Florida introduces CWAs, a new tool for the conservation of listed birds.

Conservation efforts at Bird Island in Martin County started at the local level. Signs posted alert boaters.

Florida has a critical position in the flyways of numerous migratory bird species as a waystation and breeding grounds. The state also has a critical spot in the history of international bird conservation. On March 14, 1903, President Roosevelt established the Pelican Island Refuge in Vero Beach by executive order. Pelican Island was the first national wildlife refuge in the United States, created to protect egrets and other birds from the plume-hunting trade. That refuge system, now numbering 562 refuges and 38 wetland management areas, all began in Florida.

Today, there are new threats. Storms, sea level rise, water quality issues, invasive species and habitat loss—to name a few—are changing things for Florida’s birds fast. In response, the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has developed the Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) program to protect species listed as threatened or endangered. These species include the little blue heron, tricolored heron, reddish egret, roseate spoonbill, American oystercatcher, black skimmer, least tern and snowy plover (state threatened species) and the piping plover, red knot, roseate tern, and wood stork (federally-listed under the Endangered Species Act).

“CWAs comprise a very small percentage of Florida’s available land and waters,” says Kipp Frohlich, Interim Director of the FWC’s Division of Wildlife and Habitat Conservation. “There are thousands of small islands around the state, but only 33 are designated as CWAs. These CWAs are the islands that support concentrations of wildlife during critical life activities, such as nesting, wintering and foraging. For example, the Stick Marsh CWA includes a total of 2.47 acres on a 6,500-acre impoundment area that is managed for fishing.

“When we went around the state in 2016 and asked for input,” Frohlich said, “there were boaters and anglers concerned that they were going to lose access to one of their favorite places. It’s a concern, and I don’t want to diminish the importance of that. But overwhelmingly, fishermen are conservationists, and at the end, I felt like we got a lot of support from fishing groups.”

Juvenile wood storks at a Critical Wildlife Area site. Photo credit Mary Trugilo

Anglers and boaters may be prohibited from venturing close to certain CWAs year-round or during specified times, such as nesting or migration season. Law enforcement officers can enforce the posted boundaries of a CWA and issue citations—it’s a second degree misdemeanor with up to a $500 fine or a maximum of 60 days in jail to transgress on a CWA.

Frohlich of the FWC says that the state does its best to balance the needs of boaters and anglers with the legal requirements to protect listed species. The basic criteria for determining if a site is a good candidate for CWA designation are:

■ The site must support a significant aggregation of sensitive species.
■ Human disturbance issues are a problem
■ The site is accessible for management and patrol.
■ The landowner must support and approve of the designation.

“When a site is identified as a potential Critical Wildlife Area,” Frohlich says, “FWC staff develop a public engagement plan that includes news releases and media contacts, online updates, public workshops, and site visits with landowners and partners to discuss possible buffer distances, marker types, and closure periods.”

The Martin County site Bird Island is an example where local governments and residents initiated a conservation measure and it later became a CWA. “In cases like that, the local initiative gives us more initiative to protect an area,” Frohlich added.

But in some areas, that local—or state or federal—support can be hard to muster.

“Four years ago,” said Putnam County’s Tim Houghtaling, “when I saw Buzzard Island, the trees were so thick we couldn’t see the bank on the other side. I joined the St. Augustine Audubon Society and had them make a list of over a dozen species that roosted there. Within two years, we could see that the trees were falling down and washing away.”

Houghtaling surmised the destruction was due to wake, including that of tugs and other industrial vessels, sea level rise and storms, or a combination of these. He says he spent thousands of hours trying to get some attention to it.

“The CWA is a wonderful program,” Houghtaling says, “but it’s only addressing the problem of human interaction. Not too far down the road we may be looking for millions of dollars to recreate the islands that we already have.”

In the case of Buzzard Island, Frohlich agrees that the cause of its destruction “does not appear to be human disturbance but rather erosion of the island, which is not best addressed through the CWA program.”

“As I stand here looking out to Buzzard Island,” Houghtaling said, “what pains me is that I haven’t been able to find any research on how special or rare that habitat is, and if it’s really special, then somebody should do something about it. The scientists can’t get funding because the species aren’t listed as threatened or endangered.”

“Given Florida’s current and growing population, we’re losing habitat,” Frohlich said. “Can and should we do more to protect our natural resources? Sure. We focus our efforts on threatened and imperiled species but we do focus on other species, too, as we did in the CWA which we just created in Volusia County which aims to protect brown pelicans, which aren’t listed but at one time were.”

If a citizen is aware of a location where birds are congregating in large numbers and disturbances to the habitat are being observed, Frohlich says, the FWC welcomes the information about the site, which can be sent to the FWC at CWAComments@MyFWC.com. Important details to include are the location (city, county, GPS coordinates) and ownership of the site, along with the species regularly occurring on site, estimated numbers, and nature of use (nesting, foraging, roosting).

The FWC has several outreach programs to educate residents and visitors about bird conservation, but, “The most important message is to give wildlife the space it needs,” Frohlich says. “Never approach a colony too closely or force birds to fly or flush, especially during the breeding season. Respect private property and areas posted as closed.”

New FWC Appointments

Rivard and Rood at the FWC in December.

In December, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) voted to appoint Eric Sutton, assistant executive director, to the position of executive director. Nick Wiley, the former executive director, has moved on to a new position as Chief Conservation Officer of Ducks Unlimited.

Chairman Brian Yablonski also left the agency in December. Long-time FWC Commissioner Bo Rivard, of Panama City, was elected as the new Chairman.

In other FWC staff changes, Robert Spottswood, of Key West, was elected vice chairman. Also, Governor Rick Scott announced new Commission appointments of Sonya Rood and Gary Nicklaus. Rood, 53, of St. Augustine, succeeds Aliese “Liesa” Priddy and is appointed for a term ending January 2, 2022. Nicklaus, 48, of Jupiter, succeeds Ronald Bergeron and is appointed for a term ending August 1, 2022. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine February 2018

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