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ESAblawg is an educational effort by Keith W. Rizzardi. Correspondence with this site does not create a lawyer-client relationship. Photos or links may be copyrighted (but used with permission, or as fair use). ESA blawg is published with a Creative Commons License.

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florida gators... never threatened!

If you ain't a Gator, you should be! Alligators (and endangered crocs) are important indicator species atop their food chains, with sensitivity to pollution and pesticides akin to humans. See ESA blawg. Gator blood could be our pharmaceutical future, too. See ESA musing.


Follow the truth.

"This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." -- Thomas Jefferson to William Roscoe, December 27, 1820.


Thanks, Kevin.

KEVIN S. PETTITT helped found this blawg. A D.C.-based IT consultant specializing in Lotus Notes & Domino, he also maintains Lotus Guru blog.

The Key Largo Woodrat's Wild Ride


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Upon spotting a Key Largo woodrat, even an educated local from the Conch Republic might shrug, thinking of prolifically-reproducing mice and rats.  Woodrats, however, are a wholly different genus, facing the threat of extinction.  Yet mice and woodrats are connected, too, because The Mouse is trying to save the endangered woodrat.

The quiet conservation efforts of Walt Disney World scientists have made substantial and award-winning progress. Fueled primarily by corporate goodwill traced back to Walt Disney's vision, Mickey's friends are reintroducing his not-so-charismatic cousin to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service refuge in the Florida Keys. Last year, the effort bore fruit – or rather, woodrats – when a captive bred female woodrat, fondly named "Tweak," successfully gave birth to a pup after almost 60 days in the wild.

"Not only do the animals raised at Disney's Animal Kingdom have the skills to survive in the wild, they are breeding and producing offspring." says Dr. Anne Savage, Disney's Senior Conservation Biologist. "Tweak was the first captive born female to give birth in the wild.  It was an important event in the history of the Key Largo woodrat recovery program." 

Success, however, was not immediate.  Instead, as is often the case with great accomplishments, failure came first.  After months of captive breeding in a backstage holding facility, scientists plucked twelve rats from their enclosures and moved them to Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  Obstacles abounded. 

Photo of a perched Key Largo Woodrat, by Clay DeGayner, available online at

In the dry coastal hammocks of Key Largo, the woodrat survives without any freshwater at all.  Water comes from its diet: from the wild coffee that spots the understory, or from the fruits of the distinctively-spotted trunks of the mastic tree.  The gumbo limbo tree, sometimes called the "tourist tree" by Floridians due to its peeling reddish bark, dominates the canopy.

Trash mounds, however, mar that natural beauty.  Along one dirt trail is the rusted metal frame and rotted upholstery of an old automobile.  Along another dirt road is the 20 foot tall debris mound of the old "Ready Room" and Nike missile site used during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Dozens of mounds of concrete can be found in scattered locations, now overgrown by 30 years of vegetation.  The current state of the area makes it hard to imagine how the lands could ever have been planned to become Port Bougainville, a development project that would have included 15 hotels and over 2000 condos.  But the old adage applies: one person's trash is another person's treasure.  And for the Key Largo woodrats, trash is treasure.  Every fallen tree and every pile of concrete and coral is an opportunity.  Every clump of gathered twigs is a sign. 

"I know nothing about anything, and barely graduated kindergarten," laughs Ralph DeGayner, a gray-stubble wearing Michigan retiree and Florida snowbird, "but I do know something about woodrats."  He and his clean shaven brother Clay DeGayner each donate over 1000 hours annually as volunteers to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  They even think like woodrats.

"They look for a roof," says Ralph, pointing to a mound of trash he declared to be a "natural" nest. Natural, that is, when compared with one he built for the reintroduced species.  "They need a flat rock above their sheltered nest." 

"They need multiple access and escape routes too," adds Clay.  "And the giveaway is the stickpile."  The challenge for the woodrats is to find the sticks without getting eaten.

Clay DeGayner (left), and his brother Ralph DeGayner (right), have volunteered thousands of hours to benefit the Key Largo woodrat. Among their contributions is this simple tool for tracking the presence of feral cats by finding the predator's footprints in the sand.  Photo by Keith Rizzardi.

For regional land managers, the Key largo woodrat presents yet another variable in an already complex system.  As a species listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the woodrat creates significant regulatory headaches.  Land management decisions that might be simple elsewhere, like a trash removal plan, or a coastal spoil mound relocation, trigger a requirement to consult with federal scientists.  Through that "consultation" process, biologists try to determine whether the proposed action will jeopardize the continued existence of the entire species or adversely modify the woodrat’s critical habitat.  With wood rat populations estimated at 300 or so in 2007, and as low as 134 in 2010, the risk of species extinction is real.

Sadly, the tiny native woodrat captures none of the public attention given to other wildlife in the Everglades and Florida Keys.  The underfunded National Wildlife Refuge where it lives is closed to the public.  Worse yet, “restricted access” signs do not stop the predators.  Woodrats frequently become prey for the much-beloved feral cats in the area, necessitating difficult conversations with the wealthy neighbors who live in the nearby Ocean Reef Club.  In fact, federal wildlife managers continue to seek public input on plans to trap feral cats in the region.  But until such a plan is fully implemented, the bowls of water left outside by well-meaning (but ill-informed) people will save the lives of feral cats but serve as death sentences for the cats' unlucky prey. 

