SAVING FLATWOODS SALAMANDERS

Flatwoods salamanders get their name from their native habitat of longleaf pine wiregrass flatwoods — now extremely rare — in the lower Southeastern Coastal Plain of the United States. Only about 3 percent of this habitat remains, with the rest lost to development, agriculture and silviculture. Fire suppression has also made much of this landscape uninhabitable for these salamanders, and even where controlled burns are used they’re often conducted during the wrong season. These salamanders spend most of their lives underground, in crayfish burrows, root channels or burrows of their own making. They emerge in the late fall to migrate to small, isolated seasonal wetlands, where they lay their eggs in the dry wetland basin. Once winter rains fill the wetlands, the eggs hatch.

In 1999 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the flatwoods salamander as a federally threatened species. Six years later, because the agency had still not designated critical habitat, the Center, along with Wild South and Florida Biodiversity Project, filed a lawsuit to secure these vital habitat protections. Under the resulting settlement, the Service proposed critical habitat in February of 2007. Soon afterward, new scientific evidence demonstrated that the flatwoods salamander was in fact two distinct species. As a result, in 2009 the Service amended its listing of the salamander to include the frosted flatwoods salamander as a threatened species and the reticulated flatwoods salamander as an endangered species. At the same time it designated 22,970 acres of protected critical habitat for the frosted flatwoods salamander and 4,453 acres of protected critical habitat for the reticulated flatwoods salamander.

Neither species of flatwoods salamander has a recovery plan, the main tool for identifying actions necessary to save endangered species from extinction and eventually remove their protection under the Endangered Species Act. Research by the Center shows that species with dedicated recovery plans for two or more years are far more likely to be on a recovery trajectory than those without. To gain these lifesaving protections, the Center and Gulf Restoration Network launched a lawsuit against the Service in March of 2015; the next year the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to develop recovery plans for both salamanders.