Published: Dec 19, 2012 3:39 PM EST

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Federal officials say the population of wood storks has rebounded to the point that they can be classified as threatened instead of endangered, but some environmentalists object to the proposed new status.
    
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to list its proposal for wood storks in the federal registry next week, pointing to marked improvement since the species was listed as endangered in 1984.
    
"This is a good day for the wood stork, and a good day for conservation," Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a written statement. "Thanks to great efforts from our conservation partners, the species is making real progress toward recovery."
    
Changing the storks' status to threatened is largely a symbolic move. No conservation or protection measures for the species would be removed. But opponents of the change, who will be able to offer comments and data to support their case, say it is a step toward a full delisting.
    
No one doubts that biologists' counts of wood storks mean there has been a resurgence of the birds, which have white feathers and a long bill. In 1984, an estimated 4,742 pairs of the birds were counted; today the population range is believed to be 7,086 to 8,996 pairs. But much of the return of the birds has come outside South Florida, where they once thrived.
    
"We're not diminishing the gains that are made in north Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Storks are nesting there in greater numbers than in the past," said Jason Lauritsen, director of Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. "But there is a reverse side to the coin, that they're not mating in South Florida like they were in the past."
    
In 1984, more than 90 percent of the wood storks believed to be in the southeastern U.S. were in South Florida. That ratio has decreased as the birds migrated elsewhere. In the Corkscrew sanctuary outside Naples, for example, Lauritsen said there were estimates that a colony of wood storks in the 1910s numbered 100,000 and that in the 1960s, there were believed to be around 12,000 of the birds.
    
In five of the past six years, though, none have been recorded there.
    
"The threats are still there. They're not recovering in their historic range, they're going somewhere else because they haven't fixed it," said Lauritsen, an animal ecologist. "It's not a good time to start looking at writing off South Florida as an essential element for recovery of the species."
    
Besides Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, wood storks also are found in North Carolina and Mississippi.
    
Chuck Underwood, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said he didn't disagree with environmentalists who say there is more work to be done to protect the species. He said the proposal is simply an acknowledgement that progress has been made.
    
"It no longer meets the definition of endangered, but there are still threats to be addressed, there are still efforts to be ongoing," he said. "We would not expect anyone to back off."
    
Wood storks are wading birds that feed on fish and crustaceans. Development throughout the Everglades ecosystem has choked off water flow and, combined with droughts, has made it more difficult for them to survive in the region.
    
A 60-day public comment period will follow the publishing of the proposed change, though it likely will be a year before the government makes a final determination on whether to change the wood stork classification. Though Lauritsen is among those who objects, he acknowledged the birds were showing some overall signs of comeback.
    
"It's a mixed bag," he said. "Really, we love to see species recover."
    
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(Photo courtesy Mehmet Karatay)