Posted: 12:07 pm Friday, January 4th, 2013

What saved the wood storks? Hint: Not the Pacific Legal Foundation 

By Post Staff

Martin County and Treasure Coast residents often see them, wading in roadside ditches in wooded areas and in residential neighborhoods, in wetlands beside Interstate 95 and near the beaches.

Sally Swartz

The wood stork, a big, white bird with a dark head and long beak, is the latest to thrive under federal protection and come back from the brink of extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to upgrade the wood stork’s status from endangered to threatened, a move that shows “the Endangered Species Act works,” FWS Director Dan Ashe said.

Thanks to better protection of its wetlands habitat and the bird’s resourcefulness and adaptability, the wood stork population has grown since it first came under the Act’s protection in 1984.

The species had declined from about 20,000 breeding pairs in the 1930s to 5,000 in the late 1970s, due mainly to draining and development of wetlands. After the feds began protecting wood storks, work began to preserve and restore wetlands and to protect nesting areas. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the official three-year averages range from 7,086 pairs to 8,996. The most recent estimate is 9,579 pairs.

The wood stork has made a comeback under protection of the Endangered Species Act. (Photo by Greg Braun)


Jaclyn Lopez, lawyer for the center, said her group still is concerned about wood stork colonies in the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve and expects FWS will continue working to restore the bird’s historic nesting grounds.

Ecologist Greg Braun of Sustainable Ecosystems International said the wood stork “really is ready” for the change in status. The bird’s recovery in Martin County and the Treasure Coast, he said is a “a symbol of what is happening with wood storks in the whole range. They are moving from inland nesting locations into primarily coastal areas.”

The rise and fall of the tides twice a day give them more opportunities to catch the fish they need to feed their families. The birds have nesting areas on Martin’s Bird Island and on Pelican Island, the nation’s first wildlife refuge, in the Indian River Lagoon near Sebastian. And, they now are nesting up into the Carolinas, Mr. Braun said. “That was unheard of a decade ago.”

Wood storks in a Martin County swale. (Photo by Greg Braun)


Martin County’s strict wetlands protections, he said, “have helped the wood stork do well here.” The bird also has adapted well to living in urban areas and foraging in roadside swales as traffic whizzes past.
The Pacific Legal Foundation’s Atlantic Center in Stuart takes credit in a press release for pushing to change the wood stork’s status, but FWS spokesman Chuck Underwood said the federal agency has followed its usual process. And, while the birds are thriving in their expanded ranges in North Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and even in some southeast coastal areas of North Carolina, “we still have serious concerns in South Florida. Range-wide, the species meets the criteria for ‘threatened.’”

Wood storks are fussy about nesting areas. “If it’s too wet or too dry, they won’t breed,” Mr. Underwood said. “They need shallow wetlands full of prey.” Wildlife officials can’t figure out why the birds no longer like Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp as a breeding area.

The FWS has partnered with private landowners to restore land so birds can find food, places to roost and breed.

Despite the crowing of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a group that litigates for limited government and property rights, the wood stork’s change in status doesn’t mean much for developers.

“Developers think it will be easier to get permits,” Mr. Woodruff said. “Not really…The truth is it doesn’t give them carte blanche to do whatever they want.”

The change in status means the wood stork still retains the protections of the Endangered Species Act. It won’t get off the list until there are 10,000 nesting pairs over a five year period.

The goal, Mr. Woodruff said, “is not to put the species back at risk.”

For the homely big bird that has become such a familiar sight in Martin neighborhoods, that’s good news.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. Her e-mail address is sdswartz42@comcast.net