WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced an urgent action banning imported salamanders to protect native populations from the spread of a deadly fungus. The recently discovered pathogen, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, called Bsal, came to the attention of scientists after it wiped out 96 percent of the fire salamanders in the Netherlands. It is thought to be spread by the international trade of animals for pets.
Bsal is related to another chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd, which has been responsible for devastating declines in many diverse amphibian species around the world, including frogs. Unlike Bd, Bsal is, so far, only known to affect salamanders. The classification of salamanders includes newts.
In an effort to understand what was happening to the salamanders in Europe, a study, published late in 2014, screened 5000 amphibians across four continents and determined that the fungus originated in Asia and spread due to the pet trade and a lack of biosecurity. "Asian salamanders have evolved resistance to the pathogen, but salamanders from other parts of the world are highly susceptible," the study noted.
The study's publication "generated a strong response from academia, industry groups, and conservation and other organizations who have written the Service seeking quick and decisive action to ensure Bsal does not have a similar impact on salamander populations that Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) has had on frogs," the agency said in the action.
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Save the Frogs petitioned the Service to take action last year. "Infected salamanders could enter the United States through commercial trade in salamanders, mostly imported as pets. Two million live salamanders have been imported into the United States over the past 10 years; 70 percent of these salamanders (1.4 million) were Chinese and Japanese newts within the Cynops genus, a group of amphibians expected to act as carriers of the disease," the CBD said in their reaction statement to the agency's interim action.
Because Bsal is not yet known to be in the United States, and because there is evidence that it is an imminent threat to U.S. wildlife, the Service amended it regulations through an interim rule to list 201 species of salamanders from 20 genera as injurious, and to ban importation or interstate transportation of live or dead specimens, instead of following the usual much slower rulemaking process.
"At a time when the introduction of devastating animal diseases, like the pathogens that have wiped out millions of bats in the eastern United States and frog populations across the country, have become all too common, it's incredible to see proactive steps being taken to protect our wildlife," CBD's Jenny Loda said.
Although the Service's Director Dan Ashe said in the agency's announcement that they are doing everything in their power to protect the nation's amphibians, some conservation groups would like to see an even more comprehensive ban.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to be commended for taking this important first step in protecting this country's native salamanders. The interim regulation announced today is projected by the Service to cover more than 95 percent of the salamanders currently coming into the country. While this is a very positive development, we urge the Service to take further measures to temporarily close our borders to all international salamander trade, not just trade in certain species. This will prevent the trade from shifting over time to other species of salamanders not covered by the interim rule," Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO of the Defenders of Wildlife group, said. "While the agency waits for additional scientific testing to be completed on all species of salamanders, the adoption of a complete closure is the only way to ensure the long-term conservation of U.S. salamander diversity." The interim rule is effective Jan. 28, and written comments are due March 14.
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