Thursday, March 11, 2010

ESA Protections for Loggerhead Sea Turtle and Kaua'i Endemics

Last week, I expressed some frustration with the Obama's administration's record on endangered species after it placed Greater Sage-Grouse on the list of candidates. Up to that point, only two species had been listed under the Endangered Species Act since Obama took office, while 249 species have been sitting on the candidate list. This week that changed in a big way, with two announcements.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle at Archie Carr NWR / Photo by Ryan Hagerty (USFWS)

First, the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a joint proposal to list the Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta) under the Endangered Species Act. Loggerhead Sea Turtle has nine distinct populations around the world. Of these, two will be designated as threatened and seven as endangered. The two populations that occur in U.S. waters, the North Pacific and Northwest Atlantic populations, will both be designated as endangered. Loggerhead Sea Turtles worldwide are currently classified as threatened; the new listing is in response to petitions regarding the two U.S. populations.

This is a proposed rather than final rule, so it will undergo a public comment period first. If you wish to comment on the proposed listing, you can do so at until June 14, 2010. Once the Loggerhead is listed as endangered, the government will be required to designate critical habitat to protect feeding areas in the ocean and nesting areas on beaches.

‘Akeke‘e (Loxops caeruleirostris) / Painting by John Gerrard Keulemans

Second, 48 endemic species from the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i were listed as a group since they share habitats and have similar threats. This action addresses some of the backlog in listing petitions. An ecosystem approach is particularly suitable for Hawaii since so many vulnerable species occur in a relatively small area. It provides a way for the government to protect entire ecosystems rather than the narrow ranges where a species is known to be found. The USFWS plans to list new species by ecosystem on other islands in the next few years.

The 48 newly listed species (pdf) include 45 plants, 1 insect, and 2 birds. Among the 45 plants are several that have not been seen for several years, though they still exist in remote areas. One plant, Diellia manii, was considered extinct until its recent rediscovery. The insect is Drosophila sharpi, a Hawaiian picture-wing fly. The two birds are ‘Akeke‘e (Loxops caeruleirostris) and ‘Akikiki (Oreomystis bairdi). Both are Hawaiian honeycreepers and members of the finch family. They may be better known as Kaua'i 'Akepa and Kaua'i Creeper. These species had appeared stable until the mid-20th century, when both populations suffered precipitous declines. There are now about 3,500 'Akeke'e and 1,300 'Akikiki.

Along with listing the 48 endangered species, the USFWS designated critical habitat for 47 of them. The critical habitat covers 26,582 acres in six ecosystem types, 98% of which overlaps the critical habitat already designated for other endangered or threatened species. Most is on state-owned lands. Critical habitat was not designated for one palm species because it is a prized plant for collections; the USFWS was concerned that designating critical habitat might alert collectors to its location.