Animal advocates say species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker could be virtually extinct before they gain protection.
By CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 9, 2001
First, a proposal by the state's wildlife agency to lessen the level of protection for a controversial woodpecker set the feathers flying among bird experts.
Now advocates of the manatee are jumping into the fray as well, teaming up with woodpecker experts to challenge the standards under which the state considers a species to be endangered.
In the past three months, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has agreed to consider lowering the protected status of both the manatee and the red-cockaded woodpecker, two controversial species, using a new set of criteria.
Experts on the red-cockaded woodpecker and advocates for the manatee both contend that the state's new criteria are so restrictive that a species would have to be as dead as the dodo for officials to list it as needing protection.
A report from the scientists at the Florida Ornithological Society contends the red-cockaded woodpecker "will be effectively extinct by the time the species satisfies the new definition of endangered."
If the state were to use its new criteria to reconsider all of its other endangered animals -- even the rare Florida panther -- "I'll bet most of them would no longer fit the definition," said Rich Paul of Audubon of Florida.
Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed "serious concerns" about the state's listing procedures, contending that applying them to the woodpecker would be a mistake.
This is no academic debate. Animals that merit being on the state's endangered species list tend to be first in line for state funding for buying environmentally sensitive land and conducting scientific research, the Florida Ornithological Society report says.
Endangered species get three to five times as much time and money from the state as do species with a lower status, the report contends. Knock a species down or off the list, the report predicts, and money to study it and protect its habitat will dry up.
Federal wildlife experts concur, saying that reclassifying the woodpecker may "reduce the management attention that is given the species, particularly on private and state-owned lands in Florida."
State wildlife officials strongly disagree. Whether a species is listed as endangered or threatened or something less doesn't matter as much as what kind of plan the state writes for managing its population and protecting its habitat, contended Frank Montalbano, director of the wildlife division of the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Todd Engstrom, acting research director of the Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee, has urged the state to convene a group of biologists "to develop clear and biologically sound criteria for listing imperiled species."
Yet state officials say they have no plans to change their criteria.
"I believe we should let this play out and see what results we get," Montalbano said.
"We can't let it play out on more species," objected Laurie Macdonald of Defenders of Wildlife.
Ironically, the new listing criteria were supposed to help the wildlife commission avoid controversy -- almost impossible to do when dealing with endangered species.
Loggers dislike the protections for red-cockaded woodpeckers because it limits their harvests. Boaters dislike protections for the manatee because it limits where and how fast they can run their crafts.
Still, the commission wanted to avoid what happened the last time it attempted to add a new species to its list -- and itself wound up in danger of extinction.
In 1995, the wildlife agency voted to classify a bird called the white ibis as threatened. Most of the state's white ibis population lives on private property, particularly cattle ranches.
Cattlemen protested, fearing local and state restrictions on how they used their land. State senators threatened to slash the agency's funding and warned that saving the ibis would ruin the state's economy.
No ibis-related financial disaster befell Florida, but the commission was so rattled it decided to rewrite rules for adding endangered species.
The commission staff did not want to use the same definitions that federal officials follow in declaring which species are endangered, because they believed those definitions are too vague.
Instead they simply adapted a set of criteria from the World Conservation Union -- criteria that global organization is now revising, Engstrom noted.
The state's new criteria say an endangered species is one that has lost at least 80 percent of its population during the past 10 years. To qualify as threatened, a species must have lost at least 50 percent of its population during the past 10 years.
"When I saw those criteria, the hair on the back of my neck stood up," said Patti Thompson, a biologist who works for the Save the Manatee Club in Maitland.
The population of the red-cockaded woodpecker has declined by about 97 percent in the past century, according to the Ornithological Society report.
The only reason the woodpecker population has stabilized or improved in some areas is because biologists have been transplanting woodpeckers to such places as the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest near Brooksville. In three years they have moved in enough birds to boost Croom's population from nine to 31 woodpeckers.
But the red-cockaded woodpecker likely will not qualify for anything but the lowest rung on the state's ladder because its remaining estimated population of 12,500 has not dropped by 80 or even 50 percent in the past decade.
"My conclusion is that the only way the red-cockaded woodpecker will ever be designated endangered, or indeed threatened, in Florida is if it goes extinct," Virginia Polytechnic Institute professor Jeffrey Walters, who has spent 19 years studying the woodpecker, wrote to the state agency.
Florida has the largest single group of woodpeckers in the country, the estimated 1,500 birds living in the Apalachicola National Forest near Tallahassee. Some bird experts fear that a decision to downgrade the woodpecker's status in Florida may become the first step to removing it from the federal endangered list, taking away all of its strong legal protection.
"It takes a chink out of the armor that is protecting the species," said Jerome Jackson, who led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery team for the species shortly after it was named to the endangered list. "This opens the door for legal challenges on the federal level. It's just a bad precedent."
-- Times staff writer Dan DeWitt contributed to this report.