10 Reptiles and Amphibians Pushed Toward Extinction in the U.S.
A new report by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) identifies the nation’s top 10 amphibians and reptiles in need of immediate federal protection to stave off extinction. The list includes a yellow-legged frog from California’s high Sierras, a two-foot-long eastern salamander and a colorful northeastern turtle.
The report, Dying for Protection: The 10 Most Vulnerable, Least Protected Amphibians and Reptiles in the United States, details the population declines and ongoing threats that have left once-common species like the western pond turtle and boreal toad spiraling toward extinction.
“These increasingly rare frogs, salamanders and turtles are on the fast track toward extinction if we don’t step up and rescue them,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a CBD lawyer and biologist who specializes in conserving amphibians and reptiles. “And it’s not just about protecting these irreplaceable amphibians and reptiles; it’s about protecting the health of the priceless environment we share with them.”
Some of the species included in the report have lost more than 90 percent of their habitat and, without Endangered Species Act protection, many will continue to decline due to fragmentation of their declining populations, pesticide pollution, killer diseases and over-collection. Scientists now estimate that one in four of the nation’s amphibians and reptiles are at risk of extinction, yet they make up only 61 of the approximately 1,400 U.S. species protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Last year the CBD and several internationally renowned conservation scientists, including E.O. Wilson and Thomas Lovejoy, filed a petition seeking Endangered Species Act protection for 53 of the nation’s most threatened species of amphibians and reptiles. In 2011 the CBD signed a landmark settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that is speeding protection decisions for 757 species, including dozens of amphibians and reptiles. The 10 species included in the report are among the neediest of the many reptiles and amphibians still waiting for the lifesaving protection of the Act, which over the past 40 years has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals entrusted to its care.
However, amphibians and reptiles continue to disappear at an alarming rate.
“Frogs, turtles and salamanders are some of nature’s most delightful and fascinating creatures,” said Adkins Giese. “They also help control populations of insects and rodents and in some cases even provide cures for diseases. We can and should help them avoid an extinction crisis.”
Sierra Nevada Yellow-legged Frog (California)
Although they once greeted visitors by the hundreds at some high mountain lakes, populations of these three-inch frogs have now declined by about 90 percent due to introduced fish, toxic pesticides, killer diseases and habitat loss. In accordance with the CBD’s 2011 landmark settlement, two species of mountain yellow-legged frogs were proposed for federal protection in April, along with more than a million acres of critical habitat essential for their protection and recovery. The increasingly rare California amphibians still face an uphill battle for protection as anti-conservation groups and politicians are fighting the proposal.
Eastern Hellbender (New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi)
These two-foot-long, fully aquatic amphibians are threatened with extinction due to dams and water pollution, including mountaintop-removal coal mining that contaminates their once-pristine stream habitats. With flattened bodies, paddle-like tails for swimming and numerous folds of skin for oxygen absorption, these amphibians known as “devil dogs,” “mud devils,” “walking catfish” and “snot otters” are uniquely adapted to aquatic life. Once they were found across most of the eastern U.S., but it is now unknown in how many states North America’s largest amphibian still survives. The hellbenders have been under consideration for Endangered Species Act protection since the CBD petitioned for them in 2010.
Florida Keys Mole Skink (Florida)
This tiny, colorful lizard, once common along the sandy shoreline of the Dry Tortugas and Lower Keys, has declined by up to 30 percent and continues to be threatened by development and sea-level rise. Because it burrows in loose shore soils and uses stones and driftwood for cover, the mole skink could be pushed to extinction by sea levels projected to rise up to six feet within this century. In 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that Endangered Species Act protections for the lizard may be warranted but the agency failed to make a final decision within one year, as the Act requires. The CBD is prioritizing the skink for a protection decision through its work with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Dunes Sagebrush Lizard (New Mexico, Texas)
This small, brown lizard that buries itself in sand to regulate its body temperature and avoid predators is considered one the nation’s most imperiled lizards. Under continuous threat from ongoing oil and gas drilling and herbicide spraying for livestock grazing, it clings to survival on a very small and increasingly fragmented range in southeastern New Mexico and west Texas. After spending nearly 30 years as a candidate for Endangered Species Act listing, the lizard was proposed for federal protection in 2010, only to see the Fish & Wildlife Service reverse course 18 months later and withdraw the proposal in favor of voluntary, but unenforceable, conservation agreements with private landowners that are now being challenged in court by the CBD and its ally as illegal.
