Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, December 10, 2014

Contact: Collette Adkins Giese, (651) 955-3821

Endangered Species Act Protection Sought for 17 Rare Amphibians and Reptiles in Southeast

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for failing to determine whether 17 increasingly rare amphibians in the Southeast warrant consideration for Endangered Species Act protection. In July 2012 the Center first petitioned for these species — the alligator snapping turtle, six snakes, Carolina gopher frog, Cedar Key mole skink, Florida scrub lizard and seven lungless salamanders — because habitat loss and other factors are threatening them with extinction.    

Florida scrub lizard
Florida scrub lizard photo courtesy Flickr/Todd Pierson. Photos are available for media use.

“The Southeast is a biodiversity hotspot that’s home to dozens of rare amphibians and reptiles,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a Center biologist and lawyer. “Because habitats across the Southeast are being bulldozed for development or agriculture, the region is losing some of its most unique wildlife species. Protection under the Endangered Species Act for these vulnerable animals will help ensure that essential remaining habitats are saved.”

Because of unsustainable logging, toxic pesticides, the climate crisis and other human causes, nearly one in four amphibians and reptiles is at risk of dying out, scientists say. This loss is all the more alarming because frogs, snakes, lizards and salamanders play important roles as predators and prey in their ecosystems and are valuable indicators of environmental health.

“There’s broad scientific consensus that amphibians and reptiles face a profound, human-driven extinction crisis that requires prompt action,” said Adkins Giese. “The Endangered Species Act has a nearly perfect record of stopping animals from going extinct — it’s hands-down our best tool for saving these guys.”

The Center was joined in its petition for these 17 species and other amphibians and reptiles by several renowned scientists and herpetologists, including E.O. Wilson, Thomas Lovejoy and Michael Lannoo. More than 200 scientists sent a letter asking the Service to review the status of the petitioned animals.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is required to make an initial finding within 90 days of receiving a petition about whether protections may be warranted. But more than two years later, the agency has not acted. The 90-day finding is the first in a series of required decisions and simply requires the Service to determine whether the petition presents sufficient information to warrant further consideration, a process that requires few agency resources.

View an interactive state-by-state map showing where the petitioned species live and download photos for media use.

Species Highlights

Alligator snapping turtles (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas): With their heavily armored shells, bear-like claws and powerful beaked jaws it’s not surprising that these prehistoric-looking turtles have no natural enemies and once thrived throughout the southeastern United States. Early in the 20th century, they were abundant in U.S. river systems draining into the Gulf of Mexico, from the waterways and lakes of the upper Midwest to the swamps and bayous of Florida, Louisiana and Texas. But recent population surveys demonstrate the turtles are now likely extirpated in Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee, with declines up to 95 percent over much of their historic range from overharvest and unchecked habitat degradation. These slow-moving, largely sedentary behemoths spend so much of their time sitting on river bottoms waiting for food — they use a wormlike process on their tongue to lure prey — that algae grows thick on their shells. They’re easy prey for hunters who still look to feed thriving world markets for the exhibition and consumption of the turtles. A study published earlier this year found that what was known as the alligator snapping turtle is actually three species and therefore more endangered than previously thought.  

Key ringneck snakes (Florida): These 6-inch-long, nonvenomous residents of the Florida Keys, including Key West and Big Pine Key, could hardly be less of a threat. But the slate-gray snakes with muted neck rings face an ongoing barrage of unmitigated threats to the seaside limestone outcroppings and rockland areas they call home. Largely due to ongoing residential development, the snakes’ rockland hammock habitat has been reduced by 98 percent, leaving highly fragmented population pockets. Hurt not only by ongoing development but also by malicious killing by humans and predation by invasive species like fire ants, key ringneck snakes face rapid loss across their range. They also face catastrophic threats from climate change, with a sea rise of as little as three feet endangering much of their remaining population. They are listed as threatened in Florida, a status that makes killing and collection illegal but provides no protection from ongoing habitat destruction, the snakes’ greatest threat.

Blue Ridge gray-cheeked salamanders (North Carolina): These nocturnal and secretive lungless salamanders are vulnerable to extinction because of their very small range, which only includes the Blue Ridge Mountains in Buncombe, Rutherford and Henderson counties in North Carolina. They are found in wet forests, often under leaf-litter, logs or mossy rocks. The salamanders are harmed by logging, especially clearcutting, which has depleted local populations. When threatened, gray-cheeked salamanders release noxious, sticky skin secretions which are used to deter predators. Blue Ridge gray-cheeked salamanders lack legal protection under state law.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 800,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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