For Immediate Release, March 26, 2021
|Elise Bennett, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 755-6950, [email protected]
Cynthia Sarthou, Healthy Gulf, (504) 525-1528 x 202, [email protected]
New Recovery Plans Will Help Save Southeast’s Critically Imperiled Salamanders
Frosted, Reticulated Flatwoods Salamanders Need Funding, Habitat Restoration to Recover in Coastal Plain
PANAMA CITY, Fla.— Following a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity and Healthy Gulf, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today published draft recovery plans for the critically endangered reticulated and frosted flatwoods salamanders in Florida and other southeastern states.
“Once finalized, the plans will put these extremely imperiled salamanders on the path to recovery,” said Elise Bennett, an attorney at the Center. “Protecting and properly managing habitat is critical here, and we expect the Fish and Wildlife Service to quickly finalize, fund and implement the plans for these tiny beauties. Federal officials have to act before it’s too late.”
The plans for the frosted and reticulated flatwoods salamanders prioritize ensuring there is adequate high-quality habitat, including pine savannas and breeding wetlands, to support resilient salamander populations. They also call for reintroducing and translocating salamanders to habitat across their historic range and reining in the human-created threats that pushed the species into endangered and threatened status.
The Service anticipates meeting these recovery goals as early as 2040 and expects recovery efforts will cost an estimated $239.8 million. Those efforts will include restoration of longleaf pine forests that provide critical salamander habitat. Longleaf pine restoration will also benefit hundreds of other species across the region.
“We are excited that the flatwoods salamanders will finally have a recovery plan,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Healthy Gulf. “These salamanders have dramatically declined since being listed as endangered. Now, hopefully we see their populations begin rebuilding.”
Without detailed recovery planning, these rare salamanders have continued to decline across their range. They’ve suffered from ongoing habitat loss and degradation despite having been listed under the Endangered Species Act for more than 20 years.
Reticulated and frosted flatwoods salamanders were historically found throughout the once-extensive longleaf pine forests of the coastal plain in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. But today they’re limited to just a handful of small populations in the latter three states.
Habitat destruction and poor forest management continue to drive them toward extinction. They are also threated by climate change, which is creating stronger storms in the Gulf of Mexico.
Frosted flatwoods salamander populations suffered significant losses in 2018 when Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, pushed 10 feet of seawater across the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, once considered a stronghold for the species.
Recovery plans are the main tools for identifying actions necessary to save endangered species from extinction and eventually end the need to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. Research by the Center has found that species with dedicated recovery plans for two or more years are far more likely to be improving than those without.
The reticulated flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma bishopi) and frosted flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma cingulatum) are black to chocolate-black salamanders, with light gray lines and specks that form a cross-banded pattern across their backs.
Both species occupy longleaf pine-slash pine flatwoods in the lower southeastern coastal plain. The animals spend most of their lives underground, in crayfish burrows, root channels or burrows of their own making. They emerge in the early winter rains to breed in small, isolated seasonal wetlands.
Once prevalent throughout Alabama, Florida and Georgia, the reticulated flatwoods salamander has not been observed in Alabama in approximately 35 years. In 2009, this species was struggling to survive in 20 small, isolated populations, and by 2015 was only known to occur in six populations.
The frosted flatwoods salamander was found in 25 tenuous populations in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in 2009, and by 2015 this estimate was reduced to only nine known populations.
Because of these precipitous declines, in 2019 Service biologists recommended reclassifying frosted flatwoods salamanders from threatened to endangered.
More than 80% of their habitat has been destroyed, and the remnants of pine flatwood areas are typically fragmented and degraded. These species continue to be threatened by fire suppression, drought, off-road vehicle use and disease.
The Service listed the flatwoods salamander as a federally threatened species in 1999. As a result of a taxonomic reclassification of the species, in 2008 the Service recognized the flatwoods salamander as two distinct species. In 2009 the agency finalized its determination of endangered status for the reticulated flatwoods salamander, while retaining a threatened status for the frosted flatwoods salamander.
In response to a Center lawsuit, the Service in February 2009 designated 4,453 acres of protected critical habitat for the reticulated flatwoods salamander and 22,970 acres for the frosted flatwoods salamander.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Healthy Gulf’s purpose is to collaborate with and serve communities who love the Gulf of Mexico by providing the research, communications, and coalition-building tools needed to reverse the long pattern of over exploitation of the Gulf’s natural resources.