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Wildlife not hurt yet by drought


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2000

INVERNESS -- From the seawall in their backyard, Betty and Cliff Houseman observe a small alligator slowly swim away as they drop pieces of broken bread into a school of hungry fish.

The scene was a surprisingly fertile view of the ongoing drought, which has brought desert-like conditions to the area, drying out acres of lake beds and forcing the imposition of water restrictions on thirsty lawns.

Although the area is experiencing the driest spring on record, plants and animals are not in imminent danger, biologists say. But a summer without significant rainfall would alter that scenario for the worse. But meteorologists are actually predicting above-average rains this summer, leaving wildlife's future looking bright.

Meanwhile, the frogs, deer, alligators and herons are exercising their considerable powers of survival.

"Usually wildlife, especially those in Florida, are fairly well-adapted to drought conditions," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Doug Franke said.

"We're going to have to go into a much more extended drought . . . to show effects on the overall population. There might be a few (animals) who can't survive because they couldn't get the moisture requirement they need but . . . for the most part, there's not going to be an adverse effect," he said.

Humans may be the hardest-hit of all. Many people, especially in East Citrus, cannot launch their boats into the water and can only sit and watch their lawns die as local authorities enforce a one-day-per-week emergency watering restriction imposed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The restriction threatens the Florida dream of the perpetual green lawn.

"You try to have a nice yard and you can't use water," said Betty Houseman, whose property is meticulously groomed, with colorful flowers and low-cut grass several shades darker than the surrounding wetlands.

"We gave one boat to our son; can't use it," she said. "The other one is in the garage."

Instead of endangering large numbers of animals, the drought is simply creating new advantages and disadvantages for wildlife, biologists say.

For example, the drying wetlands have concentrated food sources for wading birds, Franke said. On the down side, the birds depend on the water to protect themselves and their nests from predators. Low water threatens their safety zone.

But amphibians can burrow for weeks and months, living off the moisture in the mud, Franke said. And as meager as the spring rainfall seems, enough has dropped to keep vegetation alive, he said.

Tammy Wactor, a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Hernando County, said she has noticed some stress on trees and vegetation but nothing that would threaten the food supplies of animals, such as the gopher tortoise.

The dry weather will force some animals to travel in search of water, biologists said. For adult gators, who are in their mating season, traveling several miles is not a big deal, Franke said. However, their young may suffer as they cross territory replete with predators.

A clear victim of the drought is local prescribed burn programs for hundreds of acres of dried undergrowth. Both the state Division of Forestry and the Department of Environmental Protection canceled their burns, putting back efforts to rejuvenate trees and vegetation.

On the Gulf side, where marshy estuaries are fed by both salt and fresh water, scientists report significantly lower water flows feeding the rich estuaries that provide much of the food for birds and aquatic animals. The drought has changed the salinity balance, threatening creatures at the bottom of the food chain, Marine Science Center Supervisor Matt Purcell said.

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