Four-toed Salamanders have something to celebrate. Since 1983, these wetland creatures have been listed as a special concern on the Massachusetts List of Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species, but not for long.
A proposal to remove the salamander from the list is one of ten changes to be heard this Wednesday at a public meeting in Greenfield. Researchers are confident of the decision after surveys documented 240 salamander populations across 148 towns, a steady growth from previous years.
Over 700 plant and animal species are on the list, but not always because they are endangered. Sometimes there is just not enough information to declare their populations secure. For instance, the Coastal Plain Apamea Moth, will be taken off the list because it has not been seen in Massachusetts for over three decades.
“There are a lot of things we really don’t know,” says Henry Woolsey, Program Manager at the National Heritage & Endangered Species Program. “Certain taxonomic groups, like birds and mammals, are much better known than others. We just do not have enough knowledge as to what should/shouldn’t be on the list.”
According to Woolsey, one of the biggest challenges to tracking endangered species is money. The Endangered Species Program, part of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, does not receive any state assistance. Instead, it relies on private donors and conservation organizations.
Funding was proposed for the first time by Governor Deval Patrick last January, but was left out in the final budgets. “To document what we have right now, for future reference, is not very exciting to do,” Woolsey says. “They rather fund interesting planning or modeling studies.”
Baseline knowledge of local endangered species is increasingly important as climate change takes effect. Researchers around the world are noticing declines in plant and animal populations, but without knowing where Massachusetts is now, we can’t make comparisons later. “The purpose of the list is not to safeguard things that are rare,” Woolsey says, “It’s actually to make sure we don’t’ loose things.”
When a species is listed as endangered, and there is an active effort, numbers can be restored. Twenty years ago, it would have been impossible to see an American Bald Eagle in Massachusetts, now there are 25 breeding pairs. To restore the population, conservationists used hackery, in which baby chicks were removed from eagle nests in Nova Scotia and brought here.
“One chick doesn’t usually make it anyway,” Woolsey says. “After several years of doing this, the eagles came back to breed.” Because of these tactics, another edit to this year’s list is removing the bald eagle’s “federally threatened” label.
Piping Plover numbers are also on the rise. These small seabirds are considered threatened, but in just a few years, the Massachusetts population has multiplied from 130 to 500 pairs. Fencing off their breeding areas from predators is responsible. However, Woolsey is hesitant to declare victory just yet. The bird populations are fragile and can go quickly back to where they were. “It needs ongoing management,” he says.
The Endangered Species List public hearing will take place May 21, 2008 at 3:00 PM in the Downtown Campus of Greenfield Community College.
Photo of Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) from The Nova Scotia Museum Website.