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Endangered species and climate change


On the Florida Keys, there's a species of tiny deer that, at their biggest, are only about the size of a golden retriever.

OMAR BARERRA: Stupid cute.

ROTT: The Key deer exist nowhere else, just these low-lying islands off the South Florida coast. And as recently as the 1950s, there were only about two dozen Key deer left on the planet, pushed nearly to extinction by poaching and growing development. Today, though, they're so common here on Big Pine Key that for residents like Omar Barrera (ph), they're practically a part of the landscape.

BARERRA: Let's call Julia, Little Patrick.

ROTT: Who's lazily grazing Barrera's yard.

BARERRA: That's Emma.

ROTT: How did you choose these names?

BARERRA: From movies.

ROTT: This one's the cutest one, I think.

BARERRA: Yeah, Little Robert.

ROTT: Little Robert, because...

BARERRA: Robert De Niro.

ROTT: Barrera says these deer know his schedule. They're here every evening when he gets home from work.

BARERRA: Like a dog.

ROTT: These are basically your dogs?

BARERRA: Yeah, Mexican dogs. You see that? They don't run away. They nice, man. I love them.

ROTT: The Key deer or toy deer, as they're sometimes called because of their miniature size, was one of the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act, which turns 50 this year. And like 99% of the other species that have gotten protection from the landmark law, the Key deer has avoided extinction - 99% from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

CHRIS BERGH: Things not only stabilized, but the deer were doing great. In fact, their population is probably as high now as it has been in recorded history.

ROTT: Chris Bergh with The Nature Conservancy has spent most of his life on the Florida Keys, much of it protecting wildlife like its namesake deer.

BERGH: We essentially - we, the conservation community, the Endangered Species Act, the state and federal wildlife management agencies - we saved the Key deer. And now climate change is taking that win away from us.

ROTT: Climate change, sea level rise is taking the win away. Emissions from cars and power plants and factories have raised Earth's temperature, causing ice caps to melt, oceans to rise. Already, sea levels around Florida have risen about 8 inches since 1950, a trend that's only expected to accelerate in the future. And every inch of sea level rise, Bergh says, is more land underwater, less habitat for the endangered species and the 80,000 some people who call the Keys home.

BERGH: You know, from a sort of ecological science perspective, it's fascinating to be able to watch this occur and fast-forward. But from a resident, homeowner, you know, conservation, trying to protect this species, it's a bummer. It's a huge, huge challenge.

ROTT: Over its 50 years, the Endangered Species Act has been very successful at stopping extinctions. Most of the plants and animals that have been listed as endangered or threatened are still around today. But that's not the only goal of the act. It also tasks federal wildlife managers with recovering endangered or threatened species like the Key deer to the point where they no longer need federal protection. But how can a federal agency recover a species when its habitat, the only place it lives, is disappearing altogether, and the future of that habitat is beyond its control?

BERGH: The Endangered Species Act is being tested by climate change and sea level rise in particular in these low-lying island ecosystems.

ROTT: The same, he says, is true in other places where habitat is shrinking or transforming because of the warming world - forests not recovering from wildfires, Arctic coastlines without ice, coral reefs, like even those around the Keys, bleached nearly lifeless in hot waters. Human-Caused climate change is affecting everywhere. The threat to the Keys, though, is acute. To see it, just hop on a boat.

CHRISTIAN EGGLESTON: A little bit closer, and we can just load on up.

ROTT: Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex is with the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the National Key Deer Refuge, one of the oldest wildlife refuges in the country. His colleague at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nikki Colangelo, is joining us here on this boat. She works in Ecological Services, the part of the agency that, among other things, determines if a species should be listed or not.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You cool going to Cuba?

EGGLESTON: You bet. Let's do that. That would be fun.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You guys have your passports, right?


ROTT: Eggleston and Colangelo are responsible for a huge area, hundreds of islands between Florida and Cuba with 31 federally endangered or threatened species, everything from the Bertram's hairstreak butterfly to sea turtles to the Stock Island tree snail. It's easier to see how threatened they are, Eggleston says, when you're out on the water.

EGGLESTON: So if you guys are ready, we'll go a little bit faster just to make good time.


EGGLESTON: And you might want to hang on to your hats or turn them around.

ROTT: We speed across the aqua waters past house-lined shores, most on stilts, and make our way between islands past a pod of bottlenose dolphins to a windy patch of bathtub warm water north of Big Pine Key.

It is pretty stark when you're out here. It's like we're standing on Big Pine Key, and everybody's like, oh, yeah. The highest elevation here is 8 feet above sea level. And it's like one thing to hear that when you're on land. And then when you're out here, it just - it's like the thickness of a plate on the horizon.


COLANGELO: Like you said earlier, in terms of being on the water and seeing it from the water and thinking about these small islands and imagining 1 foot, 2 feet, 3 feet of sea level rise. And...

ROTT: It doesn't take much.

COLANGELO: It doesn't take much, yeah, because they're so low.

ROTT: Already, Eggleston says, shutting off the boat engine, the changes are hard to ignore.

EGGLESTON: It's so in your face, and it's really obvious that it's happening. Roads are underwater.

ROTT: Salt is creeping upwards into soil, shrinking the island's already scarce fresh water and making it harder for some ecosystems like Pine Rockland, favored by the Key deer, to recover from wildfires and hurricanes.

