The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for failing to determine whether five increasingly rare northeastern amphibians and reptiles warrant consideration for Endangered Species Act protection. The Center first petitioned for these species — the wood turtle, spotted turtle, green salamander, Peaks of Otter salamander and white-spotted salamander — in July 2012 because habitat loss and other factors are threatening their survival.
“These turtles and salamanders are irreplaceable parts of the wild where they live, whether it’s a remote mountain stream or a suburban wetland,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a Center biologist and lawyer focused on protecting amphibians and reptiles. “Losing them will impoverish those places and our own connection with the natural world.”
Due to habitat destruction, toxic pesticides and other human causes, scientists estimate 1 in 4 amphibians and reptiles is at risk of dying out. This loss is alarming because the animals play important roles as predators and prey in their ecosystems and are valuable indicators of environmental health.
“There’s broad scientific consensus that amphibians and reptiles face a profound, human-driven extinction crisis that requires prompt action,” said Adkins Giese. “The Endangered Species Act has a nearly perfect record of stopping animals from going extinct — it’s hands-down our best tool for saving rare amphibians and reptiles.”
The Center was joined in its petition for these five species and other amphibians and reptiles by several renowned scientists and herpetologists, including E.O. Wilson, Thomas Lovejoy and Michael Lannoo. And more than 200 scientists sent a letter asking the Service to review the status of the petitioned animals.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is required to make an initial finding within 90 days of receiving a petition about whether protections may be warranted — but more than a year and a half later, the agency has not acted. The 90-day finding is the first in a series of required decisions and simply requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether the petition presents sufficient information to warrant further consideration, a process that requires few agency resources.
Wood Turtles (Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin): Hurt by the pet trade, channelization of rivers and streams, careless timber-harvesting practices along waterways, urbanization, and agricultural practices including pesticide use, the wood turtles’ remaining populations tend to be isolated, greatly reducing the chances of their natural recovery in areas where their numbers have plummeted. Traditionally low survival rates among juvenile wood turtles have been made worse by the increased prevalence of turtle predators, such as raccoons and skunks, which thrive in urbanized areas. Wood turtles have an unusual feeding behavior: They stomp their front feet to cause earthworms to come to the surface.
Spotted Turtles (Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, West Virginia): A small, black turtle with yellow spots on its smooth shell, the spotted turtle is an attractive animal that’s another unfortunate favorite in the pet trade. It ranges from southern Ontario and Maine southward from the Atlantic coastal plain and piedmont to northern Florida and westward through Ontario, New York, Pennsylvania, central Ohio, northern Indiana and Michigan to northeastern Illinois. The turtle has likely suffered a 50 percent overall reduction in population size, with much of this loss irreversible because of habitat loss.
Peaks of Otter Salamanders (Virginia): Known only to a 12-mile stretch of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Peaks of Otter salamanders have one of the most restricted ranges of any salamander in the United States. These darkly pigmented, 5-inch-long salamanders with brassy metallic spots occur only in mature oak and maple forests at high elevations, a trait that makes them particularly vulnerable to climate change. Because Peaks of Otter salamanders are confined to a single ridge top, they are unable to shift their range upslope as the climate warms. While the habitat of these salamanders is offered some protection in the Jefferson National Forest and on the Blue Ridge Parkway, activities like logging continue to threaten their viability.
Green Salamanders (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia): While the range of the green salamander encompasses the entire Appalachian region, it exists only in habitat fragments with remaining populations experiencing extirpations and significant declines. The only member of the “climbing family” of salamanders east of the Rocky Mountains, green salamanders are found on rock outcrops and in arboreal habitats. During the spring and summer, breeding females require cool and moist narrow crevices in which to suspend their eggs, and in fall, the salamanders congregate near deep rock crevices for use during winter hibernation. The salamanders are threatened by logging, road construction, mountaintop removal mining, impoundments, overcollection for the pet trade and climate change.
White-spotted Salamanders (Virginia, West Virginia): This salamander has a narrow range in the Shenandoah, North and Great North mountains, in George Washington National Forest, Virginia and West Virginia. Its populations are declining and its occupied range is shrinking, mostly due to habitat loss from logging of the old-growth forests upon which it depends. At night these opportunistic carnivores feed on the forest floor during wet conditions, and in day they are found under rocks and logs or in burrows.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 675,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.