By Pacific Island Times News Staff
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to designate critical habitat for 23 endangered and threatened species throughout Micronesia, following today's settlement that capped a lawsuit filed by two conservation groups last year.
Based on its agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity and Blue Ocean Law, the Fish and Wildlife Service must provide protective areas for nine rare animals and 14 plants by June 26, 2025.
The subject species are found on Guam, the Northern Marianas, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia.
According to court briefs, the 23 species are threatened by habitat loss due to agricultural and urban sprawl, military expansion and training, invasive species and climate change.
“I’m relieved these 23 beautiful Pacific island species found nowhere else on Earth will finally get badly needed habitat protections,” said Maxx Phillips, Hawai‘i director and a staff attorney at the Center.
“This is a big win, as endangered and threatened species with federally protected critical habitat are twice as likely to recover as those without such protections. Safeguarding the places these unique plants and animals require for survival is crucial in our fight against the extinction crisis.”
The unique species, including tiny sac-winged bats, bright orange and yellow tree snails, and beautiful eight-spot butterflies, are also vulnerable because of small population sizes, invasive species and limited range.
Several of the species on Guam and other islands in the northern Marianas are severely threatened by military expansion related to the relocation of 5,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa.
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The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the 23 species in 2015. But the agency failed to designate critical habitat for them, as required under the Endangered Species Act, prompting the Center for Biological Diversity to sue the federal agency.
“With everything going on right now with the military buildup, we are in danger of losing important parts of our culture. We are the people of the land and so when our native plants and animals thrive, we thrive,” said Frances Meno, a local yo'åmte, or traditional healer. “There is no future without them.”
Conservationists said while listing a species as endangered or threatened is the first step in ensuring its survival and recovery, designating critical habitat is a necessary second step to prevent federal actions that destroy or harm areas plants and animals need to survive.
“Without critical habitat designations, native species like the Mariana eight-spot butterfly, which exists only in the Marianas Islands, would be lost, and along with them irretrievable aspects of our Indigenous ecosystem and culture,” said attorney Julian Aguon of Blue Ocean Law. “As Indigenous peoples, we stand up for our other-than-human relatives.”
Among the species that require federal protection are as follows:
Pacific sheath-tailed bat: This tiny insectivorous, sac-winged bat has already been wiped out on Guam and the island of Vanuatu. Across its remaining range, the bat is threatened by habitat destruction from nonnative species, development, military training, urbanization, typhoons and climate change.
Slevin’s skink: Also known as the Mariana skink, this social creature has already been eliminated from Guam. The rest of the skink’s range is also threatened by habitat destruction from nonnative species, development, military training, urbanization, typhoons and climate change. Military training puts the skink at risk of direct harm from live-fire training exercises.
Mariana eight-spot butterfly: Native to Guam and Saipan, the butterfly is no longer found on Saipan. It is reliant on two host plant species, one of which is used as a native medicinal plant to treat various ailments. In addition to being threatened by parasitic wasps, the butterfly’s habitat is similarly threatened by nonnative species, development, military training, urbanization, typhoons and climate change.
Guam tree snail: Found only in Guam, this once-common, air-breathing snail is now endangered. In addition to the common habitat threats listed above, the Guam tree snail is threatened by fire and overcollection for commercial and recreational purposes.
Bulbophyllum guamense: Part of the Guam Plant Extinction Prevention Program, this orchid has a greenish-yellow flower that smells faintly of carrion. In the past the plant occurred in common large mat-like formations on trees. However, in addition to habitat-based threats, the orchid is being hurt by predation from non-native slugs.