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Wood Stork Protection Status Downgraded: Audubon of Florida Opposed

Carmen Villaronga - Lopez via Flickr Creative Commons

The Wood Stork protection status has been downgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened.’

Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the decision Thursday.  Federal officials are touting the downgrade as proof the species is rebounding, but South Florida wildlife advocates say the stability of the birds’ population remains in question. 

The decision to downgrade the wood stork’s protection status comes largely from gains that have been made in coastal wetlands in Georgia and South Carolina.  A multi-year review of the birds’ status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finds as many as 9,000 nesting pairs exist today.  In a statement, Sec. Jewell said, ““The down-listing of the wood stork from endangered to threatened demonstrates how the Endangered Species Act can be an effective tool to protect and recover imperiled wildlife from the brink of extinction.”

Manager of the National Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Collier County, Jason Lauritsen opposes the decision saying the birds’ population remains in peril in its historically most significant rookery, which is in the shallow wetlands of South Florida.

“If you look at the last eight years, we’ve had two nesting seasons where wood storks attempted nesting,” said Lauritsen.  “The 2008-2009 season was a good year and they didn’t nest for four years in a row after that.  This is the first year since 2008-2009 that the wood storks have tried to nest.”

Wood storks are an indicator species of the health of the greater Everglades ecosystem and were only known to nest in Florida when they were first placed on the endangered species list in 1984. Habitat loss and lack of proper permitting regulations, along with drought conditions in years past are partially responsible for the birds not nesting according to Lauritsen.

“If we don’t adequately protect what we have on the books right now in terms of shallow wetland functions, then the population here is going to continue to erode and decline,” said Lauritsen.  “Even if you just protect the baseline, if we don’t have any gains, it’s still not a healthy place for wood storks on the long term.”

Lauritsen has additional concerns about the sustainability of habitat sites outside of Florida.  “A lot of the gains that have been made in terms of nesting effort occur in the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina,” said Lauritsen.  “A lot of their foraging occurs on coastal marshes and those coastal marshes are at risk of being impacted by sea level rise.  That is a question that I feel was inadequately addressed at the Department of the Interior’s recommendations for the wood stork.”

The downgraded status won’t result in fewer protections for the birds, but Lauritsen is concerned about the perception the status change will have on the survivability of the species and future recovery plans for the species.