Then again, death – or more precisely, extinction – was exactly what “Python Pete” wanted when he sent an untraced e-mail to federal officials, declaring his plan to introduce exotic Burmese pythons to the Everglades.  According to locals, even though state and federal refuge lands were acquired through eminent domain more than 30 years ago, hard feelings still exist decades later, leading the devious Pete to adopt his plan for woodrat destruction.  Regardless of whether the story of Python Pete is legend or not, the invasive pythons (and local raccoons) present a real threat, and woodrats are routinely found in the stomachs of autopsied predators. 

Poor Ralph.  Named after his volunteering friend, Ralph the woodrat got eaten first.  In fact, the entire first group of reintroductions quickly suffered Ralph’s fate.  Twelve rats were released, and within two weeks, all twelve disappeared -- exactly as conservationists expected.  Darren Wostenberg, a contractor from Genesis Laboratory, was one of the prognosticators.  He wandered the woods for weeks, with a satellite device strapped to his back and an old-fashioned antenna in his hands.  Recording beeps amidst the static, he was present at the beginning when the rats were released, he tracked where they went, and he discovered where they met their ends.

"You don't put your best stock out the first time around," explained Wostenberg.  Savage agreed, chiming in.  "This is a scientific process,” she added.  “You learn what works, and what doesn't, and then put out the more virile animals.”

Photo of Darren Wostenberg searching for radio telemetry signals from a pile of rocks that sheltered "Remy" and other reintroduced Key Largo woodrats.  Photo by Keith Rizzardi.

Aided by the knowledge gained by the first group of woodrats, the Disney biologists brought out the A-team.  "A" as in Aggressive.  Theory and anecdotal evidence suggested that the more the woodrats bit and lunged in their cages, the more likely it seemed that the animal possessed the independence and dominance needed to survive in the the wild.  Still, conservation science ruled the selection process, and conservation geneticists from the U.S. Geological Service ultimately decided on which woodrats to reintroduce to their native habitat.

The journey for these woodrats begins in the backlots of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where a simply constructed gated compound provides the breeding grounds and enclosures for the reintroduced animals.  In interconnected cages, complete with wheels and tubes like a pet hamster’s “Habitrail” system, these woodrats sleep, forage and exercise.  Nearby, Disney biologists grow native foods to feed the woodrats, simulating their natural diet and preparing them for their upcoming journey.

Creative low-tech thinking makes that journey less traumatic.  Rather than moving just the woodrat, Disney biologists move its home.  The nest boxes at Animal Kingdom are placed into a transport box, and loaded into a truck for the trip to Key Largo.  Upon arrival, the woodrat's transported nest fits into a larger nest structure, built from sticks, rocks and debris by volunteers (including the DeGayners) and surrounded by wire mesh.  After an acclimation period, the conservation biologists remove the gates, mesh and protective barriers, and the woodrats, fitted with radio telemetry collars, can explore their new, and much larger, environment. 

Aided by the work of such dedicated conservation scientists and volunteers, the future looks brighter for the Key Largo woodrat.  In 2010, two feisty females named Tweak and Patty found mates and successfully bred after being reintroduced.  Remy, a clever male named after the character in the Pixar film, Ratatouille, showed resilence.  He moved from nest to nest, and even escaped a cat, as indicated by an open wound on his back foot, a broken toe, and numerous lacerations discovered by field biologists who trapped him.  Remy found a girlfriend, too. 

Months later, Remy lost his collar.  No one knows what happened to him.  Perhaps he suffered Ralph’s fate, or perhaps not.  But either way, Remy the woodrat, and his friend Mickey Mouse, are giving an entire species new hopes and dreams.


Celebrating Earth Day, April 22, 2011

Photo of Anne Savage, Ph.D.,  Senior Conservation Biologist, Disney's Animal Programs, next to a protected nest structure awaiting its new resident.

For more information, read Anne Savage's blog entry about the Key Largo woodrat (with a great photo, too).  And also visit THE RAT RACE: Protecting the Key Largo Woodrat By Christina Alligood, PhD, Anne Savage, PhD, and Andre Daneault available online.  For reproduction rights, please contact


Keith Who?

Keith W. Rizzardi, a Florida lawyer, is board certified in State & Federal Administrative Practice. A law professor at St. Thomas University near Miami and Special Counsel at Jones Foster Johnston & Stubbs in West Palm Beach, he previously represented the U.S. Department of Justice and the South Florida Water Management District. A two-time Chair of The Florida Bar Government Lawyer Section, he currently serves as Chair of the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee



The experience & skills discussed in links below were not reviewed or approved by The Florida Bar. The facts and circumstances of every case are different; each one must be independently evaluated by a lawyer and handled on its own merits. Cases and testimonials may not be representative of all clients’ experience with a lawyer. By clicking the links below, you acknowledge the disclaimer above.

