PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Delisting wood stork from endangered to threatened puts environmental groups at odds

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that the wood stork be downgraded from endangered to threatened, a controversial decision that has Florida environmental group at odds
Mark Ian Cook
South Florida Water Management District
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that the wood stork be downgraded from endangered to threatened. The controversial decision has Florida environmental groups at odds

The wood stork is recovering so well that it's time to move it from “endangered” to “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, which at first appears to be a welcome demotion as it indicates the wading bird took a U-turn on the road to extinction.

That's the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's take on it, a controversial posture that has Florida environmental group at odds

The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit whose focus is on endangered species, supports the move noting the roughly 11,000 nesting pairs are double the lows during the 1980s.

“The act saved the wood stork, and it helped preserve and rebuild vital habitats throughout the Southeast,” said Stephanie Kurose, a senior policy specialist at the center. “That has improved water quality and benefited countless other species who call the area home.”

The group says enough wetlands have been restored in Florida to support an even larger wood stork population.

Not everyone agrees. Other environmental groups that deal with threatened species in the avian community point out the wood stork’s numbers have been notoriously fickle.

Audubon Florida, for one, says it’s too early. The wood stork population may be up from historic lows, but 11,000 nesting pairs in the state is half the amount before the wood stork population declined.

And the days when the Everglades could support mega-colonies of the wading bird are long gone, Audubon says.

“We have grave concerns for the future of the wood stork, especially if it is left without the protections afforded under the Endangered Species Act,” said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida. “We look forward to vetting the findings cited in this proposal and providing additional resources that document the significance and vulnerability of this species in the greater Everglades ecosystem.

Happens every time

A proposal to delist a species from the protections of the Endangered Species Act almost always riles the environmental community. Those for and against use various techniques to convince the public – and fish and wildlife – why their point-of-view is the correct one, including dueling press releases, opposing commercials, and lawsuits.

Those opposed will often question whether it’s too early, challenge fish and wildlife’s assessment of the species' status, and contest whether the proposed post-listing conservation measures will be adequate.

Those in favor of a species being delisted or removed from the ESA’s protections point to its 99 percent success rate in keeping listed species from going extinct, and what they say is the rigorous scientific decision-making that goes into the final decision.

No matter the number of studies, amount of debate, and volume of public input, the difficulty in making the final decision on whether to delist a species is exemplified by none other than the wood stork.

The tall, gangly creature was first listed as federally endangered in 1967. The protections afforded the animal under the ESA were integral in wood stork numbers increasing during the next few decades.

In 1984, and despite objections from many of the same groups protesting today, the federal fish and wildlife agency down-listed the bird to “threatened.”

The decision proved premature. The wood stork’s delicate habitat was decimated by Florida’s ramping-up population explosion, which resulted in new homes, business, and roads that encroached on the Everglades.

The bird was moved back up the list to endangered in 2010.

Manatee calamity

Even worse than the back-and-forth with the wood stock and the ESA is the plight of the Florida manatee.

So many manatees were hit by boats, stricken by red tide, and suffering from habitat destruction that the lumbering creature was elevated to the ESL in 1967. The number of Florida’s official marine mammal totaled only about 1,200 by 1991.

A massive amount of conservation and restoration efforts rallied the manatee, and by 2016 some 6,350 sea cows were counted in and around Florida’s springs.

Manatees were downlisted from endangered to threatened in 2017 and the sea cows have been dying at historic rates each year ever since

Fish and Wildlife decided that was excellent progress and the time had come to delist the manatee. The decision was roundly criticized by dozens of politicians, conservationists, and environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Save the Manatee Club.

Despite the near-unanimous objections, the wildlife agency delisted the manatee to threatened in 2017.

Without the full slate of protections afforded an endangered species the following year 824 manatees were found dead, 128 from natural causes and the rest were either struck by boats, got crushed in flood gates, died from cold stress, didn’t make it after birth, or other reasons.

The next year, 832 manatees were found dead. The yearly total increased to 1,100 in 2021, a record number of manatee deaths since record-keeping began. Last year, manatee deaths totaled 800.

There have been attempts to relist the manatee as endangered, but it has not happened.

Risk of extinction

The ESA defines “endangered” as a species on the brink of extinction, and “threatened” is a creature in peril that will likely qualify as “endangered” in the foreseeable future.

Whether a plant or animal is moving from threatened to endangered, or the other way, is telling.

Moving from no special protections to threatened under the ESA is bad news for a species. Moving from threatened to endangered is worse.

Wood storks inhabit an area mostly located in the southeastern United States, particularly in the states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. They can also be found in parts of Central and South America.

The birds are typically found in wetlands, swamps, marshes, and other shallow water habitats where they feed on fish, amphibians, and other aquatic prey.

The National Wildlife Federation says the wood stork is among the more than one-third of fish and wildlife species in the U.S. that are at risk of extinction in the coming decades.

Linda Krueger, Nature Conservancy’s director of biodiversity and infrastructure policy, says every species lost is a concern for mankind’s future.

“The rapid loss of biodiversity that we are witnessing is about much more than nature,” she said. “The collapse of ecosystems will threaten the wellbeing and livelihoods of everyone on the planet.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.

Sign up for WGCU's monthly environmental newsletter, the Green Flash, today.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.