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SCCF makes strides in helping native wildlife flourish, educating community

By Staff | Apr 23, 2009

Every native creature on the islands has a purpose.

And one local conservation agency has put in over 40 years of work trying to help Sanibel and Captiva’s native life survive and thrive.

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation incorporated in 1967 to preserve the islands natural resources and wildlife habitat is moving along in its mission. It has acquired nearly 2,000 acres of area land to protect and preserve. At the beginning the agency’s primary goal was land acquisition. this goal has now shifted more to management of the land, Serage-Century said.

Between its team of biologists that work to rid the islands of non-native plant species and maintain the habitat to the SCCF educators, the focus remains the same: preserve the environment.

“Everything we do is about protecting habitat,” said SCCF habitat educator Dee Serage-Century.

The agency collaborates with the City of Sanibel as well as the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge in maintaining only native species plants and keeping wildlife in their homes.

Over the past 40 years the agency has worked to rid the islands of invasive non-native species such as the Brazilian Pepper plant and Australian Pines while keeping track of wildlife numbers.

The plan seems to be moving along. Since the removal of many of the invasive plants, SCCF has noted an increase in gopher tortoises – a threatened species – and in 2008 there was a marked increase of sea turtles during nesting season, also a threatened species.

Sea turtles numbers have been declining since 1998. This year there was an increase for loggerhead turtles statewide and green sea and leatherback turtles locally, said SCCF biologist and sea turtle coordinator Amanda Bryant. She said there has not been a marked increase in sea turtles during nesting season since 2000. Between Sanibel and Captiva there were over 400 marked nests last turtle season.

“We are just hoping we have a another good year,” Bryant said. “We need a few good years to know for sure.”

Bryant said that good management of the dunes and working to keep bright lighting down during turtle nesting season could have helped the increase in last year’s higher figures.

Another bright blip on the wildlife radar is that bob cats seem to be doing fairly well.

Bryant will be conducting a study to examine bob cat numbers soon. Bob cats live in the interior wet lands are one the two largest island predators. Alligators is the other.

Bob cats have their own territories and primarily hunt for rabbits and rodents.

Bob cats tend to be shy creatures that keep to themselves.

“There has never been a negative interaction between humans and bob cats,” Serage-Century said.

Aside from the SCCF’s land management and marine lab work for maintaining water habitats, education is a large component used to protect wildlife.

SCCF formalized its educational component of its mission with its construction of The Nature Center in 1977. Educators use a variety of ways to reach people. SCCF holds beach walks, boat tours, kayak tours, bike tours, trail walks, night-sky star talks and classroom activities. According to its web site, education programs reached over 44,000 people last year.

Serage-Century holds numerous education programs throughout the year, including ones about alligators, bob cats, owls, frog and soon a river otter program.

During these programs, Serage-Century helps people understand how to live with the wildlife.

Items such as explaining the importance of not feeding wildlife or getting close to alligators basking in the sun are discussed.

“I work really hard with people to help them understand the behavior of those animals,” she said. “I let them know how special we really are to have these animals here.”

Serage-Century said her work with explaining to people the importance of not feeding animals paid off recently when a grey fox was being fed at a local restaurant. After they stopped feeding the small animal, it went away.

“It was an unusual good-news story,” Serage-Century said. “Most fed wildlife stories don’t wind up that way.”

She said that most people who feed wildlife are misguided and think they are doing something good. But in many cases of fed wildlife, the animals often lose their natural fear of humans. This could lead to negative interactions with people.

One of SCCF’s most prominent programs is their alligator education. Serage-Century holds regular programs about living with gators. During these programs, people are urged to not feed alligators, cut their lawns to close to the water’s edge and maintain proper habitats near waterfront properties.

SCCF even has its own alligator house call program. Serage-Century will come to a homeowners home and assess their property. She will then give them suggestions for putting in native plants that will help keep gators away from the home.

“We’re here to help them figure it out,” she said.

Other programs include discussions about owls. A live TV camera placed in the education center shows a mother owl and its baby chicks. The camera is set-up in one of SCCF’s nesting boxes.

In the upcoming future, Serage-Century will be developing a river otter program for the community. In the mean time Serage-Century and the education team at SCCF will continue its mission of helping the community understand the island’s unique environment.

“That’s why we live here, so we can live with wildlife,” she said.