Conservation groups formally notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today of their intent to sue over a 2017 decision to deny the Kirtland’s snake protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The Kirtland’s snake has seen its wetland habitats disappear under pavement and the plow. It still survives in seven states — Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee — but has been lost from more than half of the counties in which it once occurred (79 of 139) and has lost most of its habitat. It is completely gone from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

“The pretty Kirtland’s snake should never have been denied protection,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center. “The Endangered Species Act is incredibly effective at saving species from extinction, but only if they’re listed as threatened or endangered. Without this necessary protection, I’m worried this reptile won’t have a chance.”

Kirtland’s snake was one of many species wrongly denied protection by the Trump administration, which only listed 25 species in four years — the fewest of any administration since passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. So far the Biden administration has been slow to reconsider denial of protection for species, necessitating today’s action.

“U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s arbitrary and unlawful decision deprives the Kirtland’s snake of the protection it needs to survive against habitat destruction and other ongoing threats,” said Sarah Leitner, a student law clerk at the University of Chicago Law School’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing the groups filing the notice.

The Kirtland’s snake is a small, nonvenomous snake with a red-to-pink underside and feeds on earthworms, slugs and leeches. It spends much of the year underground, frequently in crayfish burrows. It’s state-protected as endangered in Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania (last recorded in 1965) and as threatened in Illinois and Ohio. Historically most of the snake’s habitat has been lost to agricultural land use, but as urban and suburban sprawl continue to encroach on formerly undeveloped lands, residential development has become a substantial driver of the species’ decline. Climate change and collection for the pet trade pose additional threats.

The groups filing the notice were the Center for Biological Diversity, Hoosier Environmental Council and Prairie Rivers Network, represented by the University of Chicago’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic.

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