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Wildlife park ushers in full year of projects

Expanded habitats. Improved enclosures. A new whooping crane. Those are just a few of the upgrades on the Homosassa Springs state park's agenda.

Published January 30, 2006

HOMOSASSA SPRINGS - Officials at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park plan a busy 2006 with improvements for just about everyone - that is, for just about everyone with four legs, fur or feathers living at the park.

Several improvement projects that have been planned for years are about to begin. And several upgrades have been proposed to the park's partner, the Felburn Foundation, in hopes of securing money to make the park even more friendly for visitors and inhabitants.

There could be a monorail for the captive manatees, and wild manatees will have a cleaner, clearer, larger area away from boats and swimmers next winter when dredging between the Long River Bridge and the Homosassa Blue Waters is completed.

And manatees aren't the only endangered animal at the park getting something special.

The park has received clearance to add another whooping crane. The new bird should arrive in March, park manager Art Yerian said.

The male crane, Rocky, will be housed in the same display occupied by female crane Peepers. Because males can sometimes be aggressive with females, Yerian said, the two will be separated while they get used to each another.

"You've got to be careful how you introduce them," he said.

Eventually they will share the display. What happens from there is anyone's guess. The two rare birds will not be considered a breeding pair, Yerian said, but if they do hit it off and produce eggs, that would not be bad because the birds are among the most endangered animals on the continent.

What would happen with any offspring hasn't been decided, but the officials who oversee the rare breed will be key participants in that discussion.

The other project the public will notice soon will be the dredging just west of the Long River Bridge, inside the park boundaries and out into the Blue Waters. That project, in the planning stages for years, is designed to use specialized equipment to suck up the muck that has clogged the area between the bridge and the Blue Waters.

When the work is done, officials hope the wide expanse provides additional habitat for wild manatees that crowd into the Blue Waters during cold days. A large portion of that area is inside the park's borders and off limits to the public. The area is adjacent to the Blue Waters manatee sanctuary, which is closed to all public activity during the winter.

The dredging, which will be funded by the state and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, is expected to start soon after manatee wintering season ends, possibly by April, Yerian said.

Later this year, the state will seek bids to begin construction of a wildlife care building. The Felburn Foundation has donated $500,000 toward that project, presenting the last check for that work a month ago. The total for the project is expected to top $830,000, with the remainder paid by the state Department of Environmental Protection's Partnership in Parks program.

When it is completed, the 4,400-square-foot facility will be twice as large as the 30-year-old maintenance shed that serves as a central hub for those who take care of the park's nearly 300 animals now. The building will be large enough so that manatees and bears can be treated inside if the need arises.

As part of that project, the park will add quarters for university students who intern at the park.

Yerian hopes Felburn can help the park with $500,000 more in improvements that will benefit the park's animals and visitors.

About $300,000 of that would pay for improved animal enclosures that would replace displays now used by otters and foxes. More open and visible enclosures for those animals would be built, similar to the bobcat and cougar display improvements added several years ago. Other owl enclosures are part of that planned project, as are aviaries.

Although the state plans improvements to make the manatee treatment pools work better for the animals, Yerian's wish list includes a $100,000 monorail system that would allow park officials to slip manatees into slings, hoist them with pulleys and use the rails to move them from the spring run to the holding or treatment pools. Now, any move between the treatment pool and the spring run requires a crane, which Yerian said creates myriad logistical problems.

"If we could get that system, it would be great," Yerian said.

Another $100,000 in upgrades for the manatee treatment pool are on the list, including equipment that would improve the water clarity and a retractable canopy that could cover the tanks in summer heat, keeping the water and the animals cooler. That canopy could be retracted in bad weather to protect it.

When the major projects now on the books are completed, Yerian said, work will begin in earnest on the third phase of the wildlife walk, which would extend boardwalks all the way to the Long River Bridge. Those improvements could allow visitors to view manatees in the treatment pool from above and see the park's rare herd of tiny key deer as they romp back and forth beneath the walkway.

--Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or

[Last modified January 30, 2006, 00:32:10]

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