell, Audubon of Florida’s Director of Wildlife Conservation. “Nevertheless, it is unclear how sustainable these new breeding areas will be for storks and with additional threats including contaminants, unprotected wintering areas and loss of critical foraging areas, Audubon will be closely following this evaluation, to ensure it considers the full range of challenges still facing these birds.”
This is not the first time Audubon has taken the lead on Wood Stork protection and rehabilitation. Nearly four years ago, Audubon submitted analysis to the USFWS for use in their five-year review of the species. In response to then-recent Wood Stork nesting successes in the 2006 season, Audubon wrote:
A population increase alone is insufficient grounds for declaring success in
Wood Stork recovery efforts…
We believe that it would be premature to begin a downlisting process for the Wood Stork,
given that the primary factor that appears responsible for the increasing population trend
is meteorological rather than one that can be sustained for the benefit of the Wood Stork.
Downlisting Wood Storks would erode the limited protections their foraging areas now
receive and allow development and wetland conversions to proceed at an accelerated
pace. These losses combined with a drying trend as rainfall amounts regress toward long
term averages would most likely cause another collapse in the stork population.
Sadly, this final prediction has since been borne out with poor breeding seasons in 2007 and 2010. Only time will reveal the fate of the Wood Stork’s protected status on the Endangered Species List. The pro-development lobby is well funded and eager to further erode protections for wetlands and wildlife.
In the coming weeks, Audubon of Florida’s dedicated team of scientists and advocates will be working hard to assemble the data and analysis necessary help decision-makers in their evaluation of this beleaguered bird’s status.
Please check back often for more information on current events and how you can help the Wood Stork.