Florida’s wildlife diversity is reflected in the 16 species of birds, mammals, fish, frogs and snakes whose draft action plans are ready for public review and comment.
The Florida burrowing owl, Florida sandhill crane and Big Cypress and Sherman’s fox squirrels are included in the third group of plans to conserve imperiled species unveiled this year by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The brown pelican, gopher frog, Florida pine snake, Florida mouse, Sherman’s short-tailed shrew, short-tailed snake, Florida bog frog, Georgia blind salamander, Atlantic sturgeon, key silverside, saltwater top minnow and mangrove rivulus are also in this group.
The draft plans and the opportunity to provide input online can be accessed at MyFWC.com/Imperiled. The deadline for commenting on these plans is June 7. The fourth and final group of draft species action plans is scheduled for release in May.
The FWC will revise a total of 49 action plans covering 60 species based on the public’s input. While individual species’ action plans will not be approved by the Commission, they are the first step in identifying individual species threats and needs. The next step will be developing integrated conservation strategies that address shared priorities in areas such as wildlife management, habitat conservation and research that will benefit many species. Ultimately, the outcome will be an Imperiled Species Management Plan providing a set of tools that the FWC can use to work with the public and partners to ensure all 60 species are conserved as part of Florida’s wildlife legacy. The final Imperiled Species Management Plan is scheduled for approval by the Commission in spring 2015.
“Conserving Florida wildlife requires attention to the diversity of species that inhabit our waters, land and air,” said Claire Sunquist Blunden, the FWC’s stakeholder coordinator for the Imperiled Species Management Plan. “We are excited about the public’s opportunity to review these 16 draft action plans and suggest ways to improve them.”
The Florida burrowing owl population, for instance, is projected to decline. Conservation guidelines are suggested in the draft plan to help this pint-sized species averaging 9 inches in height. The only subspecies of burrowing owl east of the Mississippi River spends most of its time on the ground or taking refuge in its burrow. It is often found on farms, airports and golf courses that have replaced its historic Florida prairie habitat. The principal range of the Florida burrowing owl is peninsular Florida, but it can be found in isolated pairs and colonies as far west as Eglin Air Force Base and as far south as Key West.
For the Florida sandhill crane, which can stretch to nearly 4 feet tall, a key priority in the draft plan is to stabilize and grow its population by maintaining shallow wetlands for roosting and nesting and open habitats for foraging. Florida sandhill cranes are particularly at risk because of their low annual reproductive rate. Their population is concentrated in peninsular Florida, from Alachua County southward to the Everglades’ northern edge. Available habitat has declined in those areas by 42 percent from 1974 to 2003. While this species is a candidate for federal listing, the FWC’s proposed conservation actions may preclude the need for that.
There are two subspecies of sandhill crane in this state. The Florida sandhill crane, with an estimated population of 4,000 to 5,000, is a year-round resident that nests here during late winter and spring on mats of vegetation about 2 feet in diameter in shallow water. It is joined every winter by 25,000 greater sandhill cranes – larger migratory birds that nest in the Great Lakes region.
The plan for the Florida sandhill crane proposes working cooperatively with ranchers, whose private lands are a stronghold of this species, and using traffic-calming measures such as caution signs to prevent vehicle collisions with cranes, which often forage along roadways.
Meanwhile, the Big Cypress fox squirrel is experiencing loss, degradation and fragmentation of its southwest Florida habitat, which is increasingly urbanized.
The Sherman’s fox squirrel has similar habitat challenges over a wider swath of Florida, with its range extending from the Big Bend in north Florida into most of peninsular Florida. Biologists are in the process of gathering genetic information about the Big Cypress and Sherman’s species of fox squirrels. Significant information about where fox squirrels are in Florida came after citizens responded to the FWC’s request to report fox squirrel sightings online, resulting in 4,221 sighting locations logged from August 2011 to April 2012.
For more information on the Florida burrowing owl, Florida sandhill crane and Big Cypress and Sherman’s fox squirrels, including the fox squirrel survey, go to MyFWC.com/Wildlife and click on “Species Profiles.”
Logo courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission