Study ranks Florida among top places where rare wildlife not being protected

Dead and dying trees were found on Big Pine Key in 2006 after Hurricane Wilma. While the hurricane killed some, biologists also believe saltwater intrusion and rising sea levels also played a part.
Dead and dying trees were found on Big Pine Key in 2006 after Hurricane Wilma. While the hurricane killed some, biologists also believe saltwater intrusion and rising sea levels also played a part. Miami Herald Staff

The Florida Keys and parts of the Panhandle rank among the most vulnerable places in the nation for wildlife in danger of disappearing, according to a new study published Monday.

By comparing protected lands to places where most rare and disappearing species live, scientists found the United States is doing a poor job of guarding the country’s biodiversity or even taking adequate steps to track where species live. Most national parks and conservation land are found in the west or areas, like the Everglades, inhospitable to human development. But the highest concentrations of potentially imperiled species — those rare lizards, fish and trees that live in small, specific ranges that can be found no place else— inhabit primitive forests and isolated waters in the Southeast that may face development threats.

National parks — long considered a key to conservation efforts — it turns out, may not be doing what you’d think.

“What we protected is the opposite of the patterns of species we should be most worried about,” said lead author Clinton Jenkins, a visiting professor at Brazil’s Institute for Ecological Research.

Pinpointing the mismatch is important, Jenkins said, because habitat loss is the leading cause of extinction on the planet. Species are now estimated to be going extinct at a yearly rate of between .01 and 1 percent — a massive acceleration due to human activity, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

To produce the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jenkins and scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Duke University and the University of Maryland looked at 3,000 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish and trees to create biodiversity maps. They then compared that to the nation’s portfolio of protected land in the lower 48 states. A substantial amount, about 8 percent, is protected and includes a large swaths in private ownership shielded with conservation easements, the study said. But areas set aside for conservation poorly reflect the needs of rare plants and animals found only in specific places like pine rockland and tropical hammocks in the Florida Keys.

“The U.S. has protected many areas, but it has yet to protect many of the most biologically important parts of the country,” Jenkins said.

The study was edited by E.O. Wilson, a Harvard University entomologist whose work helped define the importance of biodiversity. In a release, Wilson called the findings among the most important in the last decade with implications for better conservation measures and future policy.

National parks were created more than a century ago. But most were forged by a desire to preserve natural wonders like Yosemite’s grand granite cliffs, Jenkins said, and not wildlife. Unique wildlife, meanwhile, flourished in very old and isolated places like the Keys or Appalachia, where complex topography and sheltered watersheds led to fish and plant diversity.

Park boundaries also often fell on land still owned by the government or not useful for anything else. So the eastern United States, already in private ownership, got shorted. South Florida’s three largest conservation areas cover wetlands and Biscayne Bay.

In ranking hotspots, Jenkins and his team considered not just the distribution of the species, but whether any of their range was already protected.

The team targeted nine regions for concern, starting with the Blue Ridge Mountains, Sierra Nevada Mountains, the California Coast and watersheds in Tennessee, Alabama and north Georgia where thick forests and shallow pools hide a menagerie of salamanders and fish living in solitude for eons. The Florida Panhandle and Keys ranked five and six on the list, followed by Oregon’s Klamath Mountains, south-central Texas and the Channel Islands in California.

Jenkins, who researched parts of the Everglades for his doctoral study, said South Florida’s trees won it a spot on the list. Other unique species, like grasses, would probably qualify as well, he said, but not enough data was available for the kind of mapping the team conducted. The same applies to butterflies, he said — while rare, unique and well-studied, the team lacked the right kind of mapping data to include them.

“This emphasizes the plight of endemic species,” coauthor Kyle Van Houtan, a NOAA population ecologist, said. “While they may not all be rhinos, lions and pandas, it is these species that are essential in their ecosystems that compose the American landscape.”

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