Once Endangered, Puerto Rican Gecko Species Now Thriving

An adult Monito gecko is smaller than a human finger, and is known to exist on only one island in the world, off the coast of Puerto Rico. (Jan Zegarra/USFWS)

(CN) – While hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico continues to struggle with rebuilding efforts, a Puerto Rican gecko flourishes and is ready to be removed from federal protection, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This delisting is the latest recovery success achieved through partnerships with our state wildlife partners,” said Greg Sheehan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s acting principal deputy director. “I want to recognize the great efforts of our colleagues at the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, other partners, and our employees, who together helped guide this species toward recovery.”

The Monito gecko is found only on Monito Island, a tiny 40-acre rock off Mona Island halfway between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. Both Mona Island and Monito Island are protected by Puerto Rico as nature reserves.

Several species on Mona Island are protected under the Endangered Species Act, including the Mona ground iguana, Mona yellow-shouldered blackbird and the Mona boa. Mona also supports the largest hawksbill sea turtle nesting ground, according to the Mona Island Restoration Project, but the gecko is not found on Mona.

Monito Island’s tiny gecko was listed as endangered in 1982, eight short years after it was first “discovered.” The agency also designated the entire island as critical habitat for the little lizards. From 1940 to 1965, the island was used for target practice by the U.S. Air Corps/Air Force, and the effects of the gunnery range and bombing are still evident. Because the gecko was not discovered until nearly a decade after the bombing was discontinued, it is not known how that affected the population.

However, Fish and Wildlife noted that non-native black rats were abundant all over the island, and that rats eat lizards and their eggs. Several rat-eradication programs were enacted and the tiny island was deemed to be rat-free in 1999. The agency’s 5-Year Status Review conducted in 2016 found over 7,600 geckos, and the review team recommended the delisting.

“When species are recovered, we are committed to removing them from federal protection to reduce the regulatory burden on the public and industry and to ensure that the limited resources available to at-risk species go to those others still most in need,” said Sheehan.

Monito Island, off the coast of Puerto Rico. (USFWS)

Despite the intensity and quick succession of this year’s Caribbean hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria, the agency does not consider hurricanes to be a major threat to the geckos because Monito Island juts steeply out of the ocean with its flattened top hovering 216 feet above sea level, “thus safe from storm surge. The vegetation on the island is short and therefore hurricane impacts are expected to be minimal. Additionally, the Monito gecko is under rocks most of the time,” the agency said.

“The Monito gecko’s proposed delisting is a great example of how the Endangered Species Act can leverage the attention and resources necessary to not just prevent extinction, but facilitate recovery” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group that frequently petitions and sues the agency on behalf of imperiled species. “If we don’t politically interfere with the ESA, let it do what Congress intended, species can and will recover, making the protection of the act no longer necessary.”

Comments on the proposed gecko delisting are due by March 12, and requests for public hearings are due in writing by Feb. 26.

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