Feds Protect Four Florida Plants, Stall on Pinesnake

WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized federal protection for four Florida pine rockland plants, but it has delayed the listing for the Louisiana pine snake. The plants and the snake were proposed for Endangered Species Act protection last year, under the Obama administration.

The USFWS has listed the shrubby Everglades bully, the Florida pineland crabgrass, and the pineland sandmat, an herb, as threatened species under the ESA. Another shrub, the Florida prairie-clover, has been listed as an endangered species. Under the ESA, species listed as endangered are in imminent danger of extinction, and species listed as threatened are in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future, a timeframe that is interpreted individually for each species.

The Florida pine rockland ecosystem is characterized by a limestone substrate with a slash pine upper canopy and a mixed hardwood and palm subcanopy and is found in the Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, Florida. It is home to at least fifteen other ESA listed species, including the Florida panther, key deer, key rice rat, eastern indigo snake, key ringneck snake, six other plant species, two butterflies, a bat and a beetle. The rockland ecosystem species are at risk due sea-level rise, wildfires and development.

“This decision underscores just how vulnerable South Florida is to rising seas,” the Center for Biological Diversity’s Florida Director Jaclyn Lopez, said. “Without Endangered Species Act protections, storms like Irma could wipe out these Florida natives overnight.”

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned the USFWS to list the plants, and later sued the agency over the backlog of listing petitions that had not been addressed, some for decades. The resulting court settlement mandated a six-year workplan for the agency to speed listing decisions for hundreds of species. The four rockland plants and the Louisiana pinesnake were proposed for ESA listing last year as the workplan was winding down.

Like the four Florida plants that are found only in small isolated patches of their historic pine rocklands range, the Louisiana pinesnake is found in isolated segments of longleaf pine forests in Louisiana and Texas. Also proposed for threatened status under the ESA last year, its final listing decision has been placed on hold for six months. The USFWS says the delay is to resolve questions raised by one peer reviewer about the survey data that were raised during the comment period.

The Louisiana pinesnake is one of the rarest snakes in North America, according to the USFWS, and it grows up to five feet long. It is a non-venomous constrictor that eats mainly pocket gophers.

“Delaying listing for the Louisiana pinesnake is simply letting a bad situation get worse. This snake is in trouble—we can count on two hands the number of remaining populations, and they are all in decline. The snake was already proposed for threatened listing due to its dire situation. The only legitimate reason to delay Endangered Species Act protections for the Louisiana pinesnake is to consider giving it endangered status,” CBD staff attorney Elise Bennett said. “I suspect—but hope it is not the case—that this delay could be part of a larger strategy to avoid listing the species altogether.”

The USFWS says it will submit its ruling on the pinesnake listing on or before April 6, 2018. Comments can be submitted before Nov. 6, 2017.

The final listing determinations for the four Florida plants are effective Nov. 6.

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