The Myth of Wood Stork Success in South Florida
By Jason Lauritsen
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Wood storks are not making a comeback in South Florida — the area south of Lake Okeechobee.
Contrary to a growing perception, wood storks feeding in ditches, canals and along golf course lakes are not signs that this endangered species is recovering. The storks you see this winter running their bills through the steep edge of a deep canal are not nesting birds, they're biding time, waiting for quality wetlands to come on-line.
Throughout Florida, wood storks have lost most of the natural shallow wetland habitat they depend on for foraging early in their breeding season. This is the underlying cause of the wood stork decline and its federal and state status as "endangered" since 1984. Loss of shallow wetlands has delayed nesting and reduced success.
Last April an article heralding a wading bird boom was picked up by a number of news organizations. The heretofore untold epilogue to that story reveals that the vast majority of those celebrated nest starts ended in failure. Late nesting storks face steep risks, and failure is the norm.
Billions of taxpayer dollars have been committed to restore the Everglades, widely recognized as a global ecological treasure. Wood storks have been identified as indicators of restoration success. A healthy population of wood storks breeding in the Everglades is a sign that we've spent our restoration dollars wisely.
Increases in the stork population have prompted the US Fish and Wildlife Service to consider downlisting the wood stork to "threatened." These increases are not a result of conservation actions anywhere, and have not been realized in South Florida. In fact South Florida, once the wood stork breadbasket, is now the least stable region for nesting in their range. Four of the past five years have resulted in dismal wood stork nesting productivity throughout the greater Everglades, the only exception being on the heels of tropical storm Fay which set the stage for an excellent nesting season in 2009. Reducing nesting success to seasons marked by isolated and unusual weather events is not a recipe for sustainability.
Another myth worth debunking is that wood storks are holding our economy hostage by retarding building. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau numbers, Florida has the highest home vacancy rate in the country. The study found approximately one in three homes in both Collier and Lee counties vacant. One might argue from these statistics that over-building was the cause of our deep housing recession, rather than permitting obstacles related to endangered species protections.
I recognize and celebrate wood stork population gains resulting from the significant but little understood nesting increase in the northern part of their range — the numeric threshold for reclassifying the stork as threatened has been met. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The species is far from meeting the criteria to be considered fully recovered, which would lead to taking it off the imperiled list altogether. We have a lot of work to do here in South Florida before that can happen. When we reach those recovery goals, the wood stork will be returned to its iconic Everglades rookeries, and it will be because we have been good stewards of your tax dollars in restoring the Everglades.