State’s rare species face challenging year

Manatees take refuge in the warmer spring water at Blue Springs State Park in Orange City.

Saving an endangered animal’s life helps preserve Florida’s environment. But challenges remain in conserving Florida’s most critical and unique endangered species. New data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission showed 130 manatees died in boat strikes in 2019, marking a record. Concerns about the Florida panther’s survival continue because of a proposed toll road in Southwest Florida that conservation groups fear will fragment their habitats and increase the number of panther deaths by vehicle crashes. FWC biologists are also researching a neurological disorder affecting panthers. But they’re not alone. Florida is home to many rare plants and animals, including locally, and targeted efforts are underway to preserve them, too.

Keeping manatees alive

Supporting imperiled species plays into the overall conservation of Florida’s natural world.

No species exemplifies that more than the manatee, said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. FWC’s most recent manatee population estimate, released in 2018, found from 7,520 to 10,280 manatees live in Florida’s waters.

“By protecting manatees, you’re protecting aquatic ecosystems,” Rose said.

But he acknowledges it’s a challenge because of the high number of boating collisions, which he attributed to more boaters on the water because of a thriving economy and low gas prices.

Overall manatee deaths dropped from 2018, when more than 800 died — most because of red tide blooms that sickened aquatic wildlife and befouled Southwest Florida beaches that summer, according to FWC. However, 2019 marked the third consecutive year of record manatee deaths from boating collisions — surpassing the prior year by six.

The tri-county area has few manatee deaths overall: only three in Lake, two in Marion and none in Sumter, according to FWC.

Of the five, only one died in a watercraft collision in 2019.

“It pains me to hear they’re still dealing with problems from boaters,” said Jim Zoschenko, vice president of the Canoe and Kayak Club, who regularly sees manatees during club trips. “It’s a tragedy. Many rivers we see the posting for speed control from power boats and we see it’s still not working effectively.”

But, while overall boating deaths are rising, responsible boaters are important to supporting the species, said Rose, who is also a recreational boater.

“They’re the most likely to see and report a sick or injured manatee,” he said. “We’ve had individual boaters who have stayed with the manatee. We encourage them to be a part of that process.”

Apart from boating collisions, another issue Rose said the Save the Manatee Club will prioritize in the 2020s is nutrient pollution from septic tanks and stormwater runoff that affect Florida’s springs, manatees’ warm water habitats in the winter.

Ensuring the health of springs is just as important as protecting the manatees themselves because they need the springs to survive the cold-weather months, Rose said. Manatees cannot survive in temperatures lower than 68 degrees for a long time, while springs’ temperatures range from a year-round 68 to 72 degrees.

“If you don’t have those warm-water habitats, we’d lose all hope for manatees,” he said.

Panther threats persist

Like manatees, panthers are prone to vehicle collisions.

But there’s far fewer panthers than manatees. There’s only 120 to 230 adults in the wild.

Panthers experienced fewer deaths in 2019 due to vehicle crashes, which caused 22 of the state’s 26 panther deaths, four fewer than 2018, according to FWC.

Federal and state wildlife officials credit the decline to collaborative work with the Florida Department of Transportation in securing wildlife fencing and establishing 60 wildlife crossings across Florida’s roads, FWC spokeswoman Michelle Kerr said.

For example, the transportation department extended panther fencing on a dangerous segment of Interstate 75 in Collier County to prevent panthers from entering the roadway, she said.

“As the population of both people and panthers continues to grow, the likelihood for vehicle strikes also increases,” Kerr said. “The FWC will continue to work with (FDOT) and other partners to look for ways to decrease the number of panthers killed.”

Some groups are concerned the likelihood for collisions may go up with a proposed toll road known as the Southwest-Central Florida Connector. The road would run from Collier to Polk County, just below the tri-county region.

The Sierra Club, Florida Conservation Voters and Center for Biological Diversity recently formed a coalition called No Roads to Ruin to voice opposition to the toll road.

Big Cat Rescue, a Tampa-based animal sanctuary for abused and abandoned wildcats, stated building a major road in panther habitat “would unquestionably set back panther recovery if not entirely eliminate hope for the species.”

A 47-member task force — whose members include transportation, regional planning and water management officials and representatives of six environmental groups — is scheduled to meet in February to evaluate potential environmental and economic impacts of the road.

Cars aren’t the only concern for the survival of the panther.

Last year, biologists noticed panthers experiencing a mysterious disorder that weakened their rear legs, making it difficult for them to walk.

In December, the state’s wildlife veterinarians gave this condition the name feline leukomyelopathy, based on the microscopic changes seen in the brain and spine, Kerr said.

When FWC biologists first discovered the disorder in August, they suspected it was related to toxins in the environment, including a rat pesticide and infectious diseases.

As of December, FWC confirmed neurological damage from feline leukomyelopathy in one panther and is awaiting necropsy results for a second that may have the disorder. The agency also stated trail camera footage has captured nine panthers with symptoms.

Enhancing species statewide

Protecting Florida’s endangered species doesn’t end with manatees and panthers.

For example, FWC began conducting aerial surveys last month to detect and document North Atlantic right whales — only about 400 of which are left in the wild, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The surveys also aim to prevent vessel collisions with whales and to locate dead, injured and entangled whales.

An aerial team from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium spotted the first right whale of the 2019-20 season on Dec. 16, a mother and calf pair seen near Sapelo Island, Georgia. The right whale viewing season in Florida typically runs from November to April, according to FWC.

Whale researchers observed 12 births of the species since 2017, less than one-third the previous average annual birth rate, according to NOAA. The federal agency confirmed 30 right whale deaths in that same time, including nine in the U.S.

While right whales have been sighted throughout the East Coast, Florida and Georgia’s coastal waters are their only known calving areas, where breeding females give birth, according to FWC.

Other efforts closer to home recently received funding when Duke Energy provided $300,000 in grants statewide to support projects that protect Florida’s wildlife and wildlife habitats. These include nesting boxes for wood ducks along the Rainbow River and nature-based educational programs at the Trout Lake Nature Center in Eustis.

One of the grants supported the Florida Native Plant Society’s efforts to restore and monitor habitats of two endangered native Florida mint species.

These species include longspurred balm, endemic to Lake and Marion counties.

The largest and only publicly-protected population of this mint species is on the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, according to the Florida Native Plant Society.

“We have two main goals: annually monitor these two populations and restore the two sites,” according to the society.

Any effort to enhance an endangered species and the habitats they live in will support the survival of not only the species, but also Florida’s environment, Rose said.

That preservation allows visitors to enjoy the state’s natural beauty. One of the reasons The Villages Canoe and Kayak Club and The Villages Scuba Club organize day trips to Crystal River is that nearby Three Sisters Springs is one of the state’s manatee hot spots.

“There could be hundreds of them in there at one time if it’s really cold out,” said Jim Zoschenko, vice president of the Canoe and Kayak Club. “They’re in bountiful amounts there.”

In recent years, Canoe and Kayak Club members also encountered manatees during their paddles of the Silver River, about a 45-minute drive from The Villages. Zoschenko, of the Village of Pennecamp, said he saw manatees both solo and in groups in the river.

If you protect Florida’s environment, Rose said, “its ecosystems will be in balance and will improve the quality of life for people who ... just enjoy looking at those critters.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.