Greater St. Croix Skink

Greater St. Croix Skink

The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a lawsuit against Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect eight rare species of skink, a type of lizard, under the Endangered Species Act.

The skinks are found only on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and face extinction because of introduced predators, habitat destruction and climate change, according to a news release from the Center, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation.

“Wildlife officials simply can’t put off endangered species protections for these rare and vulnerable lizards any longer,” said Elise Bennett, a Center attorney. “Skinks have been driven from their limited habitat by rampant development and human-introduced predators until many can no longer be found. Waiting much longer to protect these rare little animals would mean ratifying their extinction.”

The Center petitioned to protect the skinks in 2014 with Dr. Renata Platenberg, an ecologist specializing in Caribbean reptiles who lives and works on St. Thomas.

In 2016 the Fish and Wildlife Service found the eight species might warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, but the agency subsequently failed to make a determination within the required 12-month period. It has been more than five years since the agency missed this key deadline.

“These skinks are pretty special,” Platenberg said in a statement. “They’re long and cylindrical with a metallic copper sheen, very different from the other lizards around them. They urgently need protection and recovery efforts to ensure they are still around even 10 years from now.”

Two of the skinks, the lesser Virgin Islands skink and Virgin Islands bronze skink, as well as the endangered Virgin Islands tree boa, are believed to occur on Great St. James, which Jeffrey Epstein purchased in 2016 to construct a sprawling compound with two homes, cottages and various other buildings connected by private roads.

At least some of the construction has taken place without government permits. Since Epstein’s death the fate of the island and the endangered animals is uncertain.

Scientists identified the skinks as separate species in a 2012 study. All are considered critically endangered or endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, and they are absent or extremely rare across most of their former ranges, according to the news release.

— Contact Suzanne Carlson at 340-714-9122 or email scarlson@dailynews.vi.