EGGLESTON: Different things are being eroded away, and we're watching islands disappear.

ROTT: There's really no way in the immediate term to stop the seas from rising. So Eggleston, Colangelo and really anyone you've talked to on the Keys who's worked to bring the Key deer back from the brink of extinction know this presents an almost existential challenge. Here's Colangelo again.

COLANGELO: Because the options range from giving up and letting a species go extinct to doing absolutely everything you can and putting animals in zoos or...

ROTT: Or moving species like the Key deer to places they don't currently live, like the mainland U.S., where they'll be able to successfully breed with other deer species, effectively making them no longer genetically unique.

COLANGELO: I mean, I don't want any species to go extinct on my watch, you know, I don't think any of us do. I mean, and - but it's society. Where is society on that, you know?


ROTT: Colangelo says, for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to answer some of these questions about whether to actively move plants and animals, translocating them to new environments or banking their DNA or just letting them go quickly becomes an ethical question as much as it does a logistical one. And she says it needs an all-of-society response.


MARTHA WILLIAMS: I think we all feel it so strongly to make sure a species doesn't blink out under our watch.

ROTT: I spoke with Martha Williams, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and I asked her, what are we supposed to do when a federally endangered or threatened species is seeing its habitat disappear due to climate change?

WILLIAMS: We have always, I think, despite what some people think, we have always looked at the Endangered Species Act as creatively and flexibly as we can. And so one answer, I think, is to make sure we have the flexibility to really use all the tools available to us to help that species in the habitat where it still survives. But then also, where can we replicate that habitat? How do we make the habitat better? Can we? And that's one of the rules, the Endangered Species Act rule proposed in the Biden administration, and that's to reintroduce a species in some place that it wasn't its historic habitat but might be just the habitat it needs to survive into the future.

ROTT: So basically, looking at a habitat that a species might not be in right now but that we suspect or we project it will go to as the climate warms and the environment changes.

WILLIAMS: That's right, because what we're seeing with climate is it's moving the suitable habitat for some species. So if we're really committed to conserving especially a species like the Key deer, you know, that's ridiculously cute...

ROTT: (Laughter) Yeah.

WILLIAMS: ...Then we've got to be thinking about all of the tools that we can use to allow it to survive into the future.

ROTT: Do you think we'll be moving species? I mean, I know we talk about moving species. Is that something you see the agency doing?

WILLIAMS: I'd like to not take tools off the table. And I don't see us doing it right now, but looking into the future, I'd sure like to have that possibility.

ROTT: So I want to step back. When you're thinking about the first 50 years, I mean, what would you call some of the biggest wins of the Endangered Species Act over the last 50 years?

WILLIAMS: Oh, gosh. I mean, I think that we have prevented the extinction of almost 99% of the species that were ever listed. So the success is that there are all these species that are still around. I went to Georgia recently late at night and saw loggerhead and green sea turtles come in and lay their eggs by the moonlight. And then the next morning, they didn't hatch instantaneously. But then I also saw hatchlings go out to sea. And I thought, oh, my gosh, like, you know, just to see that and experience that awe, they're around because of the Endangered Species Act.

So I think there are all these very iconic species, but then other, you know, not iconic species that are weird and cool and interesting but are really important for so many numbers of reasons, whether it's for medicine, pharmaceuticals, whether it's just as representative of a healthy habitat, clean air, clean water, resilience to climate change, to sea level rise. The fact that those species that are still around, I think that's a remarkable achievement.

ROTT: You mentioned the 99% figure for preventing extinction, which is remarkable, right?


ROTT: Recovery has been a little more of an issue and a little harder to get species to the point where they no longer need federal protection. Why is that? Like, what makes recovery difficult?

WILLIAMS: I think of recovery and actual de-listing is something different, and the concepts get confused. If you think about - unfortunately, species get listed when they're in the emergency room or the Endangered Species Act becomes the emergency room. So by the time they need the listing, they're in a world of hurt. And so think of the continuum. Think of what it takes to get that species back on track and having long-term recovery thereafter. So it's not easy. It is a long process. It takes a lot of partners. No one does it alone.

And then if you think of climate change - right? - in the face of that, when you've got habitat fragmentation, you have sometimes illegal wildlife trafficking, you have invasive species, you have impacts of climate change, whether it's drought, whether it's sea level rise, whether it's fires, whether it's extreme heat, there are all these different things. If you think about how hard that is for people, imagine how much harder it is for these species in this web of life that depends on, you know, every little piece and can be very sensitive.

ROTT: When you're looking forward at the future of the Endangered Species Act, the next 50 years, what do you see as being some of the biggest challenges?

WILLIAMS: The threats that we see now but just getting harder with climate change, so fire, drought, flooding, people, you know, conflict amongst people. And people need somewhere to live, you know. How do we do that? But I also think about, Nate, how do we make sure people are connected to nature and actually care about this? I think about that all the time. Like, how do we make sure the American public can connect what we're doing under the Endangered Species Act and thinking about, why does that matter to them? Why does the Endangered Species Act matter and be key to saving us as a species, saving life on Earth? That's what we're doing. And so I think it's partly, you know, connecting that everyday people to say, this is why we should care.

ROTT: Martha Williams is the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thank you for being here.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Nate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.