All posts by Jessica Prakke

CREMP Program

The Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Project (CREMP) is one of the longest running coral reef monitoring projects along the Florida Reef Tract- the world’s third largest barrier reef system. FWRI biologists visited Dry Tortugas National Park to monitor the condition of coral reef and hardbottom habitats.

Top photo: A field of bipinnate sea plumes (Antillogorgia bipinnata) behind a woody barrel sponge (Xestospongia muta).

View Flickr set here:

Lots of Changes

If you follow our FWC Commission meetings, you are probably aware of the high level of change we are undergoing right now as an agency. Long-time commissioner (and former chair) Brian Yablonski is leaving FWC to join the Property and Environmental Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. Commissioner Yablonski served for 14 years on the Commission and became a strong advocate for science-based decision making and an ardent supporter of FWC/FWRI. This creates a vacant commission position that will be filled in the near future. We also had two new Commissioners appointed: Sonya Rood from St. Augustine who replaces Liesa Priddy, and Gary Nicklaus, who replaces Ron Bergeron. If that’s not enough for you, our Executive Director, Nick Wiley has left FWC to take a position with Ducks Unlimited. At the last Commission meeting Eric Sutton, our former Assistant Executive Director, was appointed new FWC Executive Director. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Eason, former Director of our Division of Habitat Species and Conservation, was selected as the new FWC Assistant Executive Director. Eric and Thomas’ selection maintains a strong thread of continuity as we transition to new leadership. They are both accomplished biologists and leaders who understand and appreciate the value of science-based resource management.

I know that so many changes happening at once tend to create a bit of uncertainty, if not anxiety. This form of anxiety is so common that an entire industry has developed dedicated to managing organizational change. While everyone deals with change in their own way, I would like to offer a few thoughts on the topic. Anxiety related to organizational change usually has two components: 1) how the changes might affect someone personally and 2) how the changes might affect the organization itself.

At the individual level, people often are concerned about how organizational change might affect their professional (or personal) well-being. There is an increasing body of evidence (and associated cottage industries springing up) that well-being, or happiness in general, is much more dependent on how the individual reacts to a situation rather than external factors associated with the situation itself. Fundamentally, the resiliency factor that allows people to deal with change effectively is self-awareness. In turn, self-awareness is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, a set of behavioral attributes that refers to how one recognizes and manages their emotions and forms productive interpersonal relationships. The connection between self-awareness and happiness has spawned a “mindfulness” industry that focuses on helping people free their mind, become more self-aware and improve their well-being. This is far from a new concept. While we associate meditation or similar exercises with Buddhism and Hinduism, every major religion includes elements related to self-awareness and managing one’s emotions and behavior. It is not always easy to do, but when faced with uncertainty or change, focusing inward rather than outward is often the most productive first step.

Much like individual response to change depends on one’s outlook, at the organizational level the effect of change often depends on the organizational culture. There is a huge body of literature associated with organizational culture and even tools for assessing organizational culture. Much of the research into organizational culture settles into a characterization based on shared values, common assumptions and approaches to doing work. One of the more useful constructs is illustrated in the figure at left. This diagram characterizes organizations based on two axes: stability vs. flexibility in work approaches and internal vs. external focus of the organization. In this framework, FWC clearly falls out with the clan organizational culture archetype. This type of culture is representative of a family-style work environment where decision making is collaborative and teamwork is fundamental to work operations. The internal focus refers to a culture that emphasizes internal integration and unity vs. an external approach focused on rivalry and differentiation. Some basic assumptions in the clan organizational culture are that workload can best be managed through teamwork and employee development and that the role of leadership is to empower employees. Promotion of this type of organizational culture has been cited as a major factor in Japanese industrial success post World War II and was adopted by many American firms decades later. Turnover of a few positions, even among leadership, is less likely to dramatically change culture in our type of organization than a more hierarchical agency. It is clear to me that the new leaders in FWC appreciate and embrace our culture, and that they will be looking for all our help to find ways to strengthen it.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that change will often catch us off guard despite our best attempts to prepare for it. According to legend, the Greek playwright Aeschylus, ironically known as the father of tragedy for his dramatic works, was reportedly killed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle who mistook the playwright’s bald head for a rock. This untimely end occurred while Aeschylus purposefully spent most of his time outdoors after an oracle told him he would be killed by a falling object.

