Amphibians and reptiles are amazing creatures with clever adaptations that have allowed them to brave the millennia. Consider the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard’s scaly hind toes, which resemble snowshoes and keep the lizard from sinking into sand as it sprints away from predators; or the eastern diamondback rattlesnake’s heat-sensing pit organ, which helps it find the small, warm-blooded prey on which it feeds. Such diversity is vital to functioning ecosystems and enriches humankind’s enjoyment of the natural world.
But today, the world’s herpetofauna are among the most imperiled species on Earth. Ubiquitous toxins, global warming, nonnative predators, overcollection, habitat destruction and disease are key factors leading to their demise. Globally, 664 species of reptiles, or more than 20 percent of the total evaluated species, are endangered or vulnerable to extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s 2011 Red List. The situation is worse for amphibians. More than 1,900 species of frogs, toads and salamanders — fully 30 percent of the world’s amphibians — are at risk of dying out. Moreover, scientists lack sufficient information to assess the status of nearly 25 percent of the world’s herps. These species are slipping away faster than scientists can study them.
Almost since its inception, the Center for Biological Diversity has worked to protect reptiles and amphibians. By filing petitions that urge federal wildlife agencies to provide Endangered Species Act protection for imperiled herps — and following up with lawsuits when necessary — the Center has obtained federal safeguards and critical habitat for dozens of amphibians and reptiles, from the Chiricahua leopard frog to the Mississippi gopher frog to the Tucson shovel-nosed snake.
Stemming the herpetofauna extinction crisis means attacking it on every front; the Center’s conservation efforts are almost as diverse as the animals we’re working to protect. To reduce impacts of toxic pesticides on the California red-legged frog, the Center secured a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that prohibits the use of 66 toxic pesticides near core habitats. And a follow-up lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks permanent restrictions on these deadly toxins. The Center’s campaign for fish-stocking reform aims to protect the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and other amphibians from nonnative trout, while litigation against the Forest Service has helped curb grazing-driven habitat destruction for the Oregon spotted frog.
While threats like our warming climate require efforts across the globe, threats like human persecution can be addressed by working at the level of communities or regions. For example, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake is facing population declines due in part to “rattlesnake roundups,” which are contests calling for hunters to collect (and later kill) as many snakes as they can in a year. Through our campaign to outlaw rattlesnake roundups, the Center aims to convince local communities to turn these gruesome contests into wildlife appreciation festivals. Freshwater turtles are also being threatened by human persecution, namely by overcollection for the food and the pet trade. Our successful ongoing campaign on behalf of southern and midwestern turtles has prompted several states to regulate turtle harvest, an important step toward reversing their alarming declines.
Though amphibians and reptiles represent some of the most rapidly disappearing species on Earth, they’ve long been underrepresented when it comes to wildlife protection. So in 2010, the Center made certain that animals like the California tiger salamander have their very own champion by hiring the nation’s first full-time attorney dedicated to conserving herpetofauna.
California red-legged frog photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons/ColinBrown.