Changes in habitat seen as threat to endangered species

Monday, November 7, 2005

Diminished species of animals receive threatened status on both the federal and state level.

Conservationists are growing increasingly concerned about the diminishing numbers of more than 300 different species of wildlife in Missouri. Of that number, 21 of these species are currently listed as federally endangered.

An endangered species is one that is in danger of extinction, said April Dozier, manager of the Missouri Conservation Department Nature Center. A threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered.

Federal endangered status is given to species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Missouri's endangered status is determined by the Department of Conservation.

"While an animal or plant may be endangered in Missouri, it may not be in other parts of the country," Dozier said. "But there are a number of threatened animals in Southeast Missouri, which concerns us."

One of the most well-known endangered species inhabiting the area is the bald eagle. While the bald eagle is no longer listed on the federal endangered list since it was down-listed in 1995 to a threatened species, it is still recognized as endangered in Missouri.

In the near future, the bald eagle might also be downgraded to a threatened species in Missouri, Dozier said.

Banning the pesticide, DDT, in 1972 was a critical step toward saving the bald eagle population. When DDT entered the bald eagle's food chain, it would severely diminish the bird's ability to reproduce.

"This is what we would call an endangered species success story," Dozier said. "The number of bald eagles has actually increased because of changes to their habitat and changes humans made in their own lifestyles."

Another shrinking species is the alligator snapping turtle, which can be found in Southeast Missouri's larger streams. This animal is the largest freshwater turtle and can be distinguished by its large head, hooked beak and row of keels on the upper shell.

"This is a real interesting species," Dozier said. "There is a lot of research being done on it right now. One of the turtles is on display at the Conservation Department's Nature Center."

Dozier said these types of turtles preferred to inhabit the swamps and wetlands, such as Mingo National Wildlife Refuge near Puxico, Mo., which is mostly hardwood bottomland swamp now.

"That area is a little reminiscent of the swamp lands in Southeast Missouri," she said. "And a lot of those areas, like Mingo, have been changed by man over time."

The Sierra Club is dedicated to protecting the environment and preserving habitats, said Alan Journet, conservation chairman for the local club.

"The only way we can protect endangered species is by protecting the habitat," he said. "We should be protecting habitats before the species even becomes threatened or endangered."

The local Sierra Club is working to protect a small area of wetlands left in the area and the species which live in it.

"The biggest local concern is the New Madrid Floodway Project, which is liable to be really destructive to the wildlife living there," Journet said.

There is a possibility that engineers may plug a gap in the Mississippi River levee system, which would block water from reaching the few remaining wetlands in the region, Journet said. The few acres of wetlands would disappear.

Another nearly destroyed habitat in Southeast Missouri are the sand prairies along the Mississippi River, home to the dusty hognose snake.

At one point, conservationists thought these snakes were extirpated, or no longer existing, in the state, said Bob Gillespie, a natural history biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

"Last year we located one individual snake in the sand prairies in Mississippi County," he said.

Since then, three more dusty hognose snakes have been located in the area.

"We presume that there are more in the area but we haven't been able to locate them," Gillespie said. "But we think with the age of these snakes, that reproduction is occurring."

This threatened snake is a subspecies of the plains hognose snake, a small snake, grayish-tan in color with rows of dark brown spots, and an upturned snout.

"It's really a unique looking snake," Gillespie said. "If you see a snake with an upturned nose and you live in a sandy area, it could be a dusty hognose."

Gillespie said he recently received a call from a man in Benton, Mo., who believed to have found this rare reptile.

We went down there and sure enough, it was a dusty hognose," he said. "We were very excited. That was the fourth one found in the area."

These snakes are specifically adapted for sand prairies. Their upturned snout helps them burrow down into the sand to remove toads and other rodents.

While a large percentage of the population is either afraid of snakes or shudders at the site of them, Gillespie said the dusty hognose is harmless.

"It very seldom bites," he said. "In fact, the way its nose is upturned makes it hard for them to bite. If you are scared of snakes, just walk away if you see one."

Gillespie said the Missouri Department of Conservation is tracking the dusty hognose snakes to see if there are more in the area.

"We're protecting their habitat and trying to restore sand prairies in Southeast Missouri," he said about what the conservationists are doing to increase the dusty hognose snake population.

Sara Scheper, Missouri Department of Conservation education specialist, said there are several ways people can help protect endangered or threatened species.

"They can learn about the endangered species in their area and what is being done to help protect them," she said. "They can help by volunteering at the Conservation Department. Report anyone violating the conservation laws."

Experts say it is important to protect endangered and threatened species. All animals are part of the ecosystem, which could get altered if they slowly die off, Scheper said.

jfreeze@semissourian.com

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