Filming in the Field

By Jessica Prakke

Here are our top FIVE tips to remember when filming in the field:

  1. Follow safety protocol. Wear your PFD while on a moving vessel. Wear close-toed shoes when in the lab, etc. One of the main reasons our office can’t use a video clip is if someone is not following these protocols while being filmed.

    This is an example of what not to do. The vessel is moving and no one is wearing their PFD. These staff members identities have been blurred under the communications protection program.
  2. Wear an FWC shirt. We want people to identify you with FWC and this is an easy way of doing that, especially when we are working with other organizations who are heavily branded.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask to start over. The beauty of filming is that anything can be edited. Sometimes when someone screws up they have a tendency to get in their head. Take a minute and a breath, and simply try again.

    All staff members wearing their FWC shirts during a manatee release, an event that can attract news outlets.
  4. Dress for the camera. Avoid wearing white because it reflects too much light. If possible, take off your sunglasses for an interview.Don’t wear any copyright or branded logos (ex. sports teams).
  5. Assume the camera is always rolling. This especially applies when news outlets are involved. As a representative of FWC you don’t want to be caught in your own words.

Upland Habitat Celebrates 20-Year Anniversary

By Kent Williges

It’s hard to believe, but 2018 will mark the 20th year of existence for the Upland Habitat Research & Monitoring Program! Quite a few evolutionary changes have occurred over the span of 2 decades.

The program had its origins back in 1998 as the brainchild of Nick Wiley, former executive director of FWC, and was funded by the Conservation and Recreation Lands (CARL) trust fund, the precursor of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF). Prior to agency reorganization, the program at the time was housed in the old Bureau of Wildlife Management, the predecessor of the Wildlife Habitat Management Section (WHM), and was created specifically to use applied research to address management issues within the agency’s Wildlife Management Area (WMA) system.

Over the years, the program has been known by a few different names including the Adaptive Management Section, and the Plant Monitoring Section before the current title was acquired after the agency reorganized in 2004. However, Upland Habitat continues to be closely allied with WHM, and conducts research within the WMA system to develop best management practices for upland plant communities that can be used by land managers across the state. The advantage of working on specific WMAs is that the manager can often see the experimental results immediately, and has a pretty good idea of what is working without having to wait to read about it later in a report. Past research has included monitoring the effects of grazing on upland plant communities, evaluating mechanical vegetation control methods for managing scrub and flatwoods, and helping to develop the agency’s Objective’s Based Vegetation Monitoring (OBVM) program, an adaptive management program that is ongoing to this day.

In 2004, Upland Habitat was moved to the FWRI during the agency-wide reorganization . Itwas placed within the Ecosystem Assessment and Research Section, first under the direction of Jennifer Wheaton and currently led by Dr. Amber Whittle, where it continues to grow and expand. The program was relatively small back in 1998 consisting of only three biologists– Kent Williges, current program leader, is the only original employee remaining. The program continues to grow post-merger, and currently consists of nine full time biologists headquartered at the Wildlife Research Laboratory in Gainesville.

Upland Habitat continues to focus research on all things related to botany. In that way,  they have been able to establish a niche within the agency. Staff handle many requests for plant identification throughout the year from both WMA staff and the general public. They often determine the seed viability of native seed mixes for planting on WHM ground cover restoration projects. Current research for WHM funded by the LATF includes investigating methods for control of cabbage palm in wet flatwoods, comparing chemical control methods for hardwood reduction in upland plant communities, and monitoring the effects of mechanical control methods on ephemeral ponds associated with the flatwoods salamander. In addition, Upland Habitat has evaluated and provided management recommendations for WHM ground cover restoration projects for the past 13 years.

The classic skull and crossed ‘Liatris’ logo of the Upland Habitat Research & Monitoring Program will sport a new bandana throughout 2018, commemorating the 20-year anniversary.

