‘Endangered’ category to be eliminated

After a decade of wrestling over the protected status of the manatee, Florida wildlife managers adopted a new system of assessing extinction risks last year that essentially put them out of the controversial, litigious business of declaring things “endangered.”

The new approach split the old list in two. One simply adopted the federal endangered species list, which already ranks the manatee, Florida panther, wood stork, crocodile and many of the state’s highest profile at-risk denizens. The second state-only list lumped 61 others under a single “threatened” category -- a status subject to review under a new suite of biological measures.

Now, some of those first reviews are in. The findings suggest the new approach could produce some of the same old debates.

Preliminary reviews, if they stand up, would knock half of 10 mammals off the state’s list -- most notably the Florida black bear, an animal whose shrinking habitat has increasingly pushed it into potentially dangerous encounters with suburbanites. Last year, one black bear was spotted several times on the outskirts of Weston, which borders the Everglades in Broward County.

Four of 21 birds, including the brown pelican and snowy egret, also might no longer meet the criteria for a “threatened” designation. Reviews are still under way on 30 other at-risk reptiles and amphibians.

Wildlife managers stressed the reviews were only a first step in a process that won’t necessarily drop them from the list. And, they argue, even if it did result in removing the “threatened” tag, it would actually be a good thing -- a sign that a once precarious population had at the least stabilized.

“We hope these preliminary findings will result in the discovery that our conservation measures in the past decade have had measurable, beneficial impacts on wildlife in Florida,” said Dr. Elsa Haubold, who heads the FWC’s threatened-species listing process team.

The preliminary reviews -- conducted by agency staff and outside academic experts -- found that appears to be the case for five mammals -- the Florida black bear, chipmunk, Florida mouse, Homosassa shrew and Sherman’s fox squirrel.

Environmentalists are reserving judgment for now but expressed some initial concerns.

Julie Wraithmell, wildlife policy coordinator for Audubon of Florida in Tallahassee, said her organization would have questions about data and analysis of the black bear and all four birds, the limpkin, brown pelican, snowy egret and white ibis.

The bear, with a population biologists estimate at 2,500 to 3,000, has lost a staggering amount of its historic territory and now survives in eight large but isolated swathes of Central and North Florida, with smaller numbers in Southwest Florida.

Brown pelicans, despite a statewide rebound, still struggle in some areas such as Tampa Bay, where reproduction rates “have not been great in the last decade,” Wraithmell said. Limpkin may be seen more frequently, she said, but mainly because they are feasting on an exotic apple snail that has invaded suburban lakes where water quality may be a concern.

“Is that a short-term boom with a long-term challenge or does that mean they are truly out of harm’s way?” she said.

Elizabeth Fleming, Florida representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, said she was surprised the agency had even released such preliminary results.

Some of the data for the Sherman’s fox squirrel would certainly draw questions if any delisting effort moves forward, she said.

“It wasn’t so much that this species came off or this one stayed on,” she said. “Most of the process lies ahead. My concern is that by having this out, it’s going to create expectations.”

FWC spokeswoman Patricia Behnke said there are a number of steps left before the agency formally proposes removing any species. The reviews will be subject to additional peer reviews and outside comment from the public and parties with vested interests such as environmentalists, farmers, developers and hunters. A management plan with a goal of keeping the species from reaching a high risk of extinction again also would have to be written.

The remaining preliminary reviews are expected early next month and the commission could consider staff recommendations to delist some species as early as April.

The state’s imperiled species rules have been periodically under fire for more than a decade attacked by builders and ranchers for being too restrictive on landowners and criticized by environmentalists for not going far enough to boost declining populations of mammals, fish and fowl.

The system also was confusing to the public. The state list ranked species in three descending levels of peril from “endangered” to “threatened” to “of special concern.” The federal list used only the first two categories and the two lists did not always match up.

The FWC agency has twice before tried to overhaul its listing process. The last effort in 2008 to knock the iconic manatee down a peg from endangered was derailed after Gov. Charlie Crist, responding to a public backlash, made it clear he wanted the sea cow’s status left unchanged, even if its numbers had multiplied.

The FWC’s new approach was intended to standardize what has historically been a loose process by applying population, habitat and mortality standards employed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The one-size fits all category of “threatened” was adopted in an effort to tamp down the often emotional battles over status changes.

“People were concentrating more on what we were calling the species rather than what we were doing to protect them,” Behnke said.

With some species like the black bear, she said, managing its future is a balancing act. The state banned hunting in 1971 and the black bear’s overall population has remained fairly steady over the last decade but it has declined in some pockets and surged in others, particularly in Central Florida where encounters with humans have become an increasing concern.

“It has come back in some areas so much to the point where people would like us to consider some options to deal with them.” Behnke said.

Environmentalists supported the new policy when the FWC adopted it late last year in large part because of the promise of formal management plans for any species that merit removal from the “threatened” list. But there is also concern that the overhaul could set the bar too high, putting off recovery plans until some species are too deep in jeopardy to have a good shot at rebounding.

The last time the FWC formally added to the list was in 2003 when it took an emergency step to designate the Miami blue butterfly when its range dwindled to one known spot in Bahia Honda State Park in the Keys. In 2006, biologists discovered a second population in Key West National Wildlife Refuge.

Most other species aren’t in such dire straits but face the same fundamental threat, said Audubon’s Wraithmell. “Today, the biggest threat facing most of these species is habitat loss.”