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‘Ding’ Darling reports on three projects planned for new year

By Staff | Mar 7, 2018

TIFFANY REPECKI Jeremy Conrad, a biologist for the J.N. Ding “Darling” National Wildlife Center, goes over a presentation about the prescribed burns planned for this year during a public meeting on Feb. 28.

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge recently announced its plans for this year’s prescribed burns, restoration of the Bailey Tract and a wildlife buffer zone for Tarpon Bay.

During a public meeting on Feb. 28, officials and staff with the refuge provided presentations on the three subjects, as well as hosted break-out sessions afterward to answer questions from attendees. The goal of the meeting was to inform and to gather input in order to make better management decisions.


Refuge biologist Jeremy Conrad explained that the Prescribed Fire Task Force, which is made up of several coordinating agencies, uses prescribed burns to reduce hazardous fuels in order to minimize the threat of catastrophic wildfire and maintain public safety. It also restores natural habitat for wildlife.

“Fire was historically part of the environment and ecosystem,” he said.

PHOTO PROVIDED The 2018 planned prescribed burn areas at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

The influx of humans and development has impacted the naturally-occurring phenomena.

Prescribed burns mimic the natural process and help to maintain local habitats.

For example, ensuring marsh does not turn into forested wetland. Conrad explained that prescribed burns help to remove encroachment from other woody species, restoring and saving marsh lands.

“They are a major filtration for a lot of the ecosystems we have here,” he said.

Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland noted that last year’s mission went unmet.

This year, the refuge has prescribed burns tentatively planned for the Botanical Site, Legion Curve, North Center Tract, San-Cap Parcel, Sanibel Gardens Preserve and Frannies/Johnston Tract.

“That is our No. 1 right now,” she said of the Botanical Site.

Officials expect to begin the process starting in April.

“We are pushing to do this after Easter,” Westland said, adding that the timing is planned so the prescribed burns occur after visitation or tourist season, but before the rainy season kicks in.

Public notifications will be sent out days in advance of a prescribed burn.

“There will be lots of information put out there,” she said.

The refuge will also have a public booth available with additional details.

“There is always information while the burn is being conducted,” Westland said.

Nearby residents are strongly encouraged to “fire-wise” their homes.

Recommended tips for a prescribed burn include:

– Putting away personal property, such as cars and outdoor furniture

– Closing windows and using air conditioning

– Covering swimming pools

– Keeping pets indoors

– Staying indoors to minimize impacts or leaving the island for the day

Those who are sensitive to smoke can be placed on an email list.

Conservation Officer Joel Caouette, with Sanibel’s Natural Resources Department, maintains the list and sends out an email blast about 48 hours ahead of any prescribed burn with all the information.

To be placed on the list, contact him at 239-472-3700 or Joel.caouette@mysanibel.com.


The refuge will focus on hydrological restoration at the Bailey Tract. The project will involve partially filling the Ani Pond and reconnecting wetland habitat and hydrological enhancements for the benefit of the endemic state-threatened Sanibel rice rat, marsh birds and other species dependent on marsh lands.

Conrad explained that staff set up wells in the area about six months ago to monitor the movement of water between the marshes and ponds. Movement is unbalancing and can turn marsh into wetland.

“There is movement out there,” he said.

Conrad added that there is 42 acres of forested wetland that is no longer marsh.

For species dependent on the natural marsh habitat, it is a serious situation.

For example, the Sanibel rice rat, which is native and can only be found on the island.

“Most of their life cycle is found in the marsh and only in the marsh,” he said.

Listed as threatened in Florida, the species is being considered for placement on the federal list.

“They’re really rare,” Conrad said. “They’re only found here.”

Unlike the non-native invasive black rats, Sanibel rice rats are part of the natural system.

“We want to protect the ones that are native,” he said.

Both the refuge and Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation applied for grant funding to conduct wetland restoration projects as aquatic habitat restoration and enhancement to address the issue.

“They’ve already done some restoration on their lands,” Conrad said of the SCCF.

For the refuge, the focus is the Bailey Tract.

The Andi Pond will be filled in to the elevation of the surrounding marsh.

“If we can get the elevation right, it will become a marsh,” he said.

Because the nearby trails and berms are not natural elements, they will be used as fill for the pond.

Conrad noted that a nearby bridge will be removed and made into a level solid walking path.

Contractors are expected to begin working on the project in mid-April.

“We will be closing the site completely to access,” he said.

Officials estimate that the area will be closed to the public for about two months.


The Tarpon Bay Keys are managed through a lease agreement with the state, which mandates the establishment of a buffer around the rookery islands in the middle of the bay to protect colonial nesting birds. Deputy Refuge Manager Nate Caswell reported that the refuge never enforced the mandate.

“Tarpon Bay’s 950 acres of submerged lands are state-owned,” he said.

Following multiple disturbances in the area, the refuge is now following through on it.

“There’s a lot of disturbance that has been documented,” Caswell said.

People have been walking their dogs and boats are getting too close. Once, a helicopter dropped by.

“This is the refuge’s only rookery that is active, so we need to protect it,” he said.

The refuge will post a wildlife buffer zone of 25 years to comply with the agreement terms.

“We intend to close to all access with a 25-yard buffer around the islands in the middle of Tarpon Bay,” Caswell said. “We’re probably going to use a series of buoys to mark it out.”

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is at 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel.