Like the majority of the Sunshine State's coastal residents, the Florida Keys mole skink has spent the past few decades fighting for its life against rapidly rising seas. Now the brown and pink lizard has a new foe: the Trump administration.
Over the past 20 years, scientists have mapped the decline of the population of Florida Keys mole skinks and expect them to effectively disappear in the next half-century. Even so, last month, the Trump administration announced that the mole skink, along with 24 other imperiled species, did not qualify for endangered protection status. Fearing the decision would create a precedent, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has threatened to file a lawsuit, aimed at combating the administration's blatant disregard for climate science and the species affected by rising sea levels.
"People in Miami see sea level changing every day," says Elise Bennett, a CBD attorney who works to protect reptiles and amphibians. "They know it's occurring,"
The Florida Keys mole skink is typically found in the Lower Keys of Monroe County, as well as the Dry Tortugas, an island two miles off Key West. The skink lives in sandy areas along the shoreline under rocks, leaves, driftwood, and seaweed at an elevation of 20 to 31 inches above sea level. Isolated to one small geographic area, with little cover from extreme events, the skink is vulnerable to rising tides and storm surges, as was the case when Hurricane Irma inundated the Keys in September.
Ecologists predict the skink will face severe habitat loss thanks to rising seas, which are projected to continue to elevate by 14 to 34 inches by 2060 and 31 to 80 inches by 2100. Thus far, they've already noted the skink population's steady decline, though no definitive numbers exist. (One estimate, however, suggests there are no more than six to 20 populations left.)
In response, CBD petitioned for the protection of the Florida Keys mole skink in 2010, along with 403 other species of aquatic and wetland species living in the Southeast United States. Five years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a positive 90-day finding, stating the skink might merit the Endangered Species Act's protective status.
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Eventually, after further legal battles with CBD, the FWS decreed the Trump administration would have to make protection decisions for 62 species, including the Florida Keys mole skink, by September 30. In spite of this deadline, the administration has assessed only a fraction of these species thus far, issuing a whopping 29 rejections and only six protections. Rejected species include the Pacific walrus, the Bicknell's thrush, the Kirtland's snake, the Big Blue Springs Cave crayfish, the eastern boreal toad, the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle, the Barbour's map turtle, and the San Felipe gambusia — all of which are greatly threatened by climate change.
Last week, CBD filed a formal notice supporting the skink's application and announcing plans to sue the Trump administration for violating the Endangered Species Act. Bennett says the feds broke the law by not considering the impacts of sea-level rise beyond 2060 even though longterm scientific projections existed through 2100. (By ignoring the best available data, the FWS could make it seem as though global sea-level rise wasn't accelerating rapidly when, in reality, sea-level rise could increase to 8.2 feet per year, inevitably drowning the skink's habitat.) Considering skinks will likely be unable to adapt to sea-level rise, the species will probably die off.
Unfortunately, Bennett says her biggest concern is that the denial of environmental protection for the Florida Keys mole skink will create a precedent for the FWS to deny other threatened species of their rightful statuses or threaten the recovery of protected species, such as the Florida bonneted bat, the tiny poly gala, and the Florida brickell-bush, all of which are part of the endangered tropical hardwood hammock and pine rockland habitats, which are disappearing to development and sea-level rise.
"To the administration, admitting that the mole skink could lose its habitat to sea-level rise means validating the climate science," she says. "So instead, they just ignore it. Policymakers have purposefully turned a blind eye to the best available science. The Trump administration's decision not to protect the Florida Keys mole skink is just the latest example of an egregious denial of climate science."