Bailey Tract restoration plan on hold
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge has postponed a hydrological restoration project planned for the Bailey Tract until black-necked stilts have finishing nesting at the site.
The refuge hosted three additional public meetings from April 20-23 to discuss the project, which was slated to kick off in April with the tract’s closing, after some in the community voiced concern about what would happen to the nesting birds. The refuge first revealed the plans for the project in February.
“We don’t have any intentions of disturbing the birds while they’re nesting,” Deputy Refuge Manager Nate Caswell said.
“We’re going to stand by until their done,” Jeremy Conrad, senior wildlife biologist, added.
Conrad noted, however, that the project has not been canceled.
“Long-term, we do have intentions to fill the pond,” he said of Ani Pond.
“We do want to see this project though,” Caswell added.
Conrad explained that no work will be done as the birds are nesting. When the hatchlings begin to fledge, the refuge may start working on parts of the project not near the pond, like removing a berm.
“As they move out of the pond, then we’ll move into the pond,” he said.
The hydrological restoration project will entail removing a berm to the east of the pond and using the dirt as fill for the pond. Also, three culvets will be installed to improve water movement in the area.
“That pond, generally, does not support any wildlife,” Conrad said.
He tied the bird nestings this year and last year to the droughts.
“The pond is really dry and that draws the wading birds,” Conrad said, noting that under normal conditions the stilts nest at Red Mangrove Pond or the eastern slough. “They don’t nest in that pond.”
“One of the reasons we chose this pond is it’s got the least activity,” he added.
The aim of the project is to increase the acreage of cordgrass marsh and habitat for species dependent on it; reduce the encroachment of woody and non-native species; and cut the hazardous fuel loads.
“There are species that are specific to marshes,” Conrad said.
Some are the endemic state-threatened Sanibel rice rat, marsh birds and others.
“It’s not filling in a pond for a rat,” he said. “It’s trying to provide habitat for all of them.”
Conrad explained that the refuge partnered with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation to install a series of wells within the Bailey Tract area to track the water movement in and around the Ani Pond.
“Hydrology is a main key for maintaining a marsh,” he said. “This hydrology has been altered.”
Conrad explained that the change is turning the marsh into forested wetland.
When the surrounding marsh habitat receives rain, the water flows away into the pond.
“The pond is really functioning like a ditch,” he said.
Conrad explained that the tract was made up of freshwater cordgrass marsh prior to the 1950s. Over the next decade, Lee County dug ditches and created Wildlife Drive in an effort to control the mosquitoes.
“To reduce the amount of mosquito larvae in the water,” he said.
From the 1960s to 1970s, Lee County needed fill for island roads and the refuge wanted to create habitat for waterfowls. County excavations of the tract provided the fill and created the ponds.
“That’s where the ponds came from,” Conrad said.
He noted that it became apparent over time, the ponds did not support the fowl.
“The ponds really never met their objective,” he said.
Currently, about 42 acres of the 100-acre Bailey Tract has turned into forested wetland.
“You’ve lost nearly half of the marshes,” Conrad said.
For species that are dependent on the habitat, like the Sanibel rice rat, it is a serious situation.
Both the refuge and the SCCF received grants to conduct wetland restoration projects.
“They also did some restoration on their land,” he said.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is at 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel.