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ERMD balances needs of wildlife and community on reservations

ERMD biological technician Mandy D’Andrea, right, and ERMD wildlife biologist Pauline Campi work on the Big Cypress Reservation during a home site inspection Nov. 14. (Beverly Bidney photo)
ERMD biological technician Mandy D’Andrea, right, and ERMD wildlife biologist Pauline Campi work on the Big Cypress Reservation during a home site inspection Nov. 14. (Beverly Bidney photo)

BIG CYPRESS — For the last decade, the Environmental Resource Management Department’s wildlife and wetlands divisions have been monitoring the health of Tribal land and the non-human species that call it home.

ERMD has what appears to be conflicting roles; it aims to protect the environment as it works with Tribal departments that build new homes and make use of the natural resources. The department’s biologists conduct home site surveys before construction plans are made, document species on the reservations through use of remote cameras and are responsible for land management duties such as invasive plant removal, grassland burns and native burns.

“We want to make sure we aren’t impacting wildlife habitats during construction or burns,” said wildlife biologist Pauline Campi. “Our goal is to protect tribal resources.”

Native burns of forested areas are beneficial since they bring back native plants for cultural use and provide clear walkways for wildlife, including panthers and their prey. Grassland burns take place in pastures and remove overgrown, tough grass cattle cannot easily eat. Tender grass grows back after the burn.

ERMD is responsible for about 80,000 acres in Big Cypress, Brighton and Hollywood. The staff, which is trained by wildlife experts for every new project, has been conducting surveys of the land since 2006. They recently learned how to conduct acoustic surveys to listen for the newly endangered Florida bonneted bat.

“The ERMD plays an important role in keeping the Tribe in compliance with federal environmental regulations,” Whitney Sapienza, environmental science division supervisor, wrote in an email. “The majority of the Tribe’s reservations persist in environmentally sensitive habitats. It is a constant balancing act to ensure conservation of the sensitive habitat while enabling the Tribe to continue to develop on the reservations as they see fit. In working closely with the Tribal community and Tribal Departments ERMD is able to provide insight to avoid or minimize environmental impacts that may be caused by development activities.”

Prior to 2014, the department consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on all projects to ensure they were in conformity with the Endangered Species Act. In 2012, the ERMD wrote its own Wildlife Conservation Plan to streamline the process. It took two years for the USFWS to approve the Tribe’s plan and it has been used successfully ever since.

The plan’s goals include providing for sustainable use of wildlife and other natural resources while balancing wildlife conservation with the Tribe’s cultural and economic interests; conforming to the Endangered Species Act; providing resource management procedures for threatened and endangered species which are culturally significant to the Tribe.

Endangered species listed in the plan include the Florida panther, Everglades snail kite, red-cockaded woodpecker and Florida bonneted bat. Threatened species are the Audubon’s northern crested caracara, wood stork, eastern indigo snake and gopher tortoise. The bald eagle, found in a few nests in Brighton, has been de-listed but is protected under the Migratory Birds Act/Bald and Golden Act.

ERMD uses 20 to 30 remote cameras on each reservation to create a wildlife database with photos, GPS locations, dates and what the animals were doing at the time. Some of the animals caught on camera are panthers, deer, hogs, bobcats, raccoons, turkeys and bears.

“Panthers are everywhere, but we are able to track them more because of the cameras,” said biological technician Mandy D’Andrea. “Bears are curious and have knocked some cameras down. Now we have cameras in bear boxes attached to the trees, which has saved us a lot of cameras.”

ERMD biologists prefer to do bird surveys very early in the morning, starting at about 6:30 a.m., to get the animals while they are still in nests or roosting. Since much of the land is privately held, access isn’t always easy.

“When they wake up is the best time to catch them,” Campi said. “Evenings are best for reptiles and bats.”

Armed with a GPS locator and a clipboard, Campi and D’Andrea recently surveyed a one and a half acre home site in Big Cypress to look for evidence of wildlife activity on the property. While on these surveys, if they determine that the parcel is a wetland, they notify the wetlands division which will survey the land to establish if it is suitable for building.

The home site turned out to be mostly wetland. Evidence included an abundance of wetland plants, cypress knees and high water lines on trees, indicating standing water. Other clues were flattened pads of algae and thick muck underfoot.
In the muck, Campi and D’Andrea found tracks that prove panther, bear, bobcat, deer and other animals recently spent time on the property. They also found an area disturbed by a possum or armadillo and a live baby box turtle. Invasive plants, lichen on trees and bird droppings were also discovered during the meandering transect of the home site.

After the home site survey, cameras were retrieved from the field elsewhere in Big Cypress. The cameras are motion triggered; one had 969 images and the other had 51. Near the cameras were more paw prints from mammals large and small. ERMD biologists used to put cameras in dense areas but learned they get better results, and more photos of wildlife, in more open areas.

“We have every species and from year to year we see how they are doing,” Campi said. “It’s important for Tribal members to live off the land, so we work without encroaching on their traditional activities.”

ERMD biological technician Mandy D’Andrea looks up in the trees for evidence of bird or bat roosting places while on a home site inspection in Big Cypress Nov. 14. (Beverly Bidney photo)
ERMD biological technician Mandy D’Andrea looks up in the trees for evidence of bird or bat roosting places while on a home site inspection in Big Cypress Nov. 14. (Beverly Bidney photo)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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