7 Animals in the Waiting Room
The Endangered Species Act only gives protections to species that are officially listed as "endangered." But when the Marine Fisheries Service or the Fish and Wildlife Service have other priorities, not all species that need protection make it on the list. These species are put on what is called the "candidate list," a list of species that are recognized by everyone to desperately need help, but which have no legal protections. Species that are declining can wait for years on the candidate list before becoming official. Over forty species have even gone extinct while waiting around.
Man, and you thought that waiting at the doctor's office was bad!
Here is a sample of just some of the 320 species of wildlife that are stuck in a bureaucratic mire:
8 years waiting
The fisher is a hunter extraordinaire, a member of the weasel family that can even take down a porcupine. These predators are found mostly in the taiga regions of Canada, but their range dips into the U.S. in the northeast from Maine south to the northeast corner Pennsylvania, and in the west on the cool mountaintops of the Klamath-Siskiyou and the Sierra Nevada. But in the West, they're not doing so well.
In the past, fur trapping took its toll, but it is habitat destruction that has prevented the fisher from recovering. Fishers need mature forests with lots of dead, hollow trees to live in, and in today's landscape, these forests are a dwindling resource. The fisher is no longer found in Washington and British Columbia, where it once roamed, and today lives in scattered pockets of habitat in Oregon and California.
The Endangered Species Act allows not just for the protection of species, but also of distinct populations, and so the Pacific population of fishers has been put on the candidate list, where it has been languishing for nearly a decade.
9 years waiting
These speckly frogs were once the most abundant amphibian in in the southern part of the Sierra Nevada and Transverse Ranges of California and Nevada, and once thrived in remote, freezing cold mountain lakes and streams. But to them, the cold water was a froggy paradise, free of predatory fish, which couldn't make the swim up the mountains' sheer waterfalls.
All that came to an end in the 1850's, when European settlers started transplanting various species of trout into the high lakes. The fish found the frogs to be delicious, and today the mountain yellow-legged frog is gone from nearly every lake where there are fish, including many lakes in wilderness areas.
The frog was first petitioned for an endangered listing in 2000, and the population segment in the Transverse Ranges, which occupies only 2 percent of its original range, was quickly protected. But the northern population, in the Sierra Nevada, remains stranded on the candidate list, despite the fact that the frogs there are barely doing better than their southern cousins, at 8 percent of their original range. Hopefully, the Fish and Wildlife Service will hop to it and protect the frogs before they go extinct.
A newcomer to the waiting room, the Pacific walrus is a big, strong, blubbery beast, excellently adapted to life in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. Detecting prey with their sensitive whiskers, a single walrus can suck up thousands of clams a day, and still have room to top off with crabs, snails, sea cucumbers, and other slow-moving invertebrates. But some walruses acquire a taste for larger prey, and have been known to eat fish and even seals.
Walruses recovered well from the hunting pressures of the early 1900's, but today there are reports that they are declining again. The reasons for this decline, and even its extent, are unknown, as no complete survey has been carried out on Pacific walrus populations in over 20 years. But one big concern is pollution. Living near the top of their food chain, Pacific Walrus have been found to contain high concentrations of toxic heavy metals.
However, the biggest threat to the Pacific walrus is climate change. The walrus's life cycle is tied to the sea ice, and they migrate over a thousand miles to follow it. And though the big males will come to land to rest, females and young prefer to rest on ice floes. The loss of Arctic sea ice could be catastrophic for these animals, and puts their future into question.
2 years waiting
What would a bird do for love? Sing? Fly? Sure! But both at once, and for three hours? That's stretching it. And yet, the in-flight music of the Sprague's pipit can go on that long, though 30 minutes is more usual. Only the males sing, and they save their voices for displays only.
Despite holding the superlative title of "longest in-flight song of any bird," the Sprague's pipit is one of the least-studied and least-understood birds in North America. But they may vanish before we ever get a chance to study them. This songster's numbers have decreased by 80 percent in the past 40 years. But this isn't surprising, since only 2 percent of the bird's breeding range in the US survives intact.
