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A species surviving in three known locations on Earth – one in Coastal Georgia – took a step back from the ledge of extinction Friday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service published a long-delayed draft plan for the reticulated and frosted flatwoods salamanders, both critically imperiled species with populations in Georgia. The draft plan was published just four weeks after The Current wrote about the controversy in which two environmental groups sued the agency. 

A frosted flatwoods salamander, Ambystoma cingulatum. (Credit: The Amphibian Foundation) Credit: The Amphibian Foundation

The state’s only known remaining population of flatwoods salamanders live on Fort Stewart Army Base, about 40 miles southwest of Savannah. Two other populations are living in Florida.The last of the reticulated flatwoods salamander populations are surviving on private land and at the Mayhaw Wildlife Management Area in Miller County. 

The government document is a needed blueprint for the public sector and private sector to work to save the species, yet the federal agency delayed its publication for unknown reasons for nearly two decades after the species gained federal protections. The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Biodiversity and Healthy Gulf, claimed the government agency had violated the Endangered Species Act by not publishing the plan.

“Once finalized, the plans will put these extremely imperiled salamanders on the path to recovery,” said Elise Bennett, reptile and amphibian staff attorney for The Center for Biodiversity. “Protecting and properly managing habitat is critical here, and we expect the Fish and Wildlife Service to quickly finalize, fund and implement the plans for these tiny beauties. Federal officials have to act before it’s too late.”

The flatwoods salamanders, which once inhabited thousands of wetlands along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, received federal protections in 1999. A decade later, biologists discovered there were two distinct types of flatwoods salamanders: reticulated and frosted.

The salamanders’ survival hinges on a number of phenomena particular to the longleaf pine and wiregrass forests in the coastal plains. 

They are cryptic critters that spend most of their lives in the uplands, hiding in underground tunnels left hollow by roots of burned trees, noshing on spiders and earthworms. Natural fires from summer lightning storms clear forest canopies and other obstacles the amphibians may face in its annual trek to lay eggs in fishless, ephemeral ponds that fill with rain.

The goal of a recovery plan is to get a species in such a position that it no longer requires protections under the Endangered Species Act.

In the case of the flatwoods salamanders, priorities include ensuring adequate habitat is available to support the species by restoring and managing temporary ponds where they breed and the upland habitats where they live. The plan also calls for increasing the number of resilient populations, buying up private land adjacent to habitats and reducing human-made threats like development and logging, which resulted in the species needing federal protections in the first place.

The FWS recovery efforts are estimated to cost $239.8 million and be completed by 2040, according to the draft plans. 

Despite identical priorities listed in the draft recovery plans, efforts to save the frosted flatwoods salamanders are estimated to cost $186.6 million while  FWS estimates it will take $53.2 million to recover the reticulated flatwoods salamanders. 

The plan for the reticulated flatwoods calls for $7 million to go toward buying private land over a five-year period while the plan frosted flatwoods calls for $29 million. The greatest costs for both will be ensuring adequate habitat. 

While the reticulated flatwoods’ status is listed as endangered, the frosted flatwoods salamander is listed as threatened. A five-year review completed 2019 recommended reclassifying the frosted flatwoods as endangered, but “as of Spring 2020, this recommendation has yet to be considered because of the Service’s high classification workload and higher priorities,” according to the draft recovery plan.

The deadline for public comment on the draft recovery plans is April 26 at 11:59 PM EST.  Comments may be submitted to Lourdes Mena by phone (904) 731-3134 or email Lourdes_Mena@fws.gov