Protecting endangered Snowy plovers is the aim of a new IDEA project on northwestern Florida beaches. Credit: M. Zdravkovic
The scenic wetlands, beaches and bays of northwestern Florida are sensitive places. If they’re disturbed, fish, birds and other wildlife species can lose crucial sources of food and habitat – sometimes with devastating results.
When an illegal dredging project in Panama City disrupted the Panhandle’s delicate shoreline ecosystem, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), on behalf of state and federal agencies, brought suit against Lagoon Landing, LLC in the Northern District Court of Florida. In 2013, as a result of DOJ’s successful prosecution, the company was convicted of violations and ordered to make a community service payment of $1 million. The payment was designed to fund projects for the conservation, protection, restoration, and management of wetland resources, marine and costal resources, and the fish, wildlife and plant species in the impacted area.
As part of the settlement, DOJ selected NFWF’s IDEA program to manage the money for projects that would offset environmental damage. Since then, IDEA has directed funds to six projects to benefit wildlife and habitat in Bay, Gulf and Walton Counties.
One example: to protect the many species of birds that breed and lay their eggs on Panhandle beaches, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has hired two full-time technicians to track the nests of American oystercatchers, black skimmers, least terns and snowy plovers. They’ll monitor when and where eggs are laid and post the areas to limit disturbances by people and automobiles.
Amy Raybuck of FWC explains that the project is designed to boost the survival rate of the birds, all of which are currently listed by the state as endangered. The odds are formidable. “Out of 50 nests, only five chicks will make it” to fledgling status, she says, noting additional dangers from raccoons, coyotes and dogs. These animal predators can grab eggs or flush the adult birds from their nests, leaving eggs exposed.
The FWC technicians will continue their efforts over the next two years. In another part of the project, FWC will also help recruit and train volunteer beach stewards. The stewards will patrol busy beaches during the nesting season to share information on the birds’ locations and make sure that visitors don’t intrude on nesting areas. Signage and outreach to local residents, such as condo associations, are also priorities. FWC will coordinate with Audubon Florida in these efforts.
“We have a local community that’s passionate about these birds,” says Raybuck. With a boost from the District Court settlement, the monitoring and education efforts could mean new hope for endangered chicks and their beach habitat.