WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued actions to protect a southeastern reptile and two southeastern amphibians under the Endangered Species Act due to habitat degradation.
The proposed listing of the Louisiana pinesnake as a threatened species under the ESA is part of a court-ordered settlement agreement between the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the agency in 2011, which resulted in a six-year workplan for the agency to speed backlogged listing decisions for hundreds of species, which was slated to wind down at the end of September.
The pinesnake has been on the candidate list for 34 years, the CBD said.
The non-venomous pinesnake is in decline because its longleaf pine ecosystem is shrinking and fragmented due to agricultural and urban development, logging, wildfires and fire management practices.
"The Louisiana pine snake only lives in longleaf pine forests, which have disappeared in the face of logging, urban sprawl and the loss of natural fires," CBD attorney Elise Bennett said. "For over 30 years, this habitat continued to degrade and disappear while the pinesnake awaited protection. The Endangered Species Act is needed now more than ever to help restore the places this snake needs to recover."
The snake is currently found in only small isolated populations in north and central Louisiana and in east Texas. It is an egg-laying constrictor that grows up to six feet long, which feeds mainly on gophers.
The Service has formed partnerships with federal and state agencies, zoos, conservation organizations, businesses and individual landowners to benefit the pinesnake, the agency said.
"One of the primary purposes of the ESA is to work with others to make sure the natural areas fish and wildlife need to survive and thrive are in good shape," the Service's Southeast Regional Director Cindy Dohner said. "Conservation actions taken to restore longleaf pine habitat will provide benefits to the Louisiana pinesnake and other fish and wildlife that need these healthy places to live, listed and non-listed alike."Comments on the pinesnake listing proposal are due Dec. 5. The agency is not proposing a critical habitat designation at this time because the Service said it is continuing to consider appropriate areas, and expects to make that proposal in 2017.
Critical habitat has been proposed for the Black Warrior waterdog, which is also being proposed for endangered species status under the ESA in a separate action. The habitat proposal of 669 river miles encompasses 11 tributaries of the Black Warrior River Basin in Alabama. The spotted purple salamander will join 15 other listed species in the basin if the proposal is finalized, the agency said, including snails, fish, mussels, turtles and other amphibians.
The salamander's highly permeable skin and its feathery external gills make it very sensitive to poor water quality from industrial run-off and pollution from other sources such as sewage treatment plants, construction, forestry practices and surface mining.
"The decline of the Black Warrior waterdog indicates a decline in water quality," Dohner said. "By proposing to conserve the waterdog, we hope to work with partners to improve water quality within the entire basin to benefit people and all aquatic species."
The listing of the waterdog was also a result of the 2011 settlement agreement with the CBD. It has been a candidate species since 1982, the group said.
"I'm thrilled the Black Warrior waterdog is finally on its way to getting the safeguards it deserves," CBD's Bennett said. "These salamanders have waited a long time for Endangered Species Act protection as threats have continued to push them toward extinction. Amphibians like the Black Warrior waterdog are 'indicator species' that reflect the health of the environments they live in. The sad plight of this unique salamander tells us we have to do a better job protecting the health of their aquatic environments."Comments on the proposed waterdog listing action are due Dec. 5. Comments on the critical habitat designation are due Dec. 5. Written public hearing requests for the listing proposal and the critical habitat proposal are due Nov. 21.
The Service also finalized a listing for the Suwannee moccasinshell mussel as a threatened species under the ESA. A threatened status means it is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future, the agency said. It is found in the Suwannee River Basin in Florida, but is no longer found in parts of its historical range in Georgia. Even where it survives, its numbers have declined over the past several decades.
The CBD petitioned on behalf of the mussel in 2010, and then sued the agency in 2013 "to force a decision on its protection," the group said. A major threat to the water-filtering mussels that are so important to the food web is irrigation, which has lowered the Upper Floridian aquifer by more than 24 feet, according to the CBD.
"The Suwannee moccasinshell is Exhibit A in illustrating the longstanding abuse and mismanagement of the Suwannee River Basin," CBD's Florida director Jaclyn Lopez said. "Protection under the Endangered Species Act will help ensure healthy water quality and quantity for this tiny mussel and people alike."
The Suwannee River Basin also has other listed species, the Gulf sturgeon and the Oval pigtoe mussel. Species in the basin are imperiled due to habitat degradation and poor water quality from reduction in water level and water flow, and pollution from agricultural runoff, spills from wastewater facilities, and from mining operations. Saltwater encroachment from rising sea levels is also a concern for the freshwater mussel, according to the proposed listing action last year.
"The Suwannee moccasinshell's decline should serve as a warning to us all to take notice of declining water conditions in our rivers," the Service's Cindy Dohner said. "Americans need and value clean water. Mussels are indicators of how clean the water is."
The Suwannee moccasinshell mussel listing is effective Nov. 7. Critical habitat will be designated at a later date, as the Service requires more information to determine appropriate areas, the agency said.