They Are Considered Ecological Barometer
Funding for scientists to monitor alligators in Everglades National Park has been eliminated from the wetlands’ ongoing restoration program,
despite their status as one of the region’s most iconic species.
Though alligators are considered an ecological barometer by experts assessing the effects of water management projects being carried out as
part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the lack of resources to keep them under surveillance means a loss of valuable data,
said Frank Mazzotti, an associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida’s Everglades Research and Education Center.
Addressing guests at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Miami as part of a discussion entitled, “Florida’s Iconic Critters,” he explained how CERP – a state and federally funded program – aims to restore the South Florida ecosystem by way of projects that include removing canals to creating new water storage facilities.
“For a little more than a dime an acre, we can assess how successful it is,” he said, referring to the specific monitoring of alligators and
crocodiles. “But that funding has been eliminated from CERP. Why?” he asked.
The alligator is a species that is “an indicator that’s so effective at telling us how the Everglades responds and that is so popular with the public,” said Mazzotti.
“More people come to see alligators and crocodiles in Florida than any other critter,” except perhaps Mickey Mouse, he said.
Around 1.7 billion gallons of water drain from the Everglades to coastal waters every day. Under the $7.8 billion CERP program, more of this water will be captured and stored, to supply the natural system and service urban and agricultural needs.
By removing more than 240 miles of canals and levees, the natural north-south water flow will be restored, assisting the regeneration of
endangered species such as the snail kite, which numbered 3,300 in 1999 and are now down to just 700. This year saw 110 successful nests, hatching 200 young.
Dramatic fluctuations in water levels in Lake Okeechobee – the highs caused by rainmaker storms, the lows wreaked by drought and mismanagement – have led to a reduction in the snail kite’s only food, the apple snail.
“It’s us, it’s people,” said Paul Gray, Okeechobee science coordinator for Audubon of Florida.
“Nobody wants the lake to fluctuate wildly, so until we build better water storage we can’t protect kites.”
Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, explained how the Florida panther’s problems – which stem less from water issues than developmental encroachment and traffic – are also facing challenges.
Florida Power & Light, the utility company, is building “the biggest power plant in the country in the middle of collared panther territory,” he
said, while an access road into Ave Maria, a university community in Naples, had been built right through a major panther corridor.
“The biggest problem for the Florida panther is habitat. They want it. We want it. They can’t go to court for it, but I can,” he said. “That’s what I
spend my life doing – litigating.”
Panelists also discussed the problem of invasive Burmese pythons – “Now we have a new iconic critter in Florida,” said Mazzotti – and threats to manatees from watercraft, cold weather and, in a recent twist, the Tea Party, whose Citrus County branch made international headlines earlier in the year with its objections to measures drawn up to protect the portly marine-dweller, an endangered species.
Attempts to restrict boating activities locally, to save manatees from harm, put nature above man and consequently went “against the Bible and the Bill of Rights,” activists complained.
Pat Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee, told Friday’s conference discussion: “Suddenly now manatees are against the Constitution.”