Yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) announced its intent to downlist the wood stork from endangered to threatened. This comes after years of arm-twisting by PLF and its client, the Florida Homebuilders Association (FHA), to get the Service to abide by its statutory duty to review species on the endangered and threatened lists, to determine whether they are still in danger.
According to the Service, if the trend continues, “the species could become suitable for de-listing from the ESA.” In other words, reclassifying the wood stork as threatened should put everyone on notice that the animal’s numbers have grown so substantially that it may soon not need the additional protections of the Endangered Species Act.
As the Service said today, “[t]he proposed reclassification would not change any conservation or protection measures for the wood stork under the ESA. Rather it would recognize the stork’s ongoing recovery and the positive impact that collaborative conservation efforts over the last two decades have had on breeding populations.” According to the Service’s Southeast Regional Director, Cindy Dohner, “current population data clearly indicate that the wood stork is benefiting from the work of private landowners,” with successful efforts including man-made and restored wetlands.
This announcement is a refreshing change of course for the Service. In 2007, representing the Association, PLF won a lawsuit requiring the Service to conduct statutorily required status reviews — more than 15 years overdue — for a number of listed Florida species, including the wood stork. The Service’s subsequent status review of the species resulted in the Service recommending to downlist the wood stork from “endangered” to “threatened.” After the Service failed to act on its own advice, PLF filed a petition in 2009 on behalf of the Association. That petition, coupled with threats of a lawsuit, pushed the Service to finally announce its intent to downlist the animal.
The FWS has often failed fulfilling its statutory duty, failing to reclassify species even if their numbers swell. That has been the story of the wood stork, up until now. The story is being mirrored with the manatee today. Last week, PLF filed on behalf of Save Crystal River, Inc. to have Florida’s manatee downlisted from endangered to threatened. Hopefully, the Service will act more quickly this time around.