The federal government is considering whether or not to reclassify hundreds of plant and animal species as “endangered” in the South, including 51 species in South Carolina.
The move comes after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reached two separate settlements with the environmental groups Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Earth Guardians. In all, the agency will study whether or not 675 additional species should receive additional protection.
“The amount of species is pretty much unprecedented,” spokesman Tom MacKenzie said, “We normally get (requests for) one species at a time.” He said the ambitious goal is an effort to “get out of the lawsuit game” by determining which species are experiencing enough population decline to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The agency currently adds new animals after years of litigation.
By classifying a species as “endangered,” federal officials would grant that species special environmental protections that would severely limit any new construction in their habitats.
However, the studies will take years to complete. Part of the challenge is that so little is known about many of the species. Officials are not even sure if all 51 live in South Carolina.
Breck Carmichael of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources said many on the list are aquatic animals, including four species of crayfish, “They’re really hard to study and hard to find… We believe (those species) occur in South Carolina, but we don’t know definitively where.”
Another species on the list is the hellbender– a large salamander that can grow to be two feet long. DNR officials do not think the animal is native to South Carolina. Carmichael said two specimens were once found in Oconee County, but the agency believes they were likely fish bait that escaped. However, the agency has never been able to conduct a comprehensive study to find out.
The studies will be expensive for DNR, which has seen its budget cut by over 50 percent since 2007 after tax revenues went down dramatically. Carmichael said the agency would have to prioritize which species would be studied, if it could do any at all.
Other species that would be studied include gopher tortoises, numerous crayfish, insects and fish, 25 different flowering plants, and the Carolina hemlock, among others.
Carmichael said it was unlikely all 51 species would be added to the endangered species list. “Frankly, I’m not expecting this process to add a lot to that. I just think that if and when we have the ability to look closer into these things, we’re going to find probably more than we thought.”