The wood stork, on the endangered list for more than 25 years, has bounced back, federal officials announced Tuesday.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe announced that his agency wants to reclassify the wood stork from "endangered" to "threatened." He said the change would give his staff more flexibility in working with landowners on protecting the birds, which depend on wetlands for their habitat.
The agency took this step in response to a 2009 petition from a libertarian legal group, the Pacific Legal Foundation, acting on behalf of Florida Home Builders Association and a Tampa-based environmental consultant, Biological Research Associates. The foundation is now seeking to prod the agency to take a similar step with the Florida manatee.
"After years of delay, the federal government is finally acknowledging that progress has been made toward wood stork recovery, and it's wrong to continue to use the 'endangered' label," foundation attorney Alan DeSerio said in a statement.
But Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida said that while wood storks appear to be doing better in other states, they're fading in their historic home in South Florida — apparently because of the continued destruction of wetlands in recent years.
In Audubon's own Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Fort Myers, which once boasted 7,000 nesting pairs of wood storks, "we have not seen a nest in the last six or seven years," Draper said. "Something is fundamentally wrong with this decision if the birds are not doing well in their historic range."
Wood storks are long-legged wading birds that stand more than 4 feet tall, with a wingspan of up to 65 inches. Because of their distinctive black, featherless heads, they have also been called "flinthead," "Spanish buzzard," "gourdhead" and "ironhead."
The breeding population of the wood stork declined from an estimated 20,000 pairs in the 1930s to about 5,000 pairs in the late 1970s. By then the breeding occurred nowhere but Central and South Florida, wildlife officials said.
In 1984, the Fish and Wildlife Service put wood storks on the endangered list. By 2009, biologists counted more than 12,000 nesting pairs, and the breeding range had expanded as far north as North Carolina.
If the species averages 10,000 nesting pairs over a five-year period, then it meets the requirements for taking the wood stork off the endangered list entirely, Ashe said. Over the past three years, the average has been between 7,000 and 9,000.
"I think we're getting close," he said.
Ashe offered a personal anecdote in support of the wood stork's recovery. His father worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service, too, he said, noting that "when I was a young boy we spent a lot of time in Florida ... and seeing a wood stork was a rarity." Now when he travels to Florida, "it's almost a rarity when I don't see a wood stork."
However, despite statements by wildlife service officials touting the multibillion-dollar Everglades and Kissimmee River restoration projects for helping revive the wood stork, Florida's nesting pairs totaled only 5,000 last year.
Before the wood stork's classification can be changed, the agency is soliciting comments from the public over a two-month period, once the notice is published in the Federal Register.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]