Eastern Gopher Tortoise (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina)
Once widespread across the Southeast, these foot-long tortoises have been reduced to small, isolated populations by pine plantations and suburban sprawl that have destroyed the majority of their longleaf pine habitat. Grazers who can live more than 50 years, gopher tortoises are critical to healthy ecosystems because they build elaborate burrows that provide habitat for more than 360 other species including rabbits, quail, owls, frogs and snakes. The tortoises are also threatened by rattlesnake hunters, who purposefully destroy tortoise burrows while collecting snakes for cruel “rattlesnake roundups.” In 2011 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the tortoises warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act but placed the species on a list of candidate species awaiting federal protection.
Boreal Toad (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Nevada)
Once common in the western U.S., boreal toads have seen their populations plummet in recent decades due to the spread of a deadly fungus and the destruction of high-elevation stream and wetland habitat by pollution and poorly managed recreation and livestock grazing. Prior to a recent reintroduction effort these three- to four-inch toads were nearly extirpated in southern Wyoming and likely extirpated in New Mexico. They now exist in less than one percent of their historic breeding areas in the southern Rockies. In response to a CBD petition, in 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that Endangered Species Act protection may be warranted and initiated a full status review of the toads in the southern Rocky Mountains, Utah, southern Idaho and northeastern Nevada.
Blanding’s Turtle (Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Wisconsin)
This medium-to-large turtle targeted by the pet trade because of its beautiful yellow chin and throat once ranged through much of the Great Lakes region and the northeastern U.S. But after extensive declines from collection, habitat loss, road mortality and intense predation on eggs and hatchlings the only large remaining populations are found in Minnesota and Nebraska. They’re also threatened by “turtle derbies,” in which wild turtles are exposed to infectious diseases after being caught and brought into close proximity during races that are still part of some small-town summer celebrations. Since 2012 the turtle has been under consideration for Endangered Species Act protection.
Western Pond Turtle (Washington, Oregon, California)
These four- to 10-inch long “pond” turtles that live in streams and rivers and spend lots of time on land were once common from western Washington south to northwestern Baja California. But due to habitat destruction, disease, runoff contamination and pesticides the turtle essentially has been extirpated from its historic habitat in the lower Puget Sound, and only two populations remain in the Columbia River Gorge. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley the turtles are estimated to have declined to roughly one percent of historic levels and in California most remaining populations are small and declining with low viability. The western pond turtle is one of six turtles included in the CBD’s 2012 listing petition.
Louisiana Pine Snake (Louisiana, Texas)
These four- to five-foot-long powerful constrictors with notoriously low birth rates were once common in parts of Louisiana and Texas. But with the ongoing loss of its the longleaf pine ecosystem it is likely already extinct in Texas, and fewer than 100 likely remain in Louisiana. Unless the snake receives urgently needed protections, scientists predict it will likely go extinct in the wild within a decade. Fortunately the snake is scheduled to receive Endangered Species Act protection by 2014 under the CBD’s settlement with the Service that is leading to listing decisions for hundreds of candidate species awaiting federal protection.
Peaks of Otter Salamander (Virginia)
Known only to a 12-mile stretch of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, these darkly pigmented, five-inch-long salamanders have one of the most restricted ranges of any salamander in the U.S. Because these lungless amphibians never move more than a few feet from underground retreats located in the mature oak and maple forests of a single ridge top they cannot shift their range upslope as the climate warms, making them particularly vulnerable to climate change. The salamander is one of 24 salamanders included in the CBD’s 2012 listing petition, but ongoing logging and habitat destruction continue to place it at great risk of extinction
After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what's at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
Young and Old<p>But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.</p><p>"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."</p><p>That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."</p><p>Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge/" target="_blank">drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction</a>.</p><p>Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."</p><p>An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.</p><p>"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.</p><p>"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.</p><p>Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.</p>
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders<p>Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.</p><p>"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."</p><p>He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.</p><p>As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.</p><p>"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.</p><p> "Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.</p>
Speaking the Same Language<p>As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.</p><p>In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."</p><p>If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.</p><p>Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.</p><p>"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.</p><p>"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."</p><p>The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."</p><p>Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."</p><p>Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.</p><p>"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-address-west-coast-fires-confront-growing-threat/story?id=73000218" target="_blank">said in a speech on Sept. 14</a>. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."</p><p>In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like. </p><p>"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."</p>
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By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
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