Wood Stork. Photograph courtesy of the USFWS.
By Christine Harris
We often hear stories of species teetering on the brink of extinction. Rarely do we hear positive news about the fate of a threatened or endangered species, but the continuing recovery of the wood stork (Mycteria americana) is one of those rare stories.
A large, bald, wading bird standing approximately four feet tall with a wingspan of five feet, the American wood stork population was drastically reduced by habitat loss and fragmentation as many of the Florida wetlands in which it bred and lived were destroyed. This habitat loss led to a drastic population decrease from 40,000 breeding adults in the 1930s to around 10,000 in the 1970s. Today the population of breeding adults is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000.
Wood Stork Florida habitat. Image courtesy of University of Florida.
The wood stork’s population increase over the past thirty years is partially due to the fact that the species has expanded its range and established breeding colonies in new areas in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. These new breeding colonies have helped the species to compensate for the loss of some of its historic nesting grounds in Florida. The wood stork has also expanded its wintering grounds to include parts of Mississippi and Alabama.
On June 26, 2014 Secretary of the Interior and former REI CEO Sally Jewell announced that the wood stork is being downgraded from an endangered to a threatened species. Jewell made the announcement at the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge on the coast of Georgia where an artificial wetland created in the 1980s now harbors 800 breeding adult wood storks. Restored and artificial wetlands throughout the wood stork’s breeding range have helped contribute to its recovery.
Wood Storks in their habitat. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.
Although the population has made a significant recovery, not everyone is happy about the decision to change the bird’s status from endangered to threatened. Florida’s chapter of the National Audubon Society has publicly decried the decision citing the decline of the species in its historic range as cause for concern. Though the species is now breeding in areas where it didn’t when it was listed thirty years ago, many of the wetlands in which it bred historically have been further destroyed or damaged since it was listed leading to a population decline in some areas of Florida.
Although some consider the status change to be premature, the protection awarded to the species under the Endangered Species Act will be virtually the same as it was when the wood stork was listed as endangered. The downgrade to “threatened” indicates that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Federal agency that oversees the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, no longer considers the species to be at risk for extinction. Thirty years ago many believed the wood stork would never see a status downgrade. When the species was first listed in 1984 wildlife biologists feared the bird would be extinct by 2000.