The South is home to more endangered species than anywhere else in the country. This list of at-risk species by state paints a sad picture of what’s happening in the South — from Texas to Florida and everywhere in between. Rich biodiversity once thrived in our mosaic of sparse grasslands, thick swamps, salty coastlines, and ragged mountains. And in an ironic cycle, the humans magnetized to the South’s beauty and splendor may also be endangering the species that have always called it home.
It’s not all bleak news, though. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 established protections for fish, wildlife, and plants that are listed as threatened or endangered. There are provisions for adding species to and removing them from the list and for preparing and implementing detailed plans for their recovery in specific parts of their range (the geographic area that a species covers).
Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) uses five criteria to label a species as endangered or threatened:
- Damage to, or destruction of, a species’ habitat.
- Over-utilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes.
- Disease or predation.
- Inadequacy of existing protection.
- Other natural or man-made factors that affect the species’ continued existence.
There has been a lot of success in revitalizing once-dwindling populations. Species like the humpback whale, California condor, bald eagle, grizzly bear, whooping crane, and black-footed ferret have all been brought back from the brink of extinction. But for all the wins, there have been disheartening additions to the lists. One expert explains how the southeast is in an especially icky predicament and what he is doing to help it.
All endangered species are important, not just the big cats and whales.
Will Ruark is the Conservation Preserve Manager at Catawba Lands Conservancy. A former Park Ranger for North Carolina State Parks, Will’s current focus is on habitat restoration through fire management and invasive species control. “All species of endangered and threatened animals and plants are important,” Will says. “I do not believe any are more important than the other. These animals and plants have adapted to play a role in a specific niche in our environment.”
How do humans affect habitats on land?
It’s we. Hi, we’re the problem. It’s we. Corny Taylor Swift reference aside, habitat loss is the primary threat to most species listed as endangered or threatened. In some areas, development or land use threatens to destroy, modify, or curtail key habitat attributes, which has a devastating domino effect. Will helps us understand the part we play (and have played) in hurting species over time.
“Many of the terrestrial and avian endangered species are in their situation due to loss of sensitive and rare landscapes,” Will says. “A good example of this is the complex grasslands that once covered the southeast. Animals have adapted over millennia to sustain themselves on native vegetation. Non-native vegetation does not provide the minerals and nutrients needed for these animals to thrive. Examples are our planted tall fescue and Bermuda grass yards. They provide little to no benefit to insects or animals.”
And in the water?
“For aquatic species,” Will continues, “most are endangered due to pollution from sedimentation. Increased development and poor erosion control have led to irreparable damage to our sensitive wetlands. This decreases the oxygen available in the water for mollusks and fish.”
We have also seen this play out in the case of the manatee. When the USFWS down-listed manatees from endangered to threatened in 2017, it was a very polarizing decision. Sure, the once 1,200 population of manatees in Florida grew to nearly 6,300 over 25 years, but they still face some trying times today. More than 1,000 manatees died in 2021 alone from starvation as pollution and habitat loss destroyed vast areas of the seagrass vegetation they eat. Inhospitable water mixed with negligent boating accidents creates a grim state of affairs for sea cows.
Learning about the land before our time
We must “learn about historic landscapes,” Will says. “For example, Charlotte, North Carolina, was once part of vast piedmont grassland. Large mammals like bison and elk once roamed our lands. Our land also saw periodic fires, usually intentionally set by indigenous peoples. Both the large mammals and fires kept our landscapes ‘open’ and provided the needed habitat and food for many species on the decline.”
No fire, no good
Let’s learn more about fire’s role in all of this. Fire suppression policies began around the 1920s and significantly reduced controlled fire (also called prescribed burning) throughout the east. This had profound ecological consequences. The fire-maintained open lands that Will mentioned have converted to unmanaged, closed-canopy forests over time. It’s a “huge issue,” he says.
