For the Birds
A push by home builders to reclassify the endangered wood stork serves only to highlight southern Florida's wetlands crisisBy Kirk Nielsen
Southeastern Florida has been inhospitable lately not only for Republican presidential candidates but also for another endangered species: the wood stork. Both types of rare birds have suffered—in different ways—from a tendency to prioritize certain commercial interests while devaluing environmental protection.
But even FDR is to blame. In the 1930s, when 70 percent of wood storks resided south of Lake Okeechobee, an army of federal bulldozers started carving the Everglades region into a maze of huge drainage canals. Some 20,000 breeding pairs of wood storks waded around South Florida then, including parts of the eastern Everglades now known as Kendall, Doral, Miami Lakes, Pembroke Pines, and Weston. By the late 1960s, when wetlands waters funneled into the last major canal project, fewer than 8,500 breeding pairs graced the River of Grass. In 1984, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service counted about 5,600 breeding pairs and added the wood stork to the endangered species list. By the late 1980s only about 500 breeding pairs were left in South Florida, owing to continued wetlands destruction.
Thanks to government-promoted wetlands restoration efforts in the 1990s and 2000s, the wood stork population has made a comeback—except in South Florida, their historical breeding zone. Because of wetlands destruction in our neck of the woods, wood storks have fled up the Atlantic Coast as far as North Carolina and along the Gulf as far west as Mississippi, doubling their range, biologists have found.
There are now more wood storks in Georgia and South Carolina—about 4,200—than in South Florida. The sub-Okeechobee tally is about 3,000, not significantly greater than the 2,858 which biologists counted in 1983, just before home builders and other wetlands-based commercial enterprises drove the wood stork to endangered status.
Oddly, the release of the good news (to the extent that relocation rather than depletion is good) was prompted by a petition sent to Fish & Wildlife by commercial groups who don’t have a wood stork’s best interests at heart. One is the Florida Home Builders Association, whose vaguely worded mission statement describes as its purpose “to create the best possible economic and regulatory environment for our members to succeed.” The manifesto is devoid of language that values an environment in which wood storks can prosper (or any animals of the Florida wetlands, save perhaps the Burmese python).
Allied with the builders is the oxymoronically named Pacific Legal Foundation, a bellicose outfit based in Sacramento whose motto is “Rescuing Liberty from Coast to Coast.” In this case, foundation lawyers want to remove the wood stork from endangered status so that homebuilders are at liberty to build more houses in wetlands. “Environmental regulations must have credibility,” a PLF statement asserts. “No legitimate purpose is served by calling a species ‘endangered’ when it isn’t.”
Ironically, the anti-governmental petition has served little purpose than to force the federal government to spend funds to handle the petition. In 2007, long before the petition was filed, Fish & Wildlife biologists determined that research supported reclassifying the wood stork’s listing to “threatened.” Because of budget constraints the agency refrained from official action, which costs taxpayer dollars and taxes scarce Fish & Wildlife resources. Instead, the agency focused on other beleaguered species needing new protections.
Agency spokesman Chuck Underwood assured me that the redesignation will have no impact on real estate, mining, or other projects that jeopardize wetlands, despite perceptions to the contrary by home builders and their legal eagles. “The reality is that reclassification is a biological classification in the context of extinction,” he explains. Noah Greenwald, a biologist at the environmental group, Center for Biological Diversity, says the change to threatened is “warranted.” “Although it doesn’t reduce habitat protections, I’m sure that the PLF will claim to its paying clients that it does,” he added.
Had South Florida not remained home to one fourth of the total wood stork population across the southeastern U.S., federal biologists wouldn’t have recommended the revision to “threatened,” Underwood noted. Which means that while South Florida may be less critical for the success of GOP presidential candidates, we are ever more so for wood stork designation.
So how can average South Floridians help keep wood storks from fading again into endangered status? “Local communities can help,” says Underwood, “by continuing their support of local, regional and state wetland conservation and restoration efforts.”