ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice of intent today to sue the Trump administration for failing to protect eight rare species of skink, from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, under the Endangered Species Act. The lizards face extinction due to introduced predators, habitat destruction and climate change.
The Center petitioned for protection of the skinks in 2014 with Dr. Renata Platenberg, an ecologist specializing in Caribbean reptiles. In 2016 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the eight skinks might warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, but the agency subsequently failed to make a determination within the required 12-month period.
“Delay means death for these lizards, so the Trump administration has to act,” said Elise Bennett, a Center attorney dedicated to protecting rare reptiles and amphibians. “Skinks are being devoured by human-introduced rats and feral cats, obliterated by reckless development, and drowned by extreme storms fueled by climate change. They need Endangered Species Act protection now, not in 10 years.”
Two of the skinks, the lesser Virgin Islands skink and Virgin Islands bronze skink, as well as the endangered Virgin Islands tree boa, are believed to occur on Great St. James, which Jeffrey Epstein purchased in 2016 to construct a sprawling compound with two homes, cottages and various other buildings connected by private roads.
At least some of the construction has taken place without government permits. Since Epstein’s death the fate of the island and the endangered animals is uncertain.
Scientists only identified the skinks as separate species in a 2012 study. All are considered critically endangered or endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, and they are absent or extremely rare across most of their former ranges.
In addition to habitat destruction and non-native predators like cats, mongoose and rats, climate change is causing sea-level rise and extreme storm events like the deadly Category 5 Hurricane Maria in 2017, which wreck the limited habitat of these entirely island-dwelling lizards. As many of the skink’s islands are small and low in elevation, they are particularly vulnerable.
Caribbean skinks, which can grow to be about 8 inches long, are unique among reptiles in having reproductive systems most like humans, including a placenta and live birth. They have cylindrical bodies, and most have ill-defined necks that, together with their sinuous movements and smooth, bronze-colored skin, make them look like stubby snakes with legs.
Three of the species included in today’s notice are found within the territory of Puerto Rico: the Culebra skink (Culebra and the adjacent islet of Culebrita), Mona skink (Mona Island) and Puerto Rican skink (Puerto Rico and several of its satellite islands). The remaining five are found in the Virgin Islands: the greater St. Croix skink (St. Croix and its satellite Green Cay), lesser St. Croix skink (St. Croix), greater Virgin Islands skink (St. John and St. Thomas), Virgin Islands bronze skink (St. Thomas and several of its islets, several British Virgin Islands) and lesser Virgin Islands skink (St. Thomas and two adjacent islets, several British Virgin Islands).