“These forests are dense with invasive native (sweetgums, beech, maples) and non-native (privet, autumn olive) species that have decreased the functionality of the forest for plants and animals.” This, plus the removal of fire, has caused what experts call “mesophication” (or increased soil moisture) to our once-dry forests. Controlled burning can prevent more expansive forest fires by clearing out dead debris and rejuvenating habitats by destroying invasive plants.
Case Study: Red-Cockaded Woodpecker
When it comes to humans disturbing habitats, Will provides another example of how fire can help. “In the sandhills of North and South Carolina, the red-cockaded woodpecker is a species that adapted to survive in longleaf pine savannas,” Will says. “They actually live within bored holes in the longleaf pine. When humans began to clear-cut the longleaf pine and replace it with loblolly pine, the red-cockaded woodpecker populations significantly decreased. Longleaf stands are increasing again since we realized we had caused a chain of harm to an entire ecosystem. Longleaf need fire to thrive! Good fire!” he adds.
Case Study: Schweinitz’s Sunflower
Will says that Catawba Lands Conservancy is actively working to restore grasslands that support the endangered Schweinitz’s Sunflower. “We have restored and enhanced an oak-hickory savanna, and we were granted permits to collect seeds from a remnant population along a roadside.” With the help of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, they propagated the endangered flower and planted more than 900 seedlings in the restored savanna.
Case Study: Bog Turtle
North America’s smallest turtle, the Bog Turtle, is a critically endangered wetlands species known for its yellow-orange cheek spot and 4.5-inch shell size. The southern population of bog turtles lives in various rare wetlands — collectively called bogs — in Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
“We work directly with a small population of Bog Turtles in the Piedmont,” Will says. “Their traditional habitat is small mountain bogs which have been affected by sedimentation, channelization, and non-native vegetation. We have restored the bog to allow for water to spread out over the landscape instead of channelizing. And we are also combating non-native vegetation that has come from private lands upstream,” Will adds.
Know your endangered and threatened Southern species …
Read up on just a handful of the other animals at risk in our region:
- Florida Panther: Only about 200 of these large cats are left in the wild in southern Florida.
- Texas Ocelot: It’s estimated that about 60 of these medium-sized spotted cats are still alive in Texas near the Mexican border.
- Red Wolf: Only one wild population of about 20 red wolves exists today on eastern North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula. But six pups were born in April of 2022 — the first wild red wolf litter born since 2018.
- Key Deer: Only 700 to 800 of this small deer species still exist in the Florida Keys.
- Gopher Tortoise: The only tortoise found east of the Mississippi, this large-shelled species ranges across Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina but is only considered threatened in half of those states.
- Dusky (Mississippi) Gopher Frog: The decline of longleaf pines, fire suppression, drought, pesticides, urban sprawl, highway construction, and the decline of gopher tortoises have made this frog so rare it now lives in only three small Mississippi ponds.
- Eastern Indigo Snake: This large, venomous black snake also uses the gopher tortoise burrow for shelter. The population is unknown, and it’s listed as threatened.
- Whooping Crane: One of the tallest and rarest birds in North America, there are said to be about 600 left in the wild, but that’s a big rise from its double-digit population in the 1940s.
- Ozark Hellbender: About 900 of these flat aquatic salamanders are left in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. They can grow up to two feet long and live up to thirty years.
- Monarch Butterfly: The native population of this pretty winged butterfly has shrunk significantly over the past decade.
- Northern Right Whale: Found off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida during mating and breeding season, this endangered sea mammal can grow up to 55 feet. Fewer than 70 breeding females remain.
A final call to action
Two-thirds of federally listed species have at least some habitat on private land, and some have most of their remaining habitat on private land. The Gopher Tortoise, whose predicament affects so many other species, is one such animal. Get to know the wildlife on your land, revisit the list of species by state, and check out USFWS’s database of regional conservation initiatives that might help protect the habitats around you.
We asked Will if there is anything else we should know about encountering animals in the wild. “Don’t try to touch venomous snakes?” he jests. Thank you, Will, for talking to us about this important topic.
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