The Sprague's pipit is a prairie bird, migrating from the long-grass prairie, from Canada to Montana to North Dakota, in summer to the short-grass prairie, from Arizona to Texas to Mexico, in winter. They need plenty of native bunchgrasses to feed and nest in, and these habitats are in short supply. The pipit's prairie continues to be developed, for agriculture and for wind farms among other things, and fire suppression has allowed woody vegetation to overtake the grass. And despite all of this, the Sprague's pipit was condemned to the candidate list, where it still awaits protection.
21 years waiting.
Arctic graylings are normally found in freshwater streams, lakes, ponds, and bogs in the Arctic regions, from Hudson Bay to the Ob River in Russia. So if they like it that far north, what are they doing in the Missouri River of Montana?
Most likely, the Arctic graylings in Montana are a "glacial relic," a species that was left behind after the glaciers retreated during the last Ice Age. As such, they're an important window into the past evolution of the planet. They were once joined by another glacial relic population in Michigan, but that one has been driven to extinction, and the Montana Arctic graylings are the only fish of their species left in the continental US.
Today, mostly due to water use in agriculture but also to competition with non-native fish, the Arctic graylings of Montana have been reduced to a single population, in Big Hole River. Even researchers don't know how many are left, and without legal protection, the recent droughts make the Arctic grayling's prospects bleak.
6. Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa)
6 years waiting
Migration isn't for sissies. Flying 9,300 miles in fall and again in spring is a lot of work, and if you're a 5-ounce sandpiper, it may seem impossible. But the red knot, a shorebird with a rufous face and chest, manages the feat every year.
But to make it all the way from Tierra Del Fuego to their nesting grounds in the high Arctic, the red knot needs fuel. No, we're not talking about gasoline. They need calorie-rich food, and so they time their migration rest stops to be right where and when the food is available.
One of the most important rest stops is Delaware Bay, because that is where the horseshoe crabs come to breed. A single horseshoe crab can lay 88,000 eggs in a year, and these eggs are the red knot's fuel. In a good year, a red knot can double its weight in two weeks, gorging on crab eggs. But horseshoe crabs are fished heavily for fish bait, and the current state of the horseshoe crab population is unknown. What is known is that red knots are declining drastically, and the peak number stopping in Delaware Bay (which is most of them) declined 86 percent between 1982 and 2006. Yet as of today, they're still in candidate list limbo.
20 years waiting
The massasauga is a bit of an odd rattlesnake. While most people think of rattlesnakes as desert dwellers, this species lives in and around wetlands, including marshes and around lakes and rivers. Found in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions, these fat-bodied vipers are the only venomous snake native to Ontario and Michigan. But don't worry too much. These snakes are shy and nonagressive, and can't bite through a thick boot.
Massasaugas often hibernate in crayfish burrows to beat the Midwest winter, and unlike most rattlesnakes, they prefer to spend the cold months alone. But in the summer, they move from the wetlands to drier uplands and hillsides to breed.
The Massasauga can still be found in many of its old haunts, but habitat fragmentation and wetland drainage have taken their toll, and the snakes are thinning out within their range. Like with many snakes, Massasaugas are also eradicated out of fear. These rattlers have been waiting a long time for their status to get some legal fangs.
Want to help? Call your State Representatives and ask them to push for a shorter, streamlined, more efficient process for listing endangered species. They need protection, or we could lose them before we ever even tried.
--Rachael Monosson is an editorial intern for Sierra and a recent graduate of Stanford University, where she studied Earth Systems. She lives in San Mateo.
--images (in order of appearance) by iStockphoto/kasiastock, UC Berkeley Fisher Study/RA Sweitzer, Adam R. Backlin, eBirdr, iStockphoto/halbrindley, iStockphoto/Pi-lens, iStockphoto/lrh847, and iStockphoto/dndavis.