U.S. proposes removing wood stork from endangered species list
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The ungainly yet graceful wood stork, which was on the brink of extinction in 1984, has recovered sufficiently in Florida and other Southern states that U.S. wildlife officials on Tuesday proposed removing the wading bird from the endangered species list.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a news release that restoration of the wood stork's habitat, especially in the Florida Everglades and adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve, led to a sharp increase in breeding pairs. Those numbers had shrunk to just 5,000 pairs in 1984, whereas there are more than 10,000 pairs today.
“This iconic species has rebounded because dedicated partners in the southeast have worked tirelessly to restore ecosystems, such as the Everglades, that support it,” said Shannon Estenoz, assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.
In addition, the wood stork has increased its range in coastal areas of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, officials said. The birds have adapted to new nesting areas in those states, tripling the number of colonies across their range from 29 to 99 in recent years.
Credit goes mainly to the wildlife protections provided by the Endangered Species Act, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, said Stephanie Kurose, a senior policy specialist at environmental group the Center for Biological Diversity. The act can impose restrictions on a variety of activities in areas where such species are located, such as development, mining and oil drilling.
“The act saved the wood stork and it helped preserve and rebuild vital habitats throughout the southeast, which has improved water quality and benefited countless other species who call the area home," Kurose said by email.
Conservationists, however, worry federal wildlife managers are pulling protections from the leggy bird too soon. They worry that while the storks have expanded to northern coastal breeding grounds, the Service is undervaluing their historic nesting grounds in the Everglades.
"The thing that has us scratching our heads is South Florida for so long was the heartland of wood storks. It was the lifeboat at a time when it was the only place that wood storks remained. And they bred in these huge mega colonies, which today don't really exist anymore in South Florida," said Audubon Florida executive director Julie Wraithmell. "It seems a little counterintuitive to think that such an iconic Everglades bird could be fine without the Everglades. "
Wood storks have a distinctive scaly, featherless gray head and a bright white feathered body with long skinny legs. They are fairly large, standing up to four feet (1.2 meters) tall and with a wingspan of up to 5 feet (1.5 meters). The nesting pairs lay three to five eggs per year, although the eggs are frequently targeted by predators such as raccoons and other birds.
Their bald heads give wood storks an almost prehistoric appearance, leading to nicknames such as “stonehead” and “flinthead.” Wood storks feed in shallow waters on fish, insects, frogs and crabs depending on whether it's wet or dry season. They are the only stork native to North America.
Wood storks were downlisted from endangered to threatened in 2014, thanks in part to expanded nesting in coastal marshes from Mississippi to the Carolinas. However, conservationists worry those coastal marshes may be more vulnerable to sea rise than Florida's inland wetlands. Wood storks forage for food by sweeping their beaks through water in search of fish, which requires more precise water depths.
In Florida, they have also served as a gatekeeper protecting disappearing wetlands.
"Wood storks with their listed status are an important trigger for consideration of wetlands in land use permitting. And that would go away at the federal level without their listed status," Wraithmell said.
Wetlands permitting across the state was weakened in 2021 when the Trump administration allowed Florida to take over issuing permits, becoming only the third state in the country to oversee its protected wetlands. The state will no longer be required to consult with the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes before allowing wetlands to be developed.
In Florida, federal and state governments are spending tens of billions of dollars for ongoing projects to restore natural water flows in the Everglades and Big Cypress and reduce harmful nutrients from fertilizer runoff and other sources that promote unhealthy plant growth.
The Endangered Species Act has saved 99% of the species that have been on the list since 1973, with 100 types of plants and animals delisted because they have recovered or are at least stable, according to the Interior Department.
“The proposed delisting of the wood stork is a significant milestone and a testament to the hard work by federal agencies, state and local governments, tribes, conservation organizations, and private citizens in protecting and restoring our most at-risk species,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will take comments on the proposal through April 17 from other government agencies, scientists, environmental groups and anyone else interested in the welfare of the wood stork. After that, the service will publish a final decision on whether to remove the bird from the endangered species list.
If the wood stork is delisted, officials said it would remain protected by other laws including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Clean Water Act. A monitoring plan would be put in place for at least five years to ensure the stork population remains stable.