Federal Wildlife Agency Agrees to List Florida Crayfish as Threatened

The Fish and Wildlife Service says it will act to protect thousands of acres of habitat to bolster dwindling crayfish populations in Florida.

The Panama City crayfish. (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

(CN) — After about a decade of legal pressure from environmental advocates, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday agreed to list the Panama City crayfish as a threatened species by December and released a proposal to protect over 7,000 acres of the creature’s critical habitat.

“The Panama City crayfish is in serious trouble, and we’re encouraged that today’s critical habitat proposal could help it get on the path to recovery,” Jaclyn Lopez, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Florida-based director, said in a statement on Wednesday.

The Panama City crayfish swims and burrows in the wet flatwoods of northwestern Florida, feasting on dead animals, plants and decomposed organic matter. This species of semi-terrestrial crayfish is 2 inches long and has a brown body with stripes that stretch from its head to its tail. 

In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the FWS to list the crayfish under the Endangered Species Act and filed a lawsuit three years later. 

The nonprofit conservation group says the Panama City crayfish, which is listed as a state species of special concern, has lost most of its habitat due to factors like massive urban sprawl. According to the Florida Natural Areas Inventory, wetland drainage for development projects, tree cultivation, off-road vehicles, and pesticide and herbicide use have contributed to decimating its habitat.

The FWS proposed protection in 2018, but failed to follow through and finalize the creature’s threatened status, according to another lawsuit the Center for Biological Diversity filed last year in Washington federal court.

“Saving this crayfish means protecting the disappearing Florida wetlands that it calls home, and finalizing federal protection is a crucial step toward recovering this dwindling species and protecting its essential habitat,” Lopez said. 

When a species is listed as threatened, the FWS is required by the Endangered Species Act to “issue any regulations deemed necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of such species.” The agency must also designate a critical habitat for the species, which for the Panama City crayfish will be more 7,177 acres in Bay County, Florida. 

On Wednesday, the FWS opened a comment period on its proposal for 60 days and announced a public hearing and informational meeting to be held on May 4. 

“The only way to save species like this little crayfish is to protect the places they live, and today’s proposal and agreement will help do that,” Lopez said.

Last year’s 12-page complaint lists the FWS and former Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt as defendants.  The department is now led by Democratic former Congresswoman Deb Haaland, who became the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history when the Senate confirmed her in a 51-40 vote in March.

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