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16 U.S.C. §1531 et. seq.

"The Congress finds and declares that -

(1) various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation;

(2) other species of fish, wildlife, and plants have been so depleted in numbers that they are in danger of or threatened with extinction;

(3) these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people."

16 U.S.C. §1531(a)

The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is "to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved."

16 U.S.C. §1531(b)

Reasons for the ESA

1. ECOLOGICAL: Species have a role in the web of life. Who knows which missing link causes the collapse?

2. ECONOMICAL: Species have actual, inherent, and potential value -- some as food, others as tourist attractions. As Congress said, these species have "aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation." 16 U.S.C. §1531(a).

3. MEDICAL: Although perhaps a subset of economics, medical reasons for the ESA deserve special note, because today's listed species could be tomorrow's cure for cancer.

4. MORAL: With each extinction, we take something from others. We must prevent "the tragedy of the commons."

5. THEOLOGICAL: Even the Bible instructed Noah to save God's creatures, male and female, two by two.

Reasons for ESA Reform

1. ECOSYSTEM (MIS)MANAGEMENT. The ESA encourages selective review of individual species needs, even though nature pits species needs against one another. Furthermore, the ESA's single-species focus detracts from efforts to achieve environmental restoration and ecosystem management.

2. SCIENTIFIC UNCERTAINTY: While the ESA requires consideration of the "best available science," sometimes the best is not enough, forcing decisions under great uncertainty. The ESA, however, is generally proscriptive, regulatory, and absolute; as a result, it insufficiently allows for adaptive management.

3. LITIGATION: ESA implementation is at the mercy of the attorneys. Cases involving one listed species can serve as a proxy for hidden agendas, especially land use disputes, and regardless of actual species needs, litigation and judicial orders set agency priorities. In the end, realistic solutions disappear amidst court-filings, fundraising, and rhetoric.

4. PRIVATE LANDS: Up to 80% of ESA-listed species habitat is on privately owned lands. While the ESA can place reasonable restrictions on private property rights, there are limits. But the best alternatives have limits too, such as Federal land acquisition and the highly controversial "God Squad" exemptions.

5. FUNDING: Protecting species is expensive, but resources appropriated by Congress are limited. An overburdened handful of federal agency biologists cannot keep pace with the ESA's procedural burdens, nor court-ordered deadlines (see #3 above). Provisions requiring agencies to pay attorney's fees to victorious litigators -- who challenge the hastily written documents prepared by overworked bureaucrats -- simply exacerbate the problem.

"Every species is part of an ecosystem, an expert specialist of its kind, tested relentlessly as it spreads its influence through the food web. To remove it is to entrain changes in other species, raising the populations of some, reducing or even extinguishing others, risking a downward spiral of the larger assemblage." An insect with no apparent commercial value may be the favorite meal of a spider whose venom will soon emerge as a powerful and profitable anesthetic agent. That spider may in turn be the dietary staple of a brightly colored bird that people, who are notoriously biased against creepy crawlers and in favor of winsome winged wonders, will travel to see as tourists. Faced with the prospect that the loss of any one species could trigger the decline of an entire ecosystem, destroying a trove of natural and commercial treasures, it was rational for Congress to choose to protect them all. -- Alabama-Tombigbee Rivers Coalition v. Kempthorne, 477 F.3d 1250, 1274-75 (11th Cir.2007), cert. denied, 128 S.Ct. 8775 (2008), quoting Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life 308 (1992).

"This case presents a critical conflict between dual legislative purposes, providing water service for agricultural, domestic, and industrial use, versus enhancing environmental protection for fish species whose habitat is maintained in rivers, estuaries, canals, and other waterways that comprise the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta… This case involves both harm to threatened species and to humans and their environment. Congress has not nor does TVA v. Hill elevate species protection over the health and safety of humans... No party has suggested that humans and their environment are less deserving of protection than the species. Until Defendant Agencies have complied with the law, some injunctive relief pending NEPA compliance may be appropriate, so long as it will not further jeopardize the species or their habitat." -- The Consolidated Delta Smelt Cases, 2010 WL 2195960 (E.D.Cal., May 27, 2010)(Judge Wanger)(addressing the need for further consideration of the human consequences of ESA compliance).

Notable quotables

"A nation, as a society, forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society." – Thomas Jefferson (1792)


"The destruction of the wild pigeon and the Carolina parakeet has meant a loss as sad as if the Catskills or Palisades were taken away. When I hear of the destruction of a species, I feel as if all the works of some great writer had perished."


"Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful means, the generations that come after us." – Theodore Roosevelt (Aug. 31, 1910)

Noah's orders

GENESIS, Chapter 6: [v 20] "Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you, to keep them alive. [v 21] Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them."

GENESIS, Chapter 9: [v12] "And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations"

"The power of God is present at all places, even in the tiniest leaf … God is currently and personally present in the wilderness, in the garden, and in the field." – MARTIN LUTHER