CHICAGO— The Center for Biological Diversity and Hoosier Environmental Council sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for denying Endangered Species Act protections to the imperiled Kirtland’s snake.
The small, nonpoisonous snakes boast red-to-pink undersides. They spend much of the year underground, frequently in crayfish burrows, and feed on earthworms, slugs and leeches. Kirtland’s snakes live in seven states — Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee — but have disappeared from 79 of the 139 counties where they were once found. They are gone completely from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
“These pretty snakes are disappearing along with many other animals as wetlands are destroyed across America’s heartland, and they need federal protection,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center. “Saving the Kirtland’s snake will also benefit birds, butterflies and people by protecting areas that reduce flooding, store carbon and provide places to view the natural world teeming with life.”
Agriculture and urbanization have destroyed much of the wetland habitats that the snakes need to survive, leading to its disappearance. Despite laws intended to protect wetlands, tens of thousands of acres of wetland continue to be destroyed every year, according to the Service’s own documents.
Climate change poses a looming and existential threat to the Kirtland’s snake. Models show that less than 25% of the snake’s current habitat is expected to remain suitable by 2060.
“There can be no question the Kirtland’s snake needs our help,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director with Hoosier Environmental Council. “The Endangered Species Act has been tremendously effective at protecting species, including bald eagles and more, but it can only save species if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service follows the science and protects them. Federal protection for the snake is particularly important at this time since the Indiana legislature weakened wetlands protection in 2021.
The Service denied federal protections to the snake in 2017 under the Trump administration, which protected a mere 25 species.
The Kirtland’s snake is protected as endangered at the state level in Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania (where the snakes were last observed in 1965), and as threatened in Illinois and Ohio. In addition to habitat destruction and climate change, Kirtland’s snakes are threatened by an introduced disease and by collection for the pet trade.
“U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s arbitrary and unlawful decision deprives the Kirtland’s snake of the protections it needs to survive,” said Mark Templeton, Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing the Center for Biological Diversity and the Hoosier Environmental Council in the lawsuit.