WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has deemed the black pinesnake threatened under the Endangered Species Act because its longleaf pine forest habitat is declining. The Tuesday listing included an exemption for timber management activities, and delayed designation of critical habitat for the snakes until 2016.
The six-foot long non-venomous constrictors are found only in the longleaf pine forests of Mississippi and Alabama in 11 known populations. The snake is listed throughout its historical range, which includes Louisiana, but it has not been found there for more than 40 years.
Longleaf pine is believed to have covered up to 92 million acres in the southeastern United States during pre-settlement times, according to the USFWS. But most of the virgin forests were logged by the early 20th century, having fueled the Southeast’s economy with turpentine and lumber. In 1995 it was estimated that about 3 million acres were left, it says.
The loss of the longleaf pine ecosystem, due to fire suppression and conversion to agriculture and development, is the major threat to the snakes, but they also are killed by people or hit by vehicles on the road.
The USFWS identified the black pinesnake as a candidate species in 1982, according to last year’s listing proposal, but listing was precluded by higher listing priorities.
The current action is due to a 2011 court-approved settlement agreement between the agency and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) mandating listing decisions for hundreds of species over a six year period.
“The protection of yet another longleaf-dependent wildlife species should be a wake-up call that the Southeast is losing its natural heritage through the destruction of this critically endangered ecosystem,” CBD attorney and biologist Collette Adkins Giese, said in the group’s response to the listing.
Because the listing status is “threatened” rather than “endangered,” the USFWS is permitted to establish exemptions under Section 4(d) of the ESA that allow certain actions that would be prohibited in the case of an endangered species. For the pinesnake, the agency will allow timber management actions such as herbicide applications, prescribed burning, thinning, and pine restoration under certain circumstances. These management practices are thought to benefit the pinesnake, according to the agency.
“We crafted the exemptions to provide landowners flexibility to manage for their objectives while still affording conservation benefits to the black pinesnake,” Cindy Dohner, the USFWS Southeast Regional Director, said. “The service wants landowners to continue managing their land for forestry and keep working lands working. We realize how important active management is for the health of a forest, and our decision today will allow for active management and continued healthy ecosystems to help us recover the black pinesnake together.”
The agency has delayed the designation of critical habitat, but has identified over 300,000 acres in eight areas of potential habitat in Alabama and Mississippi. A critical habitat proposal with public comment period is expected in 2016.
“Our decision to list the black pinesnake was based on the best scientific information available and supported by species experts from outside our agency,” Stephen Ricks, field supervisor for the Service’s Ecological Services Field Office in Mississippi, said. “And, because the black pinesnake is found in the same geographic areas as other listed species like the population of threatened gopher tortoises west of the Tombigbee Waterway, endangered dusky gopher frog, and endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, some protections are already in place.”
The black pinesnake final listing becomes effective Nov. 5.
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