Florida Scrub Jay
THE FLORIDA SCRUB JAY IS THE ONLY SPECIES OF BIRD ENDEMIC TO THE U. S. STATE OF FLORIDA (1) and one of only 15 species endemic to the United States. Because of this, it is heavily sought by birders who travel from across the country to observe this unique species. It is known to have been present in Florida as a distinct species for at least 2 million years. (2)
The estimated population is between 7,000 to 11,000 individuals. They became threatened as an endangered species in the Federal Register on June 3, 1987.
The major cause of the decline of the Florida Scrub-Jay has been habitat destruction by humans. The decline probably began in the mid-1800s when scrub was cleared for towns, citrus groves, and cleared pastures. The destruction of scrub accelerated throughout the 1900s, especially after 1950, for the development of air fields, phosphate mines, pine plantations, military installations, super highways, mobile home parks, shopping malls, rocket-launch complexes, tourist resorts, golf courses, and theme parks. (5)
In June 2015 St. Lucie County released a “Wetland and Listed Species Assessment of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for All Aboard Florida Intercity Passenger Rail Project, Orlando to Miami. The Assessment was prepared for St. Lucie County by Passarella & Associates, Inc., Fort Myers.
Passarella & Associates is a full-service ecological consulting firm, founded to assist clients in achieving a sustainable balance between development and environmental resources.
In it’s DEIS, All Aboard Florida (AAF) wrote that “Florida Scrub‐Jay metapopulations are within the vicinity of the N‐S Corridor throughout Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, and Martin Counties, with a few located in Palm Beach County.”
The Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) defines an endangered species as “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” The Act also defines a threatened species as “any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
In an October 30, 2012 letter from the South Florida Office of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (SFWS), with respect to the AAF Project, it confirmed the Florida Scrub-Jay as a “species of concern.”
However, in a September 19, 2013 letter based on SFWS’s findings, the US Army Corps. of Engineers (USACE) wrote specifically about the Florida Scrub-Jay, as follows, with respect to the AAF Project:
“May effect, but is not likely to adversely impact the Florida scrub‐jay.”
But by letter from the USACE dated January 29, 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed its prior determination that the Florida Scrub Jay from is “not likely to adversely affect” to “may affect;” which results in the requirement under the Endangered Species Act that a Biological Opinion be prepared on the impacts of the proposed AAF project on the impacts to the Scrub Jay.
As of the date of this letter, the Biological Opinion has not been issued. Without the Biological Opinion, it is impossible to assess or ascertain the impacts to the Scrub Jay. Additionally, according to Passarella & Associates, the Scrub Jay survey prepared for the DEIS is “inadequate and invalid.”
Further, according to Passarella & Associates, the preferred North South AAF corridor bisects high quality scrub habitats that contain a core population of the federally threatened Florida Scrub Jay. Scrub Jays are particularly vulnerable to extinction caused by habitat fragmentation and would be at increased risk of collision with high speed trains because of their low flight paths.
The DEIS Scrub Jay survey of the FECR Right of Way (ROW) from Indian River to Martin County states: “It should be noted that the entire ROW has been impacted in the past and does not contain suitable habitat for Scrub-Jays. No Scrub-Jay habitat will be impacted by these plans. It should be noted that the entire ROW has not been cleared and still contains habitat suitable for Scrub Jays, as well as habitat for other threatened and endangered species. There are known Scrub Jay territories that occur within the project area that overlap with the FECR ROW.”
Passarella & Associates wrote that in fact Scrub Jay territories are located in and along the FECR ROW that passes through Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Survey results from the 2014 Jonathan Dickinson State Park Scrub Jay Surveys show that three territories are within the FECR ROW. These territories occur on the eastern boundary of the Jonathan Dickinson State Park and consist of 41 birds and 15 family groups.
“The DEIS does not adequately characterize the threatened and endangered species within the alternative corridors and the potential direct and indirect impacts to wetlands and listed species.”
The DEIS Scrub Jay survey reports state they evaluated the entire Florida East Coast Railway (FECR) right-of-way (ROW) from current aerial photographs and ground inspection prior to the survey. In addition, survey areas were presumably proposed and approved by the USFWS prior to conducting surveys.
But “the maps included with the reports appear to all be greater than 400 feet per square inch. The maps do not include observed Scrub Jay groups or group territory boundaries. Based on the limited information in the survey report, it cannot be established where territory boundaries might overlap the FECR ROW. Territory boundaries are important information that can be used to assess flight paths of scrub jays. In this particular case it is essential to determine which groups may be subject to train collisions crossing the tracks from one territory to another.”
The DEIS scrub jay survey of the FECR ROW from Indian River to Martin Counties states: “It should be noted that the entire ROW has been impacted in the past and does not contain suitable habitat for Scrub-jays. No Scrub-jay habitat will be impacted by these plans.”
Passarella & Associates: “This statement is inaccurate based on the described impacts to the ROW that have been described as 100 to 300 feet. The existing clearing extends approximately 35 to 50 feet for the majority of the existing corridor. The remaining area located outside of the existing clearing contains vegetation and some of this area contains Scrub-Jay habitat. Scrub jays are known to cache their acorns in open sandy disturbed areas devoid of vegetation as exists in the existing cleared ROW.”
(1) “All-American Birds” – National Wildlife Foundation
(2) Emslie, Steven D (1996) – “A fossil Scrub Jay supports recent systematic decision.”
(3) Breininger 1989; Fitzpatrick et al. 1991; Fitzpatrick et al. 1994
(4) U.S Fish and Wildlife Service – North Florida Ecological Services Office