Though still depleted in its historic home in the Everglades, the wood stork has expanded its range and numbers in the nearly 30 years since it was declared at risk of extinction.
The rebound has been dramatic enough that federal wildlife managers said Tuesday that they intend to reduce the bird’s endangered species status to the less-severe “threatened” — and even that tag might soon disappear.
“If the trends continue, the wood stork could soon reach its recovery target and no longer require the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” said Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Though Ashe billed the announcement as a “good day for the wood stork and good day for conservation,” the proposal also amounted to a victory for Florida developers and a property-rights advocacy group, who have argued it was long past time to ease regulations protecting the big birds and their wetlands habitat.
“Our ultimate goal is to have the federal government recognize the good news that the wood stork is now a healthy species, and there should be an end to unjustified, unneeded restrictions on the productive use of private property,” said Alan DeSerio, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation office in Stuart, which in 2009 petitioned the service to make the change on behalf of the Florida Homebuilders Association.
Ashe insisted the move would not reduce protections but simply give regulators more “flexibility” in working with landowners on measures such as conservation easements.
Developers have long bristled at the legal and regulatory clout of the wood stork, the only Florida wading bird on the endangered species list. Its presence has played a role in blocking or downsizing large housing projects, in environmental lawsuits against rock-miners in Miami-Dade County, and other cases.
There is no dispute that the stork population has rebounded since hitting a low of about 2,500 nesting pairs, almost all in South and Central Florida, before it was added to the endangered species list in 1984.
Since 2000, nesting has ranged from 7,000 to almost 9,000 nesting pairs — just short of the 10,000 a year that is the target for removing it from the list entirely. Overall, the Fish and Wildlife Service said Florida had 5,000 nesting pairs in 2011 and that the birds also now breed in Georgia and South Carolina, and can be found foraging in North Carolina and Mississippi as well. The storks also have adapted to suburban surroundings, hunting in golf courses, retention ponds and farm fields often laced with pesticides.
Environmentalists argue the bird’s range and habits have been too radically altered to reduce its protected status. The stork has largely abandoned the Everglades, once home to more than 20,000 pairs, as bulldozers and flood-control policies destroyed marshes and changed seasonal wet and dry cycles.
Because of its feeding method, the stork is particularly vulnerable to water conditions, with the birds depending on dry season to concentrate prey in receding pools, making for easier hunting to feed hungry chicks. It hunts in pools no more than 18 inches deep, feeding by feel as it wades, its long beak snapping shut on fish, frogs and other prey.
Wildlife managers point to better management of public lands and more cooperation from private landowners as keys to the wood stork’s recovery. Once the official notice of the proposed change in status is published in the Federal Register, the public will have 60 days to comment. It could take about a year to formally enact a change.
Ashe said that when he was a boy on trips to Florida, wood storks were a rare sight. Now, he said, “it’s almost a rarity when I don’t see a wood stork.”