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Skinks Cut to Front of Endangered Species Evaluation Line

Eight species of skink — a Caribbean lizard that is quickly disappearing — will be finally evaluated for protection under the Endangered Species Act, six years after conservationists petitioned to do so.

Eight species of skink — a Caribbean lizard that is quickly disappearing — will be finally evaluated for protection under the Endangered Species Act, six years after conservationists petitioned to do so.

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

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed Thursday to make endangered species decisions for eight rare species of skinks after putting off the decisions for the past six years, settling a lawsuit with the Center for Biological Diversity on Thursday.

A type of lizard scattered across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, skinks are quickly moving toward extinction thanks to climate change, development and predators like rats, cats and mongeese that have been introduced to their island habitats.

“Between all these threats, we need to ensure that skinks don’t get squeezed out of existence,” Elise Bennett, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a phone interview.

For years, skinks were all thought to be one species, and it wasn’t until 2012 that scientists discovered that there are several separate kinds of skinks. Since then, scientists have watched them quickly disappear. 

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to protect the reptiles under the Endangered Species Act in 2014. When the agency missed the deadline to make a decision, the center filed a lawsuit in 2020. 

“Since then the skinks have gone without a decision or interim protections. They are languishing while a decision is made,” Bennett said. “Meanwhile, we keep hearing anecdotes from experts in the field who say that they are not seeing skinks where they are supposed to be seeing them.”

Thursday's agreement stipulates that the agency has until Dec. 12, 2024, to make a decision. 

“We are giving them time to make their decisions but are still ensuring there’s no delays” Bennett said. “Delays mean that skinks could go extinct.”

With protection under Endangered Species Act, skinks would either be designated as threatened or endangered, and measures would be taken to protect their habitats — like eradicating predators and requiring federal permits for development to ensure that the projects wouldn’t jeopardize their habitats. Efforts might also be taken to purchase and protect lands on the islands. 

Two of the skinks, the Lesser Virgin Islands skink and the Virgin Islands bronze skink, are found on Great St. James, an island that Jeffrey Epstein purchased in 2016 to construct sprawling developments — some of them without government permits. Since Epstein’s death, the fate of the skinks is unclear — it’s not certain who will purchase the property and if they will take conservation efforts into consideration. 

Bennett said that the center is confident that the agency will find that the skinks need federal protection.

“I think that these lizards are reflective of the great extinction crisis we’re going through. Experts say that we could lose 1 million different species in the coming years,” said Bennett. “I hope that folks see skinks as canaries in the coal mine and step up to protect them as well as the great biodiversity we have all across the country.”

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