SUCCESS STORY: Wood Storks no longer endangered. Thirty-year recovery effort has brought bird back from brink of extinction

  • Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Wood storks like these spotted near Kingstree are making a comeback. The species has been down-listed from endangered to threatened according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. PHOTO BY MICHAELE DUKE

During the fall a long and lanky bird can be spotted in the skies and waters of Williamsburg County. Around 2004 The News published photos of woods storks feeding near the Black River on Highway 52 South. To catch a glimpse of a wood stork continues to be a rare sight but the good news is these magnificent birds have made a remarkable comeback.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell recently announced that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is down-listing the wood stork from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), reflecting a highly successful conservation and recovery effort spanning three decades.

Jewell made the announcement at the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, home to the largest wood stork rookery in Georgia. “The down-listing of the wood stork from endangered to threatened demonstrates how the Endangered Species Act can be an effective tool to protect and recover imperiled wildlife from the brink of extinction, especially when we work in partnership with states, tribes, conservation groups, private landowners, and other stakeholders to restore vital habitat,” Secretary Jewell said in a press release. “From the Cyprus swamps of Georgia, to the inland waterways of Florida, wetlands and their wildlife are emblematic of the American Southeast. Through important conservation partnerships, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is working to rebuild a healthy wetland ecosystem, which, in turn, is helping restore the wood stork's habitat, double its population since its original listing and keep the bird moving in the right direction toward recovery.”

Under the ESA, a species is considered endangered when it is at risk of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. It is considered threatened when it is at risk of becoming endangered throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

Historically, wood storks used South Carolina as a feeding area during the summer and fall after dispersing from nesting colonies in Florida and Georgia. In 1981, the first successful wood stork nests were documented in South Carolina (11 nests). Since 1995, wood storks have built between 800-2,060 nests in South Carolina each year. And according to 2013 DNR survey results 2,020 wood stork nests were counted in South Carolina.

During 2013, the SC Department of Natural Resources (DNR) banded over 50 wood storks with field-readable bands. The bands used in South Carolina are orange with black numbers. Several other color combinations are being used for other projects. Researchers throughout the southeast are banding storks as part of a collaborative project to learn more about their movements, demography, and longevity.

When wood storks were listed as endangered in 1984, their population was dropping a precipitous five percent a year. Since then, the United States breeding population has shown substantial improvement in the numbers of nesting pairs as a whole and an expansion of its breeding range.

According to the service 2004, the three-year averages (2003 to 2012) for nesting pairs ranged from 7,086 to 10,147, all above the 6,000 three-year average identified in the 1997 recovery plan as the threshold to consider reclassifying the species to threatened status. However, the five-year average of 10,000 nesting pairs, identified in the current recovery plan as the threshold for delisting, has not yet been reached.

When the service originally listed the United States breeding population, the wood stork's range included Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. Breeding was primarily in Central and South Florida. Historically, the Florida Everglades and the Big Cypress ecosystems supported large breeding colonies. Since listing, its range has expanded north and west, and now includes portions of North Carolina and Mississippi, with significant nesting in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

The South Carolina DNR asks that anyone who sees a live banded or tagged wading bird with an engraved color band, attempt to read the numbers/letters on the band or tag. The department also asks to record the species of the bird, the color of the band or tag, the color of the letters, which leg that band was attached to, and the location of the bird and send the information to wadingbirds@dnr.sc.gov and report the sighting to the Bird Banding Lab. Photographs of the bird and the band are also very helpful.

For more information about the wood stork's status reclassification, including statements from conservation partners and links to images of wood storks and their habitat, visit http://www.fws.gov/southeast/.

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