How Florida’s wildlife is faring after Hurricane Ian
Southwest Florida looks very different than before hurricane ian swept through the area six weeks ago.
the green sanibel island it has been parched, its trees blown down by the storm or drowned in salt water. Y cape coral, a meticulously ordered planned community cut by rows of canals, it is still being excavated beneath the rubble.
Ian resulted in the death of at least 130 people and displaced thousands more. Now, as residents begin to rebuild, questions remain about the future of its various critically important native species.
Animals are made to withstand natural disasters, but they are not equipped to survive in destroyed habitats with poor quality water. Species like tortoises, burrowing owls, and even American alligators, which play an important role in keeping their ecosystems balanced, have been displaced or injured since Ian struck. Some of the animals have hardly been seen since the storm.
“Wildlife has evolved along with natural disasters — they understand when it’s coming,” said Breanna Frankel, rehabilitation manager at CROW Clinic, a wildlife hospital on Sanibel. “I think we are starting to see more problems with all the extra stuff that the hurricane brought on.”
It will take months, perhaps years, for wildlife experts to understand the extent of the damage. But what they’ve seen in the weeks since Ian uprooted his life hints at what the future might hold for the state’s native wildlife.
“Many habitats are slowly going into shock,” Frankel said. It remains to be seen if our ecosystem can overcome that.
Southwest Florida is home to a unique variety of ecosystems that support critically important keystone species: wetlands and mangrove forests, beaches fronting the Gulf of Mexico, hammocksprairies and pastures, among others.
Keystone species are the engines of their local ecosystems: their habitats work because they do. In Florida, keystone species include tortoises, whose burrows provide shelter for more than 350 species, and alligators, who dig holes during the dry season to obtain fresh water that are also used by turtles and wading birds. Alligators’ nesting habits also make them perfect security guards for the eggs of other species: The reptiles guard their nests fiercely and keep coyotes and raccoons at bay.
But imbalances in the water are detrimental: Gopher tortoises are terrestrial creatures, which means they don’t spend a lot of time in the water (they’re also poor swimmers). They can hold their breath if their burrows flood, but flooding from Hurricane Ian also brought debris into their homes and clogged them. Alligators can tolerate saltwater for short periods of time, but they are used to hunting, breeding, and living in freshwater habitats.
Saltwater has overwhelmed some of Sanibel’s freshwater sources, said Chris Lechowicz, a herpetologist and director of wildlife and habitat management at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF). While taking readings of the Sanibel River, an important freshwater habitat for several species of turtles, he discovered that its salinity levels in some places had skyrocketed from 0 grams of salt per kilogram, or 0 ppt (parts per thousand), to 24 ppt. a few grams away from saltwater classification.
“The freshwater system was almost seawater,” Lechowicz said. “That’s going to change a lot of the diversity in that area.”
All that salt water is also harmful to native tree species. Many of them have already died after being buffeted by strong winds, but the survivors often cannot bear the salty earth. This will drastically change the ecosystems on Sanibel, Lechowicz said.
“We are going to see a reduction of trees,” he said. “Many trees were felled, but those still standing may still be killed by saltwater intrusion on the islands.”
Debris from damaged homes is still piling up in areas of southwest Florida that were hardest hit by Ian, Sanibel and Cape Coral, among them. Lechowicz, who normally sees a very rare population of Florida mud turtles in a small wetland on the island, has not been able to reach the area in weeks.
Countless houses were destroyed in the area, particularly the houses closest to the water. When they flooded, their sliding glass doors and windows would often break and the water would push the contents out of their homes. Many of those items ended up in wildlife conservation areas, she said.
“Some things in people’s houses can have toxic elements in them,” Lechowicz said.
Enter the cleanup crews: Pascha Donaldson, former leader of the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, has been touring town to clean litter from owl homes. The tiny owl, a threatened species in Florida and highly concentrated in Cape Coral, often makes its burrows in vacant lots or front yards, but many of those holes were completely plugged when Donaldson found them.
