Today I get the opportunity to tell you all about a recovery success story. The harmless and helpful Lake Erie waternake is being removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife – the 23rd species to be delisted due to recovery. The watersnake population has exceeded the minimum recovery level initially established (5,555 snakes). As of 2009 there were 11,980, with about 300 acres of inland habitat and 11 miles of shoreline protected for the snake since it was listed.
For many people, the delisting is exciting news – but for others it may bring up negative feelings – snakes have that effect on some people. But that attitude may be part of the reason the watersnake was in trouble to begin with.
The species was listed as threatened in 1999. This was partly the result of habitat loss, but also because people were intentionally killing the snakes, probably because they were afraid of them. Maybe you’re uneasy when it comes to snakes – but the truth about this particular snake species is that it’s not poisonous and is harmless to humans.
It also plays a crucial role in the habitat where it lives.
In the 1990’s an invasive fish, the round goby, established itself and caused the population decline of many native fish. The Lake Erie watersnake in turn altered its eating habits, and now 90% of their diet is round goby. These snakes were able to adapt to the change, and become helpful to its habitat – so cool.
If you’re worried about what happens now that the species is being delisted – fear not. The species will still be monitored for at least the next five years to be sure it will remain stable.
The Endangered Species Act provides a critical safety net for America’s fish, wildlife and plants. It can deliver great success like the recovery of the Lake Erie watersnake, but success is not only measured in removing a species from the list. The ESA has been successful in stabilizing endangered and threatened species by promoting conservation programs designed for their recovery. Hundreds of listed species have avoided extinction since the ESA was passed in 1973.
And simply delisting species is by no means the only measure of progress towards the goals of the ESA. Species are listed under the ESA when they are at the brink of extinction, often as the result of decades of habitat loss or other threats, and their conservation and ultimate recovery are extraordinarily challenging tasks.
In summary, what we learn here is the success of the ESA is in promoting recovery planning and implementation, stabilizing species, and improving species status such that they can be reclassified from endangered to threatened.