Florida wildlife is still recovering from the beating of Ian

by Scotty Andrew | CNN

Southwest Florida looks a lot different than it was before Hurricane Ian He tore off the area six weeks ago.

evergreen Sanibel Island Its color was red and its trees fell by the storm or sank in salt water. And the Cape Coral An elaborately planned community and cut with rows of canals, it still digs itself out of the rubble.

Ian killed at least 130 people and displaced thousands more. Now, as populations begin to rebuild, questions remain about the future of the diverse and critically important native species.

Animals are designed to withstand natural disasters – but they are not equipped to survive in devastated habitats with poor water quality. Species such as gopher turtles, burrowing owls and even American crocodiles, which all play an important role in keeping their ecosystems in balance, have been displaced or injured since Ian struck. Some animals have rarely been spotted since the storm.

“Wildlife has evolved with natural disasters — they understand when they happen,” said Brenna Frankel, director of rehabilitation at CROW Clinic, a wildlife hospital in Sanibel. “All the extra things the hurricane did and I think we’re starting to see more problems with it.”

It will take months, possibly years, for wildlife experts to understand the extent of the damage. But what they saw in the weeks after Ian uprooted them hints at what the future might hold for the state’s local wildlife.

“A lot of habitats are slowly being shocked,” Frankel said. It remains to be seen “whether our ecosystem can overcome this”.

Fights alligators and turtles intrusion into salt water

Southwest Florida is home to a unique set of ecosystems that include very important primary species: wetlands and mangrove forests, beaches off the Gulf of Mexico, hammocksprairies and pastures, among others.

Primary species are the drivers of their native ecosystems – their habitats work because they do so. In Florida, the main species include gopher turtles, whose burrows provide shelter More than 350 species, and crocodiles, which dig holes during the dry season for fresh water that are also used by turtles and wading birds. Gators’ nesting habits also make them ideal security guards for other species’ eggs – reptiles fiercely protect their nests and keep wolves and raccoons at bay.

But imbalances in the water are devastating: Gopher turtles are terrestrial creatures, which means they don’t spend much time in the water (they are also poor swimmers). They could hold their breath if their burrows were flooded, but floodwaters from Hurricane Ian also brought debris into their homes and blocked them. Alligators can tolerate salt water for short periods of time, but they are used to hunting, breeding, and living in freshwater habitats.

Some of Sanibel’s freshwater sources have been overwhelmed by salt water, said Chris Lechowitz, herpetologist and director of wildlife and habitat management at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF). While reading the Sanibel River, a major freshwater habitat for many species of turtle, he found that salinity levels in some places had risen from 0 grams of salt per kilogram, or 0 parts per thousand, to 24 parts per thousand, just a few grams of the rating Salt water.

“The freshwater system was almost seawater,” Lichowicz said. “This will change a lot of diversity in this area.”

All this salt water is also harmful to native tree species. Many of them have already died after being struck by strong winds, but the survivors often cannot stand the salty soil. This will dramatically alter Sanibel’s ecosystems, Lichowicz said.

“We will see a decrease in the number of trees,” he said. “A lot of trees have fallen, but the trees that are still standing may die anyway from the saltwater intrusion into the islands.”

Blocks of debris hiding owls and other species

Damaged home debris continues to litter areas of southwest Florida hard hit by Ian-Sanibel and Cape Coral in between. Lechowicz, who usually monitors a rare population of Florida mud turtles in a small wetland on the island, has been unable to access the area for weeks.

Countless homes in the area were destroyed, particularly the ones closest to the water. When flooded, their sliding glass doors and windows were often knocked down, and the water pushed out the contents of their homes. Many of those items ended up in wildlife protection areas, he said.

“Some things in people’s homes might contain toxic elements,” Lichowicz said.

Step into the cleaning crews: Pasha Donaldson, former leader of the Cape Coral Wildlife Friends Society, has taken a trip across town to remove trash from the homes of burrowing owls. The diminutive owl, an endangered species in Florida and largely concentrated in Cape Coral, often makes its burrows in empty spaces or front yards, but many of these holes were completely covered when Donaldson found them.