“The owls will come back if you don’t kill them or blow them up,” he told CNN. “If (the city) doesn’t clean up the royal burrow, the owls won’t come back, they can’t dig through it.”
He has noticed tire tracks on top of some burrows and whole boats on top of other lots dedicated to owls. While he has seen owls in some unusual places, like his front porch, he still sees fewer owls than usual, she said.
“Owls are like any other bird, unless they get cut off by the wind or crash into a building, they’re pretty smart to save their feathers,” he said.
He won’t do his annual population count until June, which is “baby season” for Burrowing Owls, and in the meantime, he’ll keep cleaning out burrows and encouraging neighbors to dig burrows in their front yards to attract the owls to house.
“Hopefully, when I clean them up, I’ll see more of them,” he said. “I guess time will tell.”
In the weeks after the hurricane, the “biggest concerns” for wildlife rescuers were animals unable to climb or fly out of harm’s way, said Dr. Robin Bast, a CROW Clinic veterinarian. The clinic has seen an increase in turtle patients since the storm, who, searching for fresh water, have been increasingly hit by cars. Squirrels have also been blown out of their trees and ended up in the clinic.
For most species, it’s too early to say if populations suffered, or how drastically, but SCCF has identified some markers of habitat health: Before Hurricane Ian, there were 17 sea turtle nests on the island. SCCF teams found only one in the weeks after, the others were probably washed away before hatching.
Swamp rabbits, once considered a nuisance by Sanibel homeowners for frequent chewing in their yards, have rarely been seen. And the American alligator, perhaps the state’s best-known predator, was nowhere to be found after the hurricane, Lechowicz said.
“Alligators are able to tolerate salt water for short periods of time,” he said. “But eventually, they will need fresh water. I would love to know how the alligators fared.”
The hurricane has only exasperated the existing challenges that native species face for their continued survival. Nearly all of Florida’s keystone species are threatened by habitat loss, including tortoises, alligators, and burrowing owls. And as Florida continues to grow at a seemingly exponential rate, the fight to preserve critical habitats is intensifying.
Florida’s native wildlife is often considered “sentinel species” they bear the brunt of environmental impacts before their human neighbors. And if hurricanes as powerful as Ian, a Category 4 storm, become the normthere will be fewer opportunities to engage in cleaning and caring for animals in between.
“With these hurricanes, you can’t underestimate it, it can change on a dime,” Lechowicz said, alluding to the fact that Ian changed course from Tampa to southwest Florida shortly before landfall. “But it’s an incredible amount of work to prepare for a hurricane.”
Florida wildlife rescue teams can’t stop one hurricane, but they can learn from Ian to improve wildlife’s chances of survival for the next one. And they certainly learned a lot: The CROW team was doing pivotal work during Ian, with some vets and medical interns holed up in a Fort Myers hotel with neonatal patients who needed 24-hour care, like baby squirrels and opossums. Frankel, meanwhile, filled his garage with birds of prey that had been housed in the clinic’s ICU: red-shouldered hawks, ospreys, and a grumpy great horned owl.
When the power went out, the CROW team got creative: Frankel enlisted her family and friends to help her care for seriously ill birds. Interns at the hotel did jumping jacks and squats with cans of food and water in their clothing to warm themselves with body heat, said CROW veterinarian Dr. Laura Kellow.
And some species have slowly and cautiously begun to re-emerge in the weeks since Ian: In late October, an SCCF employee stained a single red-bellied cooter, a turtle with a snarling disposition, trying to cross the road. shore birds like plovers and terns are making a comeback, dotting the beaches where they feast and nest. And CROW continues to care for and release animals, including burrowing owls, seagulls Y baby rabbits.
Organizations like SCCF are pleading with the public to share photos and stories with them of the animals they have seen in the area as wildlife rescue teams chart their recovery. It’s too early to tell how all of Florida’s beloved animals fared, but slivers of hope have begun to show through the recovery process.
“Several of us lost homes or vehicles, but we continue to help wildlife patients and help each other,” Bast said.