Judge Orders Agency to Reconsider Protections for Florida Keys Lizard

Florida Keys mole skink. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

MIAMI (CN) — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong to deny protections for a rare lizard found only in the islands off the Florida Keys.

The agency denied protection for the Florida Keys mole skink under the Endangered Species Act in 2017, leading the Center for Biological Diversity to file suit in the Southern District of Florida last year on the creature’s behalf.

They environmental group claims FWS did not use the “best scientific and commercial data available” during its decision-making process and that the agency’s “finding that the skink is not endangered or threatened in a significant portion of its range is not supported by the record.”

The mole skink, a roughly 5-inch lizard with armor-like scales and a pink-tinted tail, faces the potential destruction of its habitat as sea levels rise. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that global sea levels will rise 5 inches by 2040 and an additional foot by the year 2100 as a best-case scenario. The environmentalists argue FWS failed to take this projection into consideration. 

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition in 2010 to list the skink as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but the FWS ultimately determined that that listing was not warranted, prompting last year’s lawsuit.

Siding with the environmental group on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg ruled FWS must reconsider its 2017 decision as the coastal lizard faces an uncertain future. She found the agency did not justify its decision to use limited data to project sea-level rise. 

“FWS ultimately relied solely on Geoplan for the more specific purpose of estimating habitat loss to inundation, and the question is whether that choice was adequately explained. The court concludes that it was not,” wrote Rosenberg, an Obama appointee.

Elise Bennett, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, applauded the ruling in a statement Wednesday.

“It’s a relief that the Florida Keys mole skink still has a fair shot at Endangered Species Act safeguards,” Bennett said.

By 2060, the group says half of the mole skink’s habitat could be inundated by seawater. 

“This rare little lizard, like many other Keys species, is fighting desperately to survive as rising sea levels flood its last remaining habitat. It needs federal protection from this very real threat to have any chance at survival,” Bennett said.

The group says the skink is cryptic and its natural behavior makes it difficult to track. Surveys from 2014 to 2017 yielded only 127 skink observations, 104 of which were from a single site in the Keys. 

“The Endangered Species Act can help the Florida Keys mole skink, but first it has to be protected,” Bennett said. “Continuing to disregard the dire and foreseeable consequences of climate change would mean certain extinction for this unique and beautiful Keys native.”

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