Kirtland’s snake subject of lawsuit

Photo by James Harding
CHICAGO The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today over the agency’s failure to grant Endangered Species Act protection to the Kirtland’s snake. The rare snake, now found only in scattered populations in the north-central Midwest, has sharply declined due to the loss of its prairie wetland habitat.
“Time is quickly running out for this rare reptile,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a Center lawyer and biologist who works to save imperiled amphibians and reptiles. “With protection of the Endangered Species Act, the snake would benefit from greater emphasis on saving its vanishing wetland habitats, which are also important for humans because they prevent floods and filter surface water.”

The Kirtland’s snake was once known from more than 100 counties in eight states. Since 1980 it has been observed in only a quarter of those counties. The current distribution of this snake is centered in metropolitan areas in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. It is often found in vacant lots associated with streams or wetlands in remnants of much larger populations that have been reduced by urbanization and are rapidly dying out.

“There’s broad scientific consensus that amphibians and reptiles are in the midst of a profound, human-driven extinction crisis that requires prompt action,” said Adkins Giese. “And the Kirtland’s snake simply can’t afford any more delay in receiving the protections of the Endangered Species Act, America’s most powerful law for saving species and putting them on the road to recovery.”

In 2010 the Center and its allies petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the Kirtland’s snake, as well as hundreds of other southeastern aquatic species. In 2011 the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the snake “may warrant” protection as an endangered species, but it has failed to make the required finding on whether to give the animal federal protection.

The Kirtland’s snake Clonophis kirtlandiis a small, nonpoisonous snake that feeds on earthworms, slugs and leeches. It is state-listed as endangered in Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania (last recorded in 1965), and threatened in lllinois and Ohio. Historically most of the snake’s habitat has been lost to agricultural land use, but as urban and suburban sprawl continue to encroach on formerly undeveloped lands, residential development has become a substantial driver the snake’s decline. Collection for the pet trade poses another threat to many populations.

The Kirtland’s snake is one of 10 species across the country that the Center is prioritizing for Endangered Species Act protection this fiscal year. Under a settlement agreement with the Service that expedites protection decisions for 757 species, the Center can push forward 10 decisions per year. The other priority species for 2014 include the Alexander Archipelago wolf from Alaska, the San Bernardino flying squirrel, the Ichetucknee siltsnail from Florida, the black-backed woodpecker from California and South Dakota, and four freshwater species from the southeastern United States including two fish, a mussel and a crayfish. The species are facing extinction for many reasons, chief among them habitat loss from logging and development, global climate change, pollution, groundwater decline and water overuse. 

Under the landmark settlement 118 species have already gained Endangered Species Act protection, and another 24 have been proposed for protection.

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