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Reptile and Amphibian Conservation in the USA – 2012 Update

The global extinction crisis faced by amphibians has been much in the news in recent years, as have threats to sea turtles, Madagascar’s tortoises, Asia’s freshwater turtles and other long-suffering groups.  In the USA, a number of reptile and amphibian species are also in dire straits despite, in some cases, federal protection.  I hope this article inspires both hope and action in my many conservation-minded readers.

Unprecedented Agreement May Help 757 Species

Following a slew of lawsuits by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Federal government has agreed to speedily consider protecting an additional 757 native species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The CDB employs an attorney who deals solely with amphibians and reptiles, and the agreement is said to be “airtight” and legally enforceable.

This agreement is an important step, as the ESA is our most powerful wildlife law.  Indeed, ESA listings have proven vital to the continued survival of many species.  For example, a recent CBD study of 110 ESA-protected species showed that 90% of them were recovering “on time”, according to the goals set at the original listing…not bad, considering what is happening to rhinos and other “protected” species elsewhere!

Consider the American Crocodile.  At its ESA listing in 1975, only 10-20 breeding females, all in Florida Bay, remained in the USA. I saw some of these in the early 1980’s, on the grounds of an electric company, but they were notably absent from all nearby habitat. Today, the population numbers over 2,000, and they can again be seen in Biscayne Bay, Key Largo and elsewhere. In fact, the government recently advertised for “crocodile re-location agents”, as they are showing up in backyard canals!

Included among the 757 species fast-tracked for ESA consideration are the Ozark Hellbender, Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Boreal Toad and 20 freshwater turtle species. The CBD has also filed a 300 page report seeking some form of protection for 8 snakes, 24 salamanders, 3 toads, 4 frogs, 6 turtles and 10 lizards.

Other Herp Success Stories

Habitat Protection

A review of the CBD annual report and other sources revealed some pleasant surprises.  In California, 99,000 acres have been protected as habitat for the endangered Arroyo Toad and 47,000 acres have been set aside for the California Tiger Salamander.

Pesticide Use

Atrazine, a pesticide that has been shown to cause hormonal changes in frogs (i.e. the development of ovaries in males – something I observed via autopsy years ago), is in the CBD’s crosshairs.  The 43,000 comments submitted to the Federal government by CBD researchers and others should go a long way in resolving this serious threat to amphibian survival. 

Rattlesnake Roundups

Under pressure from several environmental groups, one ofGeorgia’s two remaining “rattlesnake roundups” has been transformed into a kill-free event.  Other snake-related efforts include a posted reward for sightings of the South Florida Rainbow Snake, which the CBD believes may have been prematurely declared extinct (I’ll post sighting reports, hopefully in the near future).

Volunteer Efforts

By submitting photos and GPS info through the Global Amphibian Blitz, citizen-scientists are helping herpetologists track rare and common species both here and abroad.

Pending Lawsuits

Unfortunately, the mere fact of Federal protection may be insufficient to ensure a species’ survival. Often, hands-on recovery efforts are essential, and in some cases human-generated threats continue despite the law.

In 2011, the CBD sued the Federal government on behalf of several protected amphibians. Cited in the lawsuits were failures to produce recovery plans for the California Tiger Salamander and the Yellow-Legged Frog. Efforts to dredge canals near the last remaining breeding pond of the Mississippi Gopher Frog were also attacked in court.

Continuing Threats to US Herps

Rainbow Snake in Georgia
A number of rare native amphibians remain without protection (some may now be under consideration, please see above).  Among these are many unique endemics, including the Arizona Treefrog, Colorado Spotted Frog, Black Warrior Mudpuppy and Austin Blind Salamander. Please see this article for further information.

Tiger Salamander larvae are still used (live!) as fishing bait in some states. In addition to decimating populations, the bait trade has been implicated in the spread of two deadly amphibian diseases.  Please see this article for details.

The trade in frog legs kills billions of animals annually, both here and abroad, and imported legs and frogs destined have been shown to harbor Chytrid fungus and other pathogens. Please see this article for further info and links to sites where you can take action.

Global Concerns: IUCN Red List Update

The IUCN has just released a comprehensive report on the status of animals and ecosystems worldwide (please see video below). Of the 63,837 species that have been accessed, 19,817, including 41% of the world’s amphibians, are threatened with extinction; a great many others will likely move into that category soon.

Ten percent of Asia’s endemic snakes, and 43% of all Asian snakes, are headed towards extinction. One recent study raises the possibility that snakes may be undergoing a global decline similar in scale to that faced by amphibians. Please see this article for further information.

 

 

Further Reading

IUCN Video of Threatened Species

Center for Biological Diversity Annual Report

Freshwater Turtle Conservation in the USA

CBD Report: Status of 110 Protected Species

 

Rainbow Snake in Georgia  image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Alan Garrett

Hyla eximia  image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Vivipro

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.

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