Conservation group says Florida butterfly extinction shows need for better endangered species protections

Will the Endangered Species Act save the Miami blue butterfly? Photo via USFWS.

40-year-old law seen as bulwark against biodiversity crisis

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — If you can imagine looking up at the night sky and watching familiar stars blinking out forever, then you might have some sense of what’s going on with the planet’s plants and animals in part of the greatest wave of extinctions and biodiversity loss in many thousands of years.

The constellation of life is losing stars at an alarming and increasing rate, including the likely extinction of two Florida butterfly species announced last week by the U.S. Fishd and Wildlife Service — Florida Zestos and rockland grass skippers.

In a press release, conservation groups say the loss of the two species could have been saved with the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

“We didn’t have to lose these two butterflies,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Their extinction is a stark reminder that the ability of the Endangered Species Act to save species is limited only by our choice to use it. Let’s make sure we don’t make the same mistake with the rest of South Florida’s unique and threatened species.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service found that the butterflies likely went extinct due to habitat loss; it compared the downward trajectory of the Zestos to a currently protected species, the Miami blue butterfly, which is losing habitat and host plants due to sea-level rise. Like the Zestos, many South Florida species are threatened by coastal squeeze, where coastal development prevents species’ landward retreat from rising sea levels cause by climate change.

Fish and Wildlife recently proposed Endangered Species Act protection for other Florida species — three Florida plants (aboriginal prickly apple, Florida semaphore cactus and Cape Sable thoroughwort) and the Florida bonneted bat — all threatened by sea-level rise. The proposal to protect those species was part of a historic settlement agreement between the Service and the Center for Biological Diversity that requires expedited decisions on protection for 757 species around the country, including for 374 species in the Southeast.

“The important thing about our agreement with the Service is that requires the agency to follow the law and make decisions about protecting imperiled species before it’s too late for those species,” Lopez said. “We can do better for Florida’s animals and plants, and the 757 agreement is already helping. The loss of these two butterflies drives home the point: Once these animals are lost, they’re lost forever.”

Other Florida animals threatened by sea-level rise that are currently awaiting Endangered Species Act listing include:

  • The MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow, which once ranged south from North Carolina into Florida’s Volusia County but has not been spotted south of Duval County in Florida in years. The sparrow is one of four seaside sparrows remaining in Florida. Since the dusky seaside sparrow was declared extinct in 1987, the MacGillivray’s represents the southernmost Atlantic subspecies.
  • The Florida Keys mole skink is a tiny, colorful lizard found mainly along the sandy shoreline of Dry Tortugas and the Lower Keys, though it may also occur among other Florida Keys. It was once locally common, but its population has declined up to 30 percent, and the lizard is now considered rare. It’s also the southernmost subspecies of its species, precariously dependent on suitable sandy shoreline habitat.
  • The black rail is a secretive, rarely encountered migratory bird that can be found throughout Florida. Because it nests in salt and freshwater marshes, water depth and quality are critical.
  • The Palatka skipper is a small, brown butterfly found in the Keys. Its habitat is diminishing, and only 10 adults have been sighted since 2006.

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