PANAMA CITY, Fla.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Healthy Gulf today filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Trump administration for failing to develop recovery plans for the endangered reticulated and frosted flatwoods salamanders.
Despite the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s promise, in an informal agreement with the Center and Healthy Gulf, to produce recovery plans by June 2019, the Service has yet to develop the legally required plans to save these salamanders from extinction.
“It’s appalling that the Fish and Wildlife Service has dragged its feet on completing recovery plans for these beautiful, highly endangered flatwoods salamanders,” said Jenny Loda, a Center biologist and attorney dedicated to protecting rare amphibians and reptiles. “Without concrete recovery plans, these species won’t survive.”
Reticulated and frosted flatwoods salamanders were historically found throughout the once-extensive longleaf pine forests of the coastal plain in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. But today they’re limited to a handful of small populations in the latter three states. Habitat destruction and poor forest management continue to drive them toward extinction. They are also threated by climate change, which is creating stronger storms in the Gulf of Mexico.
Frosted flatwoods salamander populations suffered significant losses in 2018 when Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, pushed 10 feet of seawater across the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, once considered a stronghold for the species.
“Flatwoods salamanders have continued to decline since their listing more than two decades ago,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Healthy Gulf. “Developing recovery plans will help ensure that we’re doing everything we can to keep these salamanders from vanishing.”
Recovery plans are the main tool for identifying actions necessary to save endangered species from extinction and eventually end the need to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. Research by the Center has found that species with dedicated recovery plans for two or more years are far more likely to be improving than those without.
Timely development and implementation of recovery plans is critical to saving species, as the plans identify on-the-ground, necessary actions to save the species, such as research, habitat restoration and protection. The flatwoods salamanders are threatened by the widespread conversion of longleaf pine forests into industrial tree farms, fire suppression and urban sprawl.
The reticulated flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma bishopi) and frosted flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma cingulatum) are black to chocolate-black salamanders, with light gray lines and specks that form a cross-banded pattern across their backs. Both species occupy longleaf pine-slash pine flatwoods in the lower southeastern coastal plain. The animals spend most of their lives underground, in crayfish burrows, root channels or burrows of their own making. They emerge in the early winter rains to breed in small, isolated seasonal wetlands.
Once prevalent throughout Alabama, Florida and Georgia, the reticulated flatwoods salamander has not been observed in Alabama in approximately 35 years. In 2009 this species was struggling to hang on in 20 small remaining isolated populations, and by 2015 was only known to occur in six populations. The frosted flatwoods salamander was found in 25 tenuous populations in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in 2009, and by 2015 this estimate was reduced to only nine known populations.
More than 80% of their habitat has been destroyed, and the remnants of pine flatwood areas are typically fragmented and degraded. These species continue to be threatened by fire suppression, drought, off-road vehicle use and disease.
The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the flatwoods salamander as a federally threatened species in 1999. As a result of a taxonomic reclassification of the species, in 2008 the Service recognized the flatwoods salamander as two distinct species. In 2009 the agency finalized its determination of endangered status for the reticulated flatwoods salamander, while retaining a threatened status for the frosted flatwoods salamander.
In response to a Center lawsuit, the Service in February 2009 designated 4,453 acres of protected critical habitat for the reticulated flatwoods salamander and 22,970 acres for the frosted flatwoods salamander.
Healthy Gulf is a 25 year old regional nonprofit whose purpose is to collaborate with and serve communities who love the Gulf of Mexico by providing the research, communications, and coalition-building tools needed to reverse the long pattern of over exploitation of the Gulf’s natural resources.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.