The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit Thursday in Washington, D.C., against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service charging it has failed to protect four Florida animals — including one in the Keys — under the Endangered Species Act.
Tierra Curry, a staff biologist with the center, said her group petitioned for protection for the Florida Keys mole skink, Suwannee moccasinshell, McGillivray’s seaside sparrow and Panama City crayfish in 2009, but the wildlife service has failed to act on the petition.
Curry said the mole skink — a rare, colorful lizard found mainly along sandy shorelines in the Lower Keys and Dry Tortugas — and the sparrow, which lives in tidal marshes from North Carolina to northeast Florida — are in danger of extinction from rising sea levels stemming from climate change. Some scientists have predicted that sea levels could rise three to six feet in Florida during this century, and that South Florida, in particular, would see the worst of those effects.
The moccasinshell, a small freshwater mussel found only in Florida’s Suwannee River, and the crayfish — known only to the woods and ponds of a small area in Bay County — could become victims of drought, pollution and development, Curry said.
Of the four, she said, the Suwannee moccasinshell is in the most peril.
“It was believed to be extinct, but re-found in 2012,” Curry said. “It needs to be protected right away. It’s one of the most endangered species in the world. There are only five known to science.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
The center, based in Portland, Ore., sued the service in 2011 over a backlog of 757 species proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Under a settlement agreement between the two, the center can push forward 10 species per year for a decision.
“It’s like a triage situation,” Curry said. “We have to figure out who needs to get on the endangered species list the fastest so they don’t have to wait 20 years for protection. It doesn’t force them to put the species on the endangered list; it just forces them to make the finding.”
Two South Florida butterflies — the Zestos skipper and rockland grass skipper — recently were pronounced extinct by the wildlife service. Both disappeared before they made it to the Endangered Species List.
“It’s a preventable tragedy,” Curry said. “We think there are a lot of species that could disappear before they are protected.”
Besides the four Florida species, six others from around the country were included in Thursday’s lawsuit.