TOWNSEND, Ga., June 27 (UPI) -- After 30 years on the endangered species list, the American wood stork is getting a status upgrade. On a visit to Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge along the Georgia coast, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the bird would now be considered only "threatened."
"It's a day for good news about an iconic bird from the Southeast that is doing a great job of recovering," Jewell said, though she cautioned: "There's still important work to do before we can propose to remove it from the list altogether."
In the early 1980s, before the species was federally protected, the bald wading bird that enjoys the marshes from Florida to North Carolina was predicted to go extinct within a decade. But a strong conservation effort on the part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has helped the population recover.
In 1981, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources counted just 11 nests in a statewide survey. Last year, wildlife officials tallied some 2,020 nests.
"One reason we're able to change their status is that the risk has been reduced because their numbers are more spread out," explained Billy Brooks, an FWS biologist managing the stork recovery program. "They have improved their productivity by expanding their breeding range."
Homeowner associations in Florida are happy about the news; for several years they've been arguing that the regulations are unnecessarily stern and prevent new construction.
Others aren't so sure.
"We believe the Fish and Wildlife Service is really premature in any reclassification," said Brad Cornell, an advocate with the Audubon Society. "There are too many gaps in the vital science on wood storks and a lack of long-term habitat protections to sustain its recovery."
But the FWS says legal protections are almost identical for threatened and endangered species.