New York State’s Imperiled Six
In November 2014, Earthjustice submitted a petition on behalf of a broad coalition of scientists, citizens and environmental groups asking the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to list the hellbender salamander as an endangered species. America’s largest salamander has been suffering from assaults on its habitat for years from pollution and development, leading to a drastic decline in its populations in New York.
In spite of substantial research documenting the hellbender’s decline, the DEC denied the petition and instead committed to reviewing the hellbender’s status as part of its ongoing revision to the state’s list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). The DEC’s revised SGCN list was available for public comment until March 9. Earthjustice submitted comments urging the DEC to place six of the 185 SGCN species currently classified as “high priority” on New York’s list of endangered and threatened species.
Choosing only six of the 185 high priority SGCN species for the proposed endangered species listing was a difficult decision. We based our choices on the availability of good scientific data on population trends and specific threats, as well as the likelihood that the species may go extinct in New York without additional legal protection. Listed below are each of the six species Earthjustice has recommended for New York’s endangered species list and details on their struggles to survive.
1. Eastern hellbender salamander
The hellbender salamander, a nocturnal river dweller also known as the “mud devil,” is experiencing a serious decline in New York State. There are only two river systems in New York where the salamander has historically been found. In one of those rivers, research shows that its population has declined 44 percent since the 1980s. Even worse, researchers have concluded that the hellbender’s population in the other river system is no longer self-sustaining and may have already disappeared. Hellbenders have been living in North America for millions of years and their recent demise indicates some potentially serious problems in the watersheds they call home.
2. Bicknell’s thrush
These small birds are widely considered one of the most vulnerable species of birds in North America. This thrush exhibits scandalous behavior (in the bird world): both sexes mate with multiple partners in a season, which results in nests full of eggs fathered by different birds. Despite their salacious efforts, the thrush’s population is in decline. Its small breeding range, relatively small population numbers and many ongoing threats to its rare and fragmented habitat are to blame. Researchers also believe that climate change poses the largest long-term threat to this bird’s habitat. New York’s Adirondack Mountains, one of the few remaining bastions for this bird, could play a vital role in offsetting losses from habitat degradation and destruction occurring in other parts of the Bicknell thrush’s breeding range, making it a prime candidate for added protection as an endangered species.
3. Little brown bat
This species was once considered one of the most common bats in New York and throughout the Northeast until a fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome devastated its numbers. Since the disease began to spread in 2006, the bat has experienced more than a 90 percent decline in its population. A female bat can identify her offspring based on its scent and calls, but she only will have one baby every year, making population recovery difficult. Listing the little brown bat under the state’s endangered species law is a critical and necessary conservation action to protect the species from additional threats that may push it over the brink. These threats are common for many species of bat and include energy projects, recreational use of caves and residential and commercial development.
4. Tricolored bat
Like the little brown bat, the tricolored bat has also been hit hard by the white-nose syndrome epidemic that began in 2006. It is aptly named, as each individual hair on the bat fades from dark to light brown and back to black. Most species of bats hibernate in large groups, but sentimentality is lost on this species, as the tricolored prefers to hibernate alone. In New York, the tricolored bat was always considered relatively rare and now the species has been completely wiped out at many hibernation sites and has declined dramatically in nearly all others. Researchers estimate that the decline of this species in New York is greater than 95 percent.
5. Northern long-eared bat
This bat is named for its surprisingly large ears compared to other bats in its genus, Myotis, which means mouse-eared. The northern long-eared bat, once considered common in New York, is the species most devastated by white-nose syndrome. Since 2006, the northern long-eared bat has declined by a staggering 99 percent in the Northeast. The species has been recommended for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the final determination on the species’ listing is due from the Fish and Wildlife Service on April 2, 2015. Because of its extreme decline in the state, scientists predict that it will disappear completely without intervention.
6. Winter flounder
Winter flounder are flatfish that lie on their left side on the muddy bottom of bays, with both eyes pressed close together on the right. New York’s “black back"” population is in serious decline and has been for many years. While it was once an abundant species, decades of over fishing, habitat destruction and environmental pollution are threatening to wipe out the species. It already appears to have been lost in several areas of New York, including Port Jefferson and other North Shore bays. Without endangered species protection, this flatfish may be headed for a flatline in New York.