News | September 12, 2023

5 Southern species saved

Pelican Island in the Cape Lookout National Seashore chain of islands along North Carolina's Outer Banks is nesting grounds for large groups of brown pelicans.

In the South, we share our home with one of the richest varieties of plants and animals in the world. Our region has the richest aquatic fauna of any temperate area in the world, rivaling the tropics, and nearly half of North America’s migratory birds migrate through the Gulf of Mexico each year. But more than 250 Southern species are threatened or endangered with extinction, and at least 150 more likely qualify for protection and are waiting to make the list.  

A partially-submerged alligator peeks above a swamp.
Endangered Species Act protections have bolstered a stunning rebound for the American alligator.

SELC is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act — a bipartisan law instrumental in protecting imperiled Southern species and their habitat. Across the U.S., 99 percent of listed species are safe from extinction because of the act’s conservation and protection of animals.

For nearly 40 years, SELC has championed — and worked to protect — this powerful conservation tool. As we reflect on one of the most comprehensive laws protecting species on the planet, here are some success stories of how this incredible conservation tool protects Southern animals and plants.  

American alligators 

American alligators are found in Southern swamps and wetlands from the Texas coast all the way to North Carolina. As keystone species, alligators play an important role in maintaining ecosystem balance. But in the 1950s, these fierce reptiles faced extinction because of overhunting and habitat loss. Endangered Species Act protection for alligators and their habitat resulted in a stunning rebound. American alligators were delisted in 1987 and there are now an estimated five million living in the South.  

A close-up shot of a bald eagle with its distinguishable brown body and wings and white head.
A bald eagle spotted in North Carolina. (@Bill Lea)

Bald eagles

Our nation’s most iconic bird was in serious trouble in the 1960s. The bald eagle’s population plummeted from exposure to a synthetic pesticide called DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane). In the 1970s, the newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT because of its toxicity to this species and other wildlife.

Later that decade, bald eagles were protected by the Endangered Species Act in the continental U.S., enabling conservation actions necessary for recovering the species, like habitat protections and reintroduction efforts. The bald eagle’s resulting recovery is a triumph of the Act: the bird’s population rose from just over 400 in the 1960s to nearly 10,000 in the early 2000s. The bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007. 

Sea turtles

A sea turtle is walking from tan sand into the blue ocean.
A newborn leatherback turtle.

All five sea turtle species in the South are protected by the Endangered Species Act. While sea turtles outlived dinosaurs, human activity now threatens their existence. Historically, they were overhunted for their large shells, eggs, and meat. Although this practice has been banned in the U.S., currently, sea turtles remain threatened in the South by loss of nesting habitat, pollution, vessel strikes, rising temperatures, and accidental capture by commercial fishing.

Research shows that all sea turtle populations in the South have either stopped declining or grown since being listed under the Endangered Species Act. For example, years of conservation efforts are paying off for nesting green turtles in Florida: since being listed under the act, green turtle nests have grown from less than 300 to over 41,000 in 2019 across the South. For the first time in more than a decade in North Carolina, a leatherback sea turtle nested on the Outer Banks. But there is still more work to be done to protect sea turtles across the South.  

Virginia northern flying squirrel

A small brown flying squirrel descends a tree trunk on its belly. Its webbed wings are pinned to its body, but visible.
Virginia northern flying squirrel. (@USFWS)

The Virginia northern flying squirrel calls the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and West Virginia home. The nocturnal animal’s habitat is threatened by human activity, including industrial logging. Logging in the 19th and 20th centuries drove the small mammal to near extinction. Thanks to habitat conservation from the Endangered Species Act, the squirrel’s population rebounded, and they were delisted in 2008. 

Brown pelicans 

Brown pelicans are now a common sight along Southern coasts, but these iconic birds were once threatened with extinction. Brown pelicans were overhunted because their feathers were a trendy accessory for hats and clothes during the early 20th century. And a now banned pesticide — the infamous DDT — decimated hundreds of pelican nests. After decades of Endangered Species Act protection, the brown pelican was removed from the list in 2009. 

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