Quantifying habitat characteristics has also become the Upland Habitat program’s specialty. Scientists are currently measuring structural attribute characteristics of wildlife habitat, and monitoring their response to management treatments for 2 endangered species including the Sanibel Island Rice Rat, and the flatwoods salamander.  These projects are funded by the Aquatic Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Section, and a Cooperative State Wildlife Grant, respectively. They are also investigating pollinators in both native, and restored plant communities as part of a cooperative project with the University of Florida.

The next 20 years will undoubtedly present many new challenges for Florida’s land managers as the population continues to increase with seemingly no end in sight. Upland Habitat will continue to utilize applied research to address upland plant community (and some wetlands) management issues within an ever-expanding urban landscape for the benefit of all of Florida’s habitat, wildlife and people.


Expansion of Estuarine Monitoring to the Florida Panhandle

By Myranda Clark and David Gandy

A portion of the Deepwater Horizon’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) settlement was earmarked for the construction and operation of a production-level fish hatchery in the Florida Panhandle. A partnership between FWC, DEP, and the City of Pensacola has designed a hatchery facility (Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery and Enhancement Center) to be built in Pensacola, Florida. The release of hatchery-reared animals is ethical only when both the wild and hatchery-reared stocks are monitored to ensure that wild populations are not adversely impacted.

Accordingly, the Fisheries-Independent Monitoring Program (FIM), with its long history of working with the Stock Enhancement Research Facility in Manatee County, was tasked with developing a sampling program for estuaries in the Florida Panhandle. With the potential release of in-season Phase I (1.25 inches) Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) and Spotted Seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus) into five Panhandle estuaries (Pensacola Bay, Santa Rosa Sound, Choctawhatchee Bay, St. Andrews Bay, and St. Josephs Bay), it was determined that the most appropriate sampling approach would be the use of 21.3-m seines in shallow water habitats.

Historical data collected by the FIM program from Apalachicola Bay (1998-2015), and Choctawhatchee Bay/Santa Rosa Sound (1992-1997) were used to develop a sampling design that would use 21.3-m seines to assess wild populations prior to hatchery releases, and wild and hatchery-reared populations after releases are initiated. Sampling of wild stocks began in July 2017 in all five estuaries and will occur monthly from July through December each sampling year. The timing of this sampling coincides with peak young-of-year recruitment for both Spotted Seatrout (July – September) and Red Drum (October – December) into estuarine nursery habitats in Florida Panhandle estuaries. Aside from a shorter sampling season, this survey employs identical protocols that are currently used in several other estuaries throughout Florida; therefore, project-associated data will be comparable to 21.3-m seine data collected throughout the state, so data should quickly be useful in stock assessments.

Young-of-the-year estuarine-dependent fish, such as Red Drum and Spotted Seatrout, depend on suitable nursery habitat to provide critical foraging grounds, refuge from predators, and essential abiotic conditions necessary to optimize growth and survival to adulthood. The data collected from this survey will allow FWC to identify these essential habitats in Florida Panhandle estuaries, allowing for the release of hatchery-reared fishes where they will have the greatest chance for survival. Current sampling efforts are also identifying trends in recruitment variability for wild stocks. Sampling after releases begin will gauge the relative contribution of the hatchery to overall stocks and assess the efficacy of these stocking efforts.

Data from year one of this study will be summarized with a preliminary presentation occurring at the FWRI-FIM program’s annual meeting in St. Petersburg, January 24 – 26, 2018.

Working to Conserve Florida’s Endemic and Imperiled Grasshopper Sparrow

By Becky Schneider and Erin Ragheb

The unique Florida dry prairie, a habitat type that has been substantially encroached upon by development, is where the endemic Florida grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus) calls home. Named for both their diet and buzzy insect-like vocalizations, grasshopper sparrows are intensely secretive songbirds that prefer walking over flying and build their nests directly on the ground. The federally-endangered Florida subspecies is one of the rarest birds in North America, and population numbers are dwindling at alarming rates. If this downward population trend continues, the Florida grasshopper sparrow may become extinct within the next decade. Starting in 2013, we initiated an intensive demographic research project on the largest remaining population of Florida grasshopper sparrows, located at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, attempting to identify and alleviate the causes of decline.

