Florida has 1,036 animals scientists think could vanish. Will this plan save them?

After they nearly disappeared, wildlife managers brought in Texas cougars to revive the Florida panther. They now number between 120 to 230. Wildlife experts say trying to save animals before numbers get so low is easier and cheaper than the drastic measures often called for when they reach the brink of extinction.
After they nearly disappeared, wildlife managers brought in Texas cougars to revive the Florida panther. They now number between 120 to 230. Wildlife experts say trying to save animals before numbers get so low is easier and cheaper than the drastic measures often called for when they reach the brink of extinction. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A third of the nation’s wildlife, from common birds and butterflies to more uncommon salamanders and frogs, are at risk of vanishing as habitats shrink and threats from climate change, invasive species, disease and pollution expand exponentially, according to a new report by three of the nation’s oldest and largest conservation groups.

The findings released Thursday paint a dismal picture for a country that has already lost 150 species. But there is hope, the study concludes: protecting animals before they become endangered.

“What has sort of snuck up on us...is just the pervasive change affecting wildlife and plant species throughout our country,” said George Mason University biologist and United Nations senior fellow Thomas Lovejoy. “The good news is that nothing’s over until it’s over.”

mamma and baby manatee
West Indian manatees, pictured here in Blue Springs State Park, are among Florida’s more high profile endangered species federal wildlife managers spend millions to conserve. In 2016, the last year data is available, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spent $5.4 million. Gary Bogdon Orlando Sentinel

The report makes the case for a bill now making its way through Congress to dramatically increase money for state programs that have identified species at risk but not yet federally protected, from about $60 million a year to $1.3 billion. The money would come from gas and mineral development on public lands and provide, for the first time, a dedicated source similar to the steady flow game species now get from hunting licenses and taxes on guns and other sporting goods.

“That’s a very smart thing to do,” said Duke University conservation ecologist Stuart Pimm, who was not part of the report. “There are smart things we can do, and preemptive things, and by and large preemptive actions are more effective.”

In Florida, wildlife biologists have identified 1,036 species in danger of disappearing, including 90 that are federally listed. In the past, the state received about $2.2 million each year for its conservation plan, said Kevin Kemp, a FWC biologist coordinating the state’s Wildlife Legacy Initiative.

“It’s not a lot, so we prioritize partnerships,” he said. “Some stays with the FWC and some goes to universities, making sure the right people are doing the right work.”

IMG_Key_Deer_Worm_Invasi_7_1_DA9L6NI5_L265739706 (1)
An outbreak of grisly screwworm infected the planet’s last herd of Key deer on and around Big Pine in 2016, killing about 135 deer. Wildlife officials estimate between 800 and 1,000 remain. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

Such a significant increase would make an enormous difference, he said.

“It would mean $49 million for Florida instead of $2.2 million,” he said. “It could be a game changer.”

When it was adopted in the 1960s and ’70s, the Endangered Species Act was intended to save vanishing species. But funding relied on a fickle politics, that led to chronic shortages. On average, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spends less than $2,700 on species. The Trump administration has also vowed to streamline the law, causing conservationists to worry that it will be weakened in the coming years.

“Frankly, we’ve done a good job of saving species we fish and we hunt, but the others have languished,” said National Wildlife Federation president Colin O’Mara.

The Cape Sable seaside sparrow nearly disappeared after its Everglades habitat was drained and flooded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ flood control efforts decades ago. Tim Chapman Miami Herald archive

Saving animals before they make the list could be cheaper and easier, avoiding regulations that stir controversy, he said. Work could also move faster than the sluggish pace set by the federal bureaucracy.

And time has become increasingly important. Last week, 550 scientists working with U.N. concluded the planet is losing species at an alarming rate, with the Americas projected by 2050 to have 40 percent fewer species than before Europeans arrived.

In the U.S., O’Mara said one in five species are now either imperiled or at risk. About 40 percent of the country’s freshwater fish are now rare and 10 percent of freshwater mussels have disappeared with 60 percent in danger of extinction. Common species like bees, monarch butterflies, eastern meadowlarks and nighthawks are also dwindling. Amphibians in the U.S. — the southeast was once the global center for salamanders — are disappearing at a rate of 4 percent a year.

“It’s these in-between species that may still be widespread but are in decline,” said National Wildlife Federation chief scientist Bruce Stein, who co-authored the report. “Often these are unheralded species that receive little conservation attention and funding.”

Losing overlooked species could also have consequences for more marquee animals.

“All those little things that live in these ecosystems, if those go away, then sport fish that are so important become imperiled as well,” said Drue Winters, a policy director at the American Fisheries Society.

Loss of habitat remains the leading threat. A quarter of the country outside Alaska and Hawaii is now developed. Half the wetlands have vanished, with rising seas expected to swallow even more. Even undisturbed land has become less hospitable with the cycle of natural wildfires interrupted and rivers and streams dammed. Splintered habitats have left many animals, like Florida panthers, stranded in just part of their historic range.

bonneted bat
Florida’s endangered bonneted bats live in pine rockland, a disappearing forest that once covered much of South Florida’s high ground but has now dwindled to about 2 percent of its historic range. Dustin Smith Zoo Miami

Disease and invasive species are also knocking out animals faster. In Florida, a screwworm outbreak killed 135 Key deer last year and white-nose syndrome among bats has killed more than 5 million. Invasive beetles, mussels and grasses with no native predators have dramatically altered landscapes, like pythons that have gobbled up the Everglades.

Pollution also remains a major threat, with neonicotinoid pesticides used in place of DDT now suspected of wiping out bees and butterflies that help pollinate crops. And in addition to wiping out habitat by driving sea rise, climate change is driving up temperatures that have changed animals’ ranges and interrupted breeding. In Yellowstone, cutthroat trout and invasive rainbow trout that used to breed at different times of the year are now overlapping and breeding together to create a new hybrid fish, the report said.

“Extinction is not just a hypothetical. We have already been experiencing extinctions,” Stein said.

Those losses also translate to millions of dollars in a local economy.

“We don’t always clearly make the case for what species are worth,” Pimm said. “How much does it cost to protect a manatee? I don’t know. But I do know what happens when a manatee swims into my marina in Key Largo. Everybody goes wild.”

So far, the proposed law has drawn bipartisan support with 38 co-sponsors, O’Mara said. States would need to match 25 percent to receive money, he said, but could tap outside partners like universities or nonprofits. The Florida Forever program could be a suitable source, he said. The bill also taps money from energy exploration not currently dedicated to any other programs, he said.

“If you’re taking value out of the ground, you should be putting value back into the ground,” he said.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

Two Miami men are behind bars following a year-long investigation by state and federal wildlife officers who viewed several online videos of one of the men handling federally protected Florida panther kittens and wrestling and harassing several al

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