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A white sandy beach with an island in the distance.
Information icon Green Cay National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Jaime Yrigoyen, wildlife biologist, USFWS.

Coastal Program restoration work aims to save endangered St. Croix lizard

Mongooses. Rats. Hurricanes. Rising seas. Invasive grasses.

You name it, the St. Croix ground lizard experiences about the worst that Mother Nature throws its way. The federally endangered lizard is presumed extinct on the island that bears its name. But biologists with the Partners’ Coastal Program in the Caribbean may yet save the smallish lizard via habitat restoration on the nearby Green Cay National Wildlife Refuge.

But first some background. The small Indian mongoose was introduced to St. Croix in 1884 to kill rats on sugar plantations, yet managed to wipe out lizards too. While the lizards disappeared from St. Croix, they could still be found on Protestant Cay and the Green Cay refuge. Two more cays were populated with the 14-30 inch lizards in the 1990s and early 2000s. Inter-island translocation is underway to maintain genetic integrity.

Unfortunately, the cays withstood the unintentional re-introduction of rats from the main island. Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which struck in 2017, most likely returned the rats to the Green Cay refuge, according to the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources. The refuge partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove the rats from Green Cay in 2019.

Then there are the two invasive grasses that rapidly expand across the island and out-compete native plant habitats that lizards depend upon for survival. Refuge staff, the USDA and a local NGO, the St. Croix Environmental Association, are working together to remove the invasives. Refuge biologist Claudia Lombard has propagated more than 200 trees for planting on the 14-acre Green Cay.

As temperatures and seas rise, due to climate change, the ground lizards must be stabilized on the low-lying cays before they can be reintroduced to the island of St. Croix. The Coastal Program has also funded two habitat restoration projects on St. Croix for the expected return home of the lizards within a few years.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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