Beginning in 2015, we placed nest cameras in front of Florida grasshopper sparrow nests to document specific causes of nest failure. We recorded previously unconfirmed nest predators including Eastern spotted skunks, Southern black racers, and red corn snakes. After identifying these key predators, we set out to develop a technique to effectively exclude hungry mammals and snakes from Florida grasshopper sparrow nests. In the subsequent field seasons, we designed and constructed predator fences and installed them around Florida grasshopper sparrow nests. These 10-ft wide exclosures are inconspicuous enough that the incubating female can return to her nest naturally but robust enough to keep predators at bay. The fences have proven to be highly effective at reducing nest predation, and a fenced nest is up to five times more likely to successfully fledge young than an unprotected nest.

Still, predation is not the only factor contributing to low nest success, and our predator fences are not effective at eliminating other sources of nest mortality such as flooding. To reduce the risk of nest loss by flooding, we developed a successful method for elevating nests prior to severe rain events. These intensive management actions have been effective at increasing annual fledgling production and will buy time to develop landscape-level conservation strategies.

Our color banding and resighting data demonstrate that low adult survival rates are another worrying cause of population decline. Apparent survival rates for adult males have decreased dramatically from 75% in 2014 to 36% in 2017. We have also observed recent declines in adult female survival and an increasingly male-biased sex ratio. Our next important step in this study is to determine the causes of reduced adult survival and explore management actions in response. We are now partnering with the University of Florida to screen wild birds for a suite of potential pathogens to identify if disease is contributing to reduced adult survival.

Stalling, stopping, and reversing the perilous decline of the Florida grasshopper sparrow is indeed a daunting task, but with a team of dedicated researchers and strong public support, we expect to conserve this charismatic songbird and increase our knowledge and understanding of Florida’s unique grassland prairie habitat.

Post-Hurricane Impacts on the Middle St. Johns River

By Earl Lundy

Hurricane Irma had a definite impact on Florida, with over 2/3 of its counties feeling some of its effects. Biologists from the DeLeon Springs Freshwater Fisheries Lab have been monitoring conditions on the lakes and selected stretches of the middle St. Johns River since the storm subsided.

To start with, U.S. Geological Society (USGS) gages recorded river levels rose 3 to 6 ½ feet above normal water levels, depending on location. What was unique about Hurricane Irma was that it took so long for water levels to recede: three months out, water levels in some areas are still above their normal levels. While it took three months for waters to recede when hurricanes hit the state in 2004, that was with three hurricanes hitting the St. Johns River basin. Hurricane Irma was just one hurricane.

The high waters brought several issues. First, it flushed vegetation and debris out of area swamps and low-lying areas and set up a Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) that contributed to lowered dissolved oxygen levels. Fish generally need a minimum of 2.0 mg/L of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the water, else a fish kill is imminent. FWC biologists, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, measured oxygen levels at several points along the St. Johns River and DO levels ranged between 0.09 and 1.5 mg/l due to the associated

impacts from Hurricane Irma. As was to be expected, dead fish of several species were observed. Recent community sampling activities have recorded dissolved oxygen levels more in line with historical levels, indicating that oxygen levels have rebounded.

Dead fish of various species at a St. Johns River boat ramp.

Further, runoff from terrestrial sources brought a lot of particulate matter into the river. This increased the turbidity and lowered light penetration, minimizing plant growth and oxygen production by submerged plants. Dark, tannin-stained waters that were flushed out of the local swamps also added to the shading effect and prolonged the time it took for regular oxygen production to resume. Secchi readings of lakes during community sampling have been one-half to one-third of historical levels. Discussions with local anglers indicated most of the fish caught have been higher up in the water column than they are normally found. While fish are being marked at deeper depths, it seems they are feeding higher, possibly due to an inability to see bait or lures.

