Where the Wild Things Are

Coyotes, bears and … bees? How wildlife is adapting to changes in their natural habitatWhere the Wild Things AreThe Forgotten Coast’s critter population moves on despite human development

By Mackenzie Turberville

Florida is home to a rich and diverse collection of wildlife. For countless years, these creatures have coexisted with man and continued to flourish and thrive in their natural habitat.

But the face of Florida is changing, and the natural habitat is changing with it. As more people discover Florida’s Forgotten Coast and more land is
developed, the animals that call this area home face unique challenges as they try and cope with a gathering influx of humans


Where The deer play
If you travel at night along the back roads of the Forgotten Coast, you are bound to see them standing there off to the side, typically cropping grass or frozen in place by oncoming headlights.

The white-tailed deer is a common sight throughout the state, perhaps because they can live so well in close proximity with humans. The University of Florida estimated in 2001 that there were more than 700,000 white-tailed deer in the state.

“Deer are highly adaptable. They can survive as long as they have habitat,” said Stan Kirkland, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Northwest Region.

Kirkland said that although exact numbers are hard to establish, methods such as track counting and spotlighting allow experts to determine how deer populations are fluctuating.

“Deer are less affected by development than just about any other species of wildlife in the country,” he said “All you have to do is look at how their numbers have increased as the human population continues to climb.”

Adam Warwick, a FWC wildlife biologist for the Apalachicola National Forest, agrees.

“Based on the number of people that feed deer, I would say that human encroachment has benefited deer,” he said. “Additionally, most anything that we do to the land that creates openings in the forest will stimulate herbaceous growth of plants,” providing more food for deer to eat.

The deer’s only natural predators are bobcats and panthers, although the effect of the increasing number of coyotes in the state has yet to be determined. With their ability to adapt to changes in their environment, deer seem prepared to live side-by-side with people.


Bear invasion
Since humanity has intruded upon their habitat, it’s only right for bears to return the favor.

“If there is a species that is most impacted by human development, it is bear,” Kirkland said.

Bears are beginning to have more encounters with their human neighbors, especially in Franklin and Gulf counties.

“We’ve got bears coming into urban areas, learning to feed on garbage, from grills, from food storage, and they’re teaching these habits to their young,” Kirkland said.

Bears often are trapped and moved to state forests, Kirkland said, but that is a temporary fix, as they usually move right back to their original territory. When the same bear generates three complaints, the animal must be euthanized.

To avoid these unfortunate losses, Kirkland said that wildlife officials have been working with developers and communities to try to address the problem from the human side.

“We’re working with homeowners’ associations to use bear-resistant (trash) containers,” he said. Kirkland also noted that sometimes it is as simple as not putting trash out until the morning if garbage pick-up is not until later in the day.

“Simple stuff like that would go a long way,” he said.

Don and Pam Ashley have been observing bears on St. James Island for 20 years and have become self-appointed advocates for the local bear population. The Ashleys say they aren’t against development – they just want development to give consideration to the bear population.

“For now, the core habitat remains about the same except for large coastal development such as St Joe’s SummerCamp, which will eventually close off access to Alligator Harbor,” Don Ashley said. He thinks a conservation corridor is needed to connect Tate’s Hell State Forest to Bald Point State Park, which also is home to a bear population.

“We hope in the future St. Joe will accept the recommendations for a conservation corridor and provide access for both seaside bears and folks who’d like to see a bear in their natural habitat,” he said.

Ashley said credit is due to the St. Joe Company for selling a 16,000-acre tract to Tate’s Hell State Forest and 3,000 acres to Bald Point State Park.

“Those were significant steps by both St. Joe and state wildlife agencies,” he said.

The tremendous amount of growth in the region, coupled with the increasing bear population, will require precautions and planning by both residents and developers.


Yip, yip, yowl!
If you have been living in North Florida for more than 30 years, chances are you have seen a new addition to area wildlife: coyotes.

“They are everywhere,” the FWC’s Kirkland said.

Wildlife officials say coyotes are extremely adaptable, and almost any type of forest or farmland provides a suitable habitat. It now is likely that they will populate the entire state.

Kirkland said that while coyotes aren’t a threat to most native species, they are to small pets.

“We get complaints from quite a few folks who are upset that coyotes have killed their cats,” he said.

Wildlife officials recommend fencing yards and keeping small pets indoors at night.

“(Coyotes) are adapting quite well to suburbia, and they’re here to stay,” Kirkland said.


Where’s that oinking coming from?
Wild hogs also are a nuisance to homeowners in the region and can destroy a manicured lawn with their rooting.

“Wild hogs do well in developed areas,” Kirkland said. “We get a lot of complaints.”

Hogs are considered as trespass livestock, and Kirkland said they can be hunted during daylight hours or trapped. Hogs are extremely prolific, and their numbers continue to multiply.

“They’re highly visible,” he said. “We’ll have continued problems, especially where you have the interface of wild lands and developed areas.”


The buzz on bees
Tupelo honey is one of the home grown staples of the region. Numerous apiaries, from commercial businesses to hobbyists, abound along the waterways where the Tupelo grows, most notably around Wewahitchka.

J. Anthony Stallins, an associate professor of geography at Florida State University, has been studying honey producers in the region to understand how a changing environment is affecting the industry.

Stallins said a constant threat to bees is the volume of pesticide being used by humans. However, he said he thinks the more prevalent threat will be in the amount of land available for beekeepers.

“Some of the changes caused by development are going to be indirect – who owns what land and where they can put apiaries,” he said, adding that the government and private developers can do more planning to make sure beekeepers have the necessary land to practice their trade.

The tupelo tree itself seems to be thriving, experts say.

“It doesn’t seem or look like any kind of forest change is going to have any immediate, drastic impact,” Stallins said. It’s the resilience of the beekeepers that will keep the industry alive and well, he said.

“I think we’ll always have plenty of tupelo, it just may take more time and labor,” Stallins said. “I think it boils down to the fact that the beekeepers are going to have to work harder – and they already work incredibly hard,” he said


Giving turtles a place to nest
Loggerhead turtles depend on area beaches for nesting sites to incubate their eggs. One such site is located near the St. Joe Company’s Windmark Beach community, located near Port St. Joe in Gulf County. The company is committed to protecting the turtles in the area, and to that end it has set aside about 1,000 acres of land to protect endangered species that live near the development. The company also has appointed wildlife biologist Bill Lynn as the Windmark Beach Naturalist to oversee flora and fauna in the area.

“The growing public use of beaches has decreased the number of locations available for nesting shorebirds and other wildlife,” Lynn said. “We’re trying to help conserve these habitats by striking a happy balance between wildlife nesting areas and public use of the beach.”

According to the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration, erosion control through beach nourishment and armoring, beachfront development, artificial lighting and non-native vegetation all are threats to nesting female loggerheads and hatchlings.

James Skinner, park ranger at St. Joe Peninsula State Park, says the number of turtles nesting in the park is about the same, averaging about 100 nests a year. While turtle populations seem to be stable right now, it will take careful planning and stewardship of the land to maintain nesting sites for these magnificent sea creatures.

“Turtle populations in developed areas are decreasing, but it’s too early to tell where they’re going,” Skinner said.

Categories: Forgotten Coast 2007, Forgotten Coast Archive