ATLANTA (Reuters) - The wood stork, a large American wading bird, is no longer an endangered species after a successful three-decade conservation effort that has seen the population spread through the Southeast, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said on Thursday.

The federal agency said it had changed the status of the species to threatened. Wood storks, were deemed endangered in 1984, when the population was dropping by 5 percent a year.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the decision at a ceremony in Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge in south Georgia, where the state's largest wood stork rookery is located.

Since 2004, the number of nesting pairs has remained above the 6,000 average needed to remove the stork from endangered species status, the agency said.

But the long-legged birds will be listed as threatened because the goal of a five-year average of 10,000 nesting pairs has not yet been reached, the agency said.

A species is considered endangered when it faces extinction in all or much of its territory and is threatened when it risks becoming endangered.

Restoring wetlands through partnerships with state governments and conservation groups has been key to increasing the wood stork's population, expanding its range to parts of North Carolina and Mississippi. When the bird was originally listed as endangered, its habitat was limited to Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.

The Endangered Species Act, enacted in 1973, has prevented the extinction of nearly all the animals listed as threatened or endangered, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Twenty-seven species have been taken off the lists including the bald eagle, American alligator, and peregrine falcon.


(Reporting by David Beasley; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Sandra Maler)