Also, the winds Hurricane Irma brought caused A LOT of wave action, wave action that uprooted submerged and emergent plants. Biologists have observed large rafts uprooted plants in the lakes and river sections they are monitoring, mainly American Eelgrass Vallisneria americana, a native submerged freshwater tape-grass that provides valuable nursery habitat for sportfish, and refugia for various freshwater forage fishes. An additional stressor on what submerged aquatic vegetation is left will be the more turbid waters. High turbidity can prevent light from penetrating to submerged aquatic vegetation, causing the plants to cease photosynthesis and rely on dissolved oxygen in the water for respiration – dissolved oxygen that is initially at low levels after a storm. This can result in further loss of submerged aquatic vegetation due to oxygen deprivation. We’ve observed a loss of vegetation in most of the lakes we’ve surveyed so far, which was expected. We won’t begin to know the true extent of the loss of vegetation until water levels recede and the waters begin to clear. Further information will be gathered when the Long-Term Monitoring crew performs its vegetative surveys this summer. We’ll be able to compare the before and after surveys to better understand how much vegetation was lost. However, if past hurricanes are any indication, the lakes and river will bounce back, possibly taking a few years, but they will bounce back.

Update on Panther Reproduction North of the Caloosahatchee River

By Marc Criffield

In March of 2017, FWC documented a female Florida panther with two kittens north of the Caloosahatchee River on the Babcock Ranch Preserve (BRP) via trail cameras (see April 2017 Field Notes). This followed the documentation of a female panther on the BRP in November 2016; the first since 1973. These were momentous events for the recovery of the endangered Florida panther.

Monitoring of these trail cameras by FWC, with support from a group of private and public partners, continued throughout 2017. These types of data collected on panthers will help guide the delineation of the boundary for the known breeding range as successful dens are verified.

No additional photos of the kittens from March 2017 were documented over the summer. This may be a testament to the hardships panther kittens face during their first year of life, a period where our analyses have demonstrated that survival rates are only 32%. If this litter did not survive, it certainly would not be unexpected.

A second litter of panther kittens was documented on the BRP on 22 November 2017. A female panther was photographed with two, approximately 4-month-old, kittens. Given that the number of documented females north of the River is so low, and that females will go into estrous soon after the loss of a litter, there is a high probability that this is the same female that produced a litter in March.

These events give some perspective as to the challenges impacting panther recovery. Although the loss of a litter is disappointing, new kittens demonstrate the resiliency of wild animals in their quest to survive. This most recent litter may certainly be comprised of survivors as they already weathered hurricane Irma in the confines of their den. This latest discovery offers renewed hope for the natural range expansion of panthers that is critical to their long-term recovery.

The Florida Wildlife Magazine Digital Preservation Project

By Robin Grunwald

The Florida Wildlife Magazine was first published in 1947 by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (FGFC) for educating the public in an entertaining format. With support from the legislature, the serial was created to convince the public hunters, anglers, and recreationalists of regulatory benefits and conservation. It is a collection of art and narratives by some of Florida’s most distinguished naturalists. The FWC Research Information Center (RIC) currently receives requests for FWM articles from scientists seeking earlier FGFC perspectives and regulations. A request for all the articles related to bears inspired a project idea to create an online collection of the magazine.

Access to information is a critical component of conservation education and effective research. The Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s (FWRI) focus on sharing knowledge for advancing science and improving connections to Florida’s environment recognizes this mission includes access to important historical narratives. With support from the FWRI, the RIC was awarded funding from the William H. Flowers, Jr. Foundation and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida to preserve and share a digital format of the Florida Wildlife Magazine collection in the agency’s publicly accessible repository- the FWC Digital Library. This open online access provides research opportunities to educators, scientists, and stakeholders.

Preserving the Florida Wildlife Magazine accounts of Florida’s hunting and fishing heritage is also important for establishing a permanent archive of Florida’s rich fishing and wildlife history. The RIC hired Kim Rousseau to learn digital imaging for preservation and create metadata on every article for the most obscure first 30 years of the serial. Every issue from 1947 through 1979 was digitized to Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines for archival preservation.

The Florida Wildlife Magazine Digital Preservation Project safeguards this Florida treasure and its significant record of progression to Florida’s current regulatory environment into perpetuity. The project also directly speaks to the current mantra of prominent research libraries by creating wider access to research via digital content. The FWCDL is currently the only option for online access to an archive collection of the early Florida Wildlife Magazine editions.