For Immediate Release, January 13, 2021

Contact:

Elise Bennett, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 755-6950, ebennett@biologicaldiversity.org
Cynthia Sarthou, Healthy Gulf, (504) 525-1528 x202, cyn@healthygulf.org

Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration Failure to Develop Recovery Plans for Two Critically Imperiled Salamanders

Frosted, Reticulated Flatwoods Salamanders Need Plans to Recover in Southeastern Coastal Plain

PANAMA CITY, Fla.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Healthy Gulf sued the Trump administration today for failing to issue recovery plans for the critically endangered reticulated and frosted flatwoods salamanders.

Today’s lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court for the District of Columbia, notes that the salamanders continue to decline across their range and suffer from ongoing habitat loss and degradation, despite being originally listed under the Endangered Species Act more than 20 years ago. Recovery plans would help stop these declines and support species recovery by comprehensively guiding conservation activities, including habitat restoration and management.

“It’s heartbreaking that flatwoods salamanders have continued to suffer for more than two decades while waiting for their chance at recovery,” said Elise Bennett, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These beautiful salamanders need recovery plans now if we want to bring them back from the brink of extinction.”

Reticulated and frosted flatwoods salamanders were historically found throughout the once-extensive longleaf pine forests of the coastal plain in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. But today they’re limited to a handful of small populations in the latter three states. Habitat destruction and poor forest management continue to drive them toward extinction. They are also threated by climate change, which is creating stronger storms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Frosted flatwoods salamander populations suffered significant losses in 2018 when Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, pushed 10 feet of seawater across the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, once considered a stronghold for the species.

“Sadly, these salamanders’ populations are continuing to decline while the federal government delays publishing and implementing a recovery plan,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Healthy Gulf. “And they will continue to decline unless the Fish and Wildlife Service not just publishes, but implements, a recovery plan that protects their habitat.”

Recovery plans are the main tool for identifying actions necessary to save endangered species from extinction and eventually end the need to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. Research by the Center has found that species with dedicated recovery plans for two or more years are far more likely to be improving than those without.

Background

The reticulated flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma bishopi) and frosted flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma cingulatum) are black to chocolate-black salamanders, with light gray lines and specks that form a cross-banded pattern across their backs. Both species occupy longleaf pine-slash pine flatwoods in the lower southeastern coastal plain. The animals spend most of their lives underground, in crayfish burrows, root channels or burrows of their own making. They emerge in the early winter rains to breed in small, isolated seasonal wetlands.

Once prevalent throughout Alabama, Florida and Georgia, the reticulated flatwoods salamander has not been observed in Alabama in approximately 35 years. In 2009 this species was struggling to survive in 20 small, isolated populations, and by 2015 was only known to occur in six populations. The frosted flatwoods salamander was found in 25 tenuous populations in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in 2009, and by 2015 this estimate was reduced to only nine known populations.

Because of these precipitous declines, in 2019 Fish and Wildlife Service biologists recommended reclassifying the frosted flatwoods salamander from threatened to endangered.

More than 80% of their habitat has been destroyed, and the remnants of pine flatwood areas are typically fragmented and degraded. These species continue to be threatened by fire suppression, drought, off-road vehicle use and disease.

The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the flatwoods salamander as a federally threatened species in 1999. As a result of a taxonomic reclassification of the species, in 2008 the Service recognized the flatwoods salamander as two distinct species. In 2009 the agency finalized its determination of endangered status for the reticulated flatwoods salamander, while retaining a threatened status for the frosted flatwoods salamander.

In response to a Center lawsuit, the Service in February 2009 designated 4,453 acres of protected critical habitat for the reticulated flatwoods salamander and 22,970 acres for the frosted flatwoods salamander.

Ambystoma_bishopi_USGS_FPWC.jpg
Reticulated flatwoods salamander. Photo courtesy of Jeromi Hefner, USGS Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Healthy Gulf’s purpose is to collaborate with and serve communities who love the Gulf of Mexico by providing the research, communications, and coalition-building tools needed to reverse the long pattern of over exploitation of the Gulf’s natural resources.