COLUMBIA -- Wood storks were once rare in South Carolina, but the gawky wading birds now routinely call the Palmetto State home.
It's a similar story in other Southeastern states -- and why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said last week the wood stork should no longer be listed as a federally protected endangered species. The agency is proposing to change the wood stork's status from endangered to threatened.
For now, the proposal maintains protections for wood storks, although depending on the final federal plan, some of those protections could be eased.
Federal wildlife managers said the growth of wood stork populations is a success story that can't be ignored. The birds traditionally are believed to have bred in central and south Florida, in places such as the Everglades. Loss of habitat pushed the storks farther north.
Today, the birds are nesting in the Carolinas and Georgia, where federal protection helped the birds establish themselves, officials said. One federal program, for instance, has helped restore 115,000 acres of wetlands in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama in less than two decades, the service said.
"Wood storks in the Southeastern U.S. no longer face imminent danger of extinction," Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe said last week. "And that's thanks to decades of conservation work across the region. The population of this amazing bird has continued to improve."
Wood storks are tall birds with long, spindly legs and featherless heads. Adults are mostly white, but they have dark tail feathers. The storks can grow to nearly four feet tall, with wing spans of more than five feet. They love wetlands, feeding on the small fish that live in these soggy, flooded environments. The wood stork is the only stork species that nests in the United States.
While wood storks have always visited South Carolina, the first nest was not identified until about 30 years ago, federal officials say. Since that time, the population has grown to 1,827 nesting pairs, the service reported Tuesday. The three-year nesting average topped 2,000 pairs in the Palmetto State.
"Wood storks are regularly observed in Beaufort County," said Christy Hand, wading bird biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "In addition to providing good nesting habitat for storks, Beaufort County provides extensive feeding habitat for storks that nest in South Carolina and for storks that nest in other states."
During 2012, DNR counted 148 nests in 5 colonies, she said.
Most of South Carolina's breeding wood storks nest in the Lowcountry's ACE Basin, a vast wildlife reserve that includes a mosaic of wetlands and rivers with abundant food sources. Efforts to protect the ACE Basin and other places in the South have helped save habitat for wood storks, the service says.
The birds also have been identified in South Carolina in places such as the Yawkey Wildlife Center near Georgetown, and in Richland and Lexington counties.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's plan to make the wood stork a threatened species would continue the same protections as an endangered species, but it gives the service the flexibility to ease some of those protections in the future. Threatened species, for instance, can be killed, captured or trapped under a wider range of circumstances than endangered species can. The wood stork was listed as an endangered species in 1984.
An endangered species is one the federal government says is in danger of extinction throughout most of its range. A threatened species is one that is considered likely to become endangered. The plan to reclassify the wood stork follows a petition by home builders in Florida.
The wood stork is among a handful of species in the South that the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed or changed the status of from endangered to threatened, said agency spokeswoman Jennifer Koches. Additionally, six Southern species have been taken completely off the Endangered Species list because federal protections helped populations rebound, she said. Among the most notable is the American alligator, which now is hunted in South Carolina and some other states.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has skirmished with the Fish and Wildlife Service in the past, agreed Tuesday that wood storks are making a comeback. "The wood stork population's steady improvement is proof positive that the Endangered Species Act works," said Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida attorney for the center.
Staff writer Casey Conley contributed to this report.