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ERMD uses BIA grants to monitor endangered, invasive species

For several years, the Seminole Tribe has received grants from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to fund the Environmental Resource Management Department’s endangered species and invasive species programs. The funding allows ERMD to monitor and manage wildlife, plants and vegetation on the reservations.

“We have a robust wildlife program,” said Karli Eckel, ERMD environmental science manager. “It helps protect the tribe’s interests and sovereignty by keeping and maintaining awareness of surrounding projects that have the ability to affect tribal resources, animals, plants, vegetation and cultural areas. It’s all one ecosystem. The BIA is happy with the work the tribe does.”

ERMD’s wildlife program conducts visual surveys and analysis for various endangered species, including the northern crested caracara, a bird that is native to Florida. The bird looks like a large black and white hawk with an orange face, but is in the falcon family. They rely on pastures, so the common concern is development activities will change the distribution of the species. ERMD has been monitoring the species for 21 years.

A juvenile Cuban tree frog on the Big Cypress Reservation. (Image via ERMD)

Other endangered species tracked by ERMD include the Everglades snail kite and game animals such as hogs, white tailed deer and turkeys. Surveys are done using remote wildlife cameras, which are almost entirely funded by the BIA grants. By monitoring wildlife under the auspices of the federal grant, the tribe gains the ability provide input into how its resources may be affected.

“The BIA recognizes how successful the tribe has been in managing their own resources through the wildlife program,” Eckel said.

The most endangered species on and near the reservations is the Florida panther. Since it is adapted to a very specific area in South Florida, the species is vulnerable to habitat loss. Male panthers require more land than any other species in the state at 200 square miles per animal. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates there are only 120 to 230 adult panthers in the state.

Another species endangered due to habitat loss is the Florida bonneted bat, the largest in the state which can reach about 6.5 inches with a 20 inch wingspan. ERMD erected acoustic detectors and can listen for their calls to pinpoint their location. The bats are another important contributor to the ecosystem; they are pollinators and eat two or three times their body weight in insects every night.

“The community has expressed interest in bat conservation,” Eckel said. “Tribal members know and appreciate them.”

ERMD also conducts surveys of bears, gopher tortoises and indigo snakes. Indigo snakes, which often live in gopher tortoise burrows, are native to Florida and eat other snakes. The burrows are monitored with cameras to look for invasive species, of which none have been found to date.

Black spiny tailed iguana spotted on the Brighton Reservation. (Image via ERMD)

Invasive species are also monitored by ERMD, which has conducted annual reptile and amphibian surveys since 2014. Those surveys give the scientists a baseline of visual and auditory information. Native frogs have been hard to find in some areas.

“In 2016 some invasive species such as the Cuban tree frog have increased,” Eckel said. “They eat native frog species in circumstances where the Cuban tree frog is the larger frog.”

Other invasive species causing concern are the Burmese python, Argentine black and white tegu, green and spiny tailed iguanas and cane toads.

“Pythons are here, but based on our surveys of small mammals and wading birds, we haven’t seen significant drops in those populations,” Eckel said. “We think I-75 has been a good barrier for preventing a full invasion of the snakes. Not to say they aren’t here, but based on our current level of data, it isn’t to the extent of our neighbors in South Florida.”

ERMD is a participant in the Florida Python Control Plan Working Group – currently under development – which is an interagency plan involving representatives from state, local, federal agencies and the tribe. When completed, the plan will include methodology and techniques for understanding pythons and recommendations for detection and
implementation of programs.

“We make sure the tribe is part of it to have a voice in its development,” Eckel said. “It’s good to have input in the plan to make sure it is aligned with tribal interests.”

The most problematic species is potentially the python, which could threaten tribal resources, but the most problematic species consistently observed are Cuban tree frogs and iguanas.

“Iguanas are in a stage that they can be eradicated,” Eckel said. “We are working with animal control to educate tribal members as to what to do if you find one and how to discourage iguana. Our website has all the information.”

Access the website here.

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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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