“The owls will return if they are not killed or blown up,” she told CNN. “If (the city) doesn’t clean up the actual burrow, the owls won’t come back – they can’t dig through it.”

I’ve noticed tire tracks on top of some burrows and entire boats on top of other owls. She said that while she spotted owls in some unusual places — like her front porch — she still saw fewer owls than usual.

“Owls are like any other bird—unless they are cut into the wind or bumped into a building,” she said, “they are very smart to keep their feathers.”

She won’t be doing the annual census until June, which is “baby season,” and in the meantime, she’ll continue to clean up burrows and encourage neighbors to dig burrows in their front yards to entice the owls back home.

“I hope when I clean them up, I’ll see more of them,” she said. “I think time will tell.”

Dr. Robin Bast, a veterinarian at the Crow Clinic, said that in the weeks following the hurricane, wildlife rescuers’ “biggest concerns” were animals that could not climb or fly out of harm’s way. The clinic has seen a slight increase in the number of turtle patients since the storm, who have been seeking fresh water and increasingly exposed to cars. The squirrels were also blown off their trees and ended up in the clinic.

For most species, it’s too soon to know if – or to what extent – populations suffered, but the SCCF has identified some signs of habitat health: Before Hurricane Ian, there were 17 sea turtle nests on the island. Only one SCCF team found In the weeks that followed – the rest will likely be washed out before hatching.

Marsh rabbits, once considered a nuisance by Sanibel homeowners because of their frequent chewing in their yards, have rarely been seen. The American alligator, perhaps the state’s most well-known predator, was not found anywhere after the hurricane, Lichowitz said.

“Alligators are able to tolerate salt water for short periods of time,” he said. “But in the end, they will need fresh water. I would like to know how the crocodile did.”

Searching for hope after a hurricane

The cyclone has exacerbated existing challenges to the survival of native species. Almost every major species in Florida is threatened by habitat loss, including gopher turtles, alligators and burrowing owls. And as Florida continues to grow at a seemingly exponential rate, the struggle to preserve critical habitats is intensifying.

Florida’s native wildlife is often considered sentinel species that bear the brunt of environmental influences before their human neighbors. And if hurricanes are as strong as Ian, a Category 4 storm, become the normIn between, there will be fewer opportunities to devote to cleaning and caring for animals.

“With these hurricanes, you can’t underestimate them — they can change quickly,” Lechowitz said, referring to the fact that Ian changed course from Tampa to southwest Florida shortly before making landfall. “But preparing for a hurricane is unbelievable.”

Florida wildlife rescue operations can’t stop a hurricane, but they can learn from Ian to improve the chances of wildlife survival in the next phase. And they learned a lot for sure—the team at CROW were doing critical work during Ian, with some veterinarians and medical trainees holed up at the Fort Myers hotel with newborn patients in need of around-the-clock care, like baby squirrels and awsome joey. Meanwhile, Frankel filled her garage with birds of prey housed in the clinic’s intensive care unit — red-shouldered hawks and eagles and a single decorated owl.

When the power goes out, the CROW crew gets creative: Frankel enlists her family and friends in helping her care for seriously ill birds. Dr. Laura Kilo, CROW’s veterinarian, said the hotel interns did squats with cans of food and water in their clothes to warm them up with body heat.

Some species have slowly and cautiously begun to emerge in the weeks since Ian: At the end of October, an employee of the SCCF observer A red-bellied turtle, a turtle with an angry disposition, is trying to cross the road. coastal birds Like plovers and terns they return, scattered on the beaches where they feed and nest. Crowe still takes care of the animals and releases them burrows albumAnd the seagulls And the little rabbits.

Organizations such as the SCCF are appealing to the public to share photos and stories with them of the animals they have seen in the area while wildlife rescue teams plan to recover. It’s too soon to tell how all of Florida’s beloved animals were, but slivers of hope are starting to emerge during the recovery process.

“Many of us have lost their homes or cars, but we continue to help wildlife patients and help each other,” Bast said.

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