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U.S. Crocodiles Shed "Endangered" Status

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 21, 2007
 
Florida's crocodiles have stepped back from the brink of extinction,
says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

The government agency, which administers the country's endangered species list, has reclassified the Florida population of the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) from "endangered" to "threatened."

Florida is the only U.S. state where the crocodiles are found.

The move means that the species is no longer in imminent danger of extinction in the United States but is still protected by federal law.

The nonprofit World Conservation Union lists the reptile as "vulnerable" throughout its range, which includes Central America, northern South America, and the Caribbean.

"In the past 30 years, we have made great strides in protecting this species and conserving its habitat," Sam D. Hamilton, USFWS's Southeast Regional Director, said in a statement announcing the decision.

But the croc is not out of danger, as its new "threatened" tag implies.

"The population has recovered sufficiently to make it more resilient to any kinds of threats that may occur, but it isn't immune from those threats," said Allan Woodward of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"Given that, the 'threatened' classification still provides protection for the population."

Room to Thrive

American crocodiles, which can reach 12.5 feet (3.8 meters) in length, are reclusive animals that haunt the sheltered waters of coastal mangrove swamps and bays, creeks, and inland freshwater swamps.

The reptiles resemble their close relative, the American alligator, which is not an endangered species and is common throughout the southeastern United States.

Florida officials estimate that more than a million alligators roam the state's waterways (related news: "Controlled Alligator Harvest an Effective Conservation Tool, Louisiana Says" [October 22, 2001]).

But crocodile populations had been decimated in the 20th century by unchecked urban and agricultural land development combined with overhunting.

The species was first listed as endangered in 1975. A survey the following year estimated that only 200 to 300 animals remained in Florida.

"People were very worried. There were only about 20 nests and they were not very successful," said Frank Mazzotti, a crocodile researcher at the University of Florida.

"There was no evidence that any babies were surviving."

But an intensive five-year review conducted by federal experts confirms that crocodile numbers have rebounded dramatically and their geographic distribution has grown.

Today an estimated 1,400 to 2,000 crocs call Florida home—and that number does not include hatchlings.

This demonstrated population growth, along with reduced land development and hunting threats, prompted the reclassification.

Mazzotti attributes most of the comeback to habitat protection by federal, state, and local wildlife management agencies, as well as some corporate allies.

"A significant chunk of habitat is provided by Florida Power and Light Company at their Turkey Point plant," he said.

The nuclear plant's cooling canals, built on crocodile habitat, are now managed as a croc-friendly refuge.

In total, about 95 percent of southern Florida's prime crocodile breeding grounds is currently protected or preserved.

And while the animals' population boom in Florida is still dwarfed by the abundance of alligators, wildlife managers are more optimistic about the crocs's success.

"Back in the 1970s, when crocodiles were classified as endangered, no one thought they would ever recover this well," Woodward, the state conservation official, said.

"It has been a very pleasant surprise for everyone concerned."

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