- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The American crocodile is now a threatened species instead of an endangered one because it has rebounded from the edge of extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said this week.

The reptile still remains protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, making it illegal to harass, poach or kill the animals that live in South Florida, their only U.S. habitat.

“It’s just one step closer to recovery, but it still has many, many threats,” Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom MacKenzie said. “It’s still protected with the full force of federal law.”

Endangered status means an animal is at a foreseeable risk of extinction. Threatened status means a species could become endangered in the future if protections are not maintained.

The crocodile was originally listed as a federally endangered species in 1975. By 1976, the population was estimated at just about 300. Scientists now estimate there are up to 2,000 American crocodiles in Florida.

“Crocodiles were a part of Florida’s history for hundreds of years until human activities such as urban development, agricultural conversion and overhunting decimated their populations,” said Sam D. Hamilton, the service’s southeast regional director.

The reclassification announced Tuesday was made after a five-year review of the species population and the determination that there is a sustained breeding population of at least 60 female crocodiles in the wild. The reptile remains endangered in other countries, including Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica and Cuba.

The change in federal classification does not affect the crocodile’s status under Florida law, where it remains listed as an endangered species, said Henry Cabbage, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Florida crocodiles are distinguished from alligators by their more slender build. Also, the crocodile’s snout tapers forward from the eyes while the alligator’s snout is untapered and rounded at the end.

Officials estimate there are up to 2 million alligators in Florida. Alligators were also once thought to be on the brink of extinction because of overhunting, leading to their listing as an endangered species in 1967. They were removed from the federal list in 1987.

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