U.S. Wildlife Service says it’s trying to clear backlog of protection requests

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to address a backlog of animal and plant species — including four from Florida — that may be candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act, a spokeswoman for the agency said Monday.

Stacy Shelton’s comments came in response to a lawsuit filed last week in Washington, D.C., by the Center for Biological Diversity charging the wildlife service has not responded to a 2009 petition to protect the Florida Keys mole skink, Suwannee moccasinshell, Panama City crayfish, and McGillivray’s seaside sparrow. A staff biologist for the center, Tierra Curry, said the mole skink and sparrow could go extinct due to rising sea levels from global climate change while the moccasinshell and crayfish are threatened by drought, pollution and development.

“We are not ignoring them,” Shelton said. “We have a listing plan. We are triaging the list, working with the states. We see listing as a last line of defense. What we’d rather do is proactively conserve so they don’t have to be listed. We only have so many people and resources we can put on this. Our listing biologists have all the work they can handle right now.”

Shelton wrote in an email that the service’s South Florida field office is working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is drafting a species action plan for the mole skink, a small colorful lizard found on sandy shorelines in the Lower Keys and Dry Tortugas.

As for the sparrow — which lives in tidal marshes from North Carolina to Northeast Florida — Shelton wrote that both the FWC and its South Carolina counterpart are studying the bird.

Shelton wrote that the fish and wildlife service has begun field work on the Suwannee moccasinshell, a small freshwater mussel that lives only in Florida’s Suwannee River. Biologists are validating locations and looking for more sites where the creature lives, “as well as trying to get a handle on the potential threats to the species,” she wrote.

The service is assessing the status of the Panama City crayfish — known only in the flatwoods and temporary ponds in a small area of Bay County — to evaluate threats to see if there is potential to warrant listing, Shelton wrote. Personnel from the Panama City field office are talking with the FWC and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about potential conservation measures.

The center, based in Portland, Ore., sued the fish and wildlife service in 2011 over a backlog of 757 species proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Under terms of a settlement agreement, the center can push forward 10 species per year for a decision.