Florida wildlife officials are pushing forward efforts to protect islands and caves inhabited by wading birds and bats that are facing problems from human encroachment.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s plan is to put a boundary — marked by signs — around several islands around the state and caves in Citrus County that tell visitors not to get too close.
Initially, as workshops were held over the summer months, some residents voiced their concerns that the boundaries — which varied depending on location and even certain spots within those locations — were too limiting.
The concerns focused on the extended island boundaries hampering fishing, boating and wildlife photography, for both residents and tourists.
Danny Guarino, the executive vice president of the Florida Guides Association, was one of those who expressed concerns about the buffer zones.
“We love birds – I can’t think of anyone in our organization that would want to hurt a bird,” he said at the FWC’s meeting on Friday at the World Golf Village hotel in St. Augustine. “But we also like the ability to use the waterways. … Far too often the rights of recreational anglers are diminished in the name of conservation.”
At the meeting, the FWC’s Kipp Frohlich explained that the boundaries were pushed back: to 300 feet and less for all the proposed island sites.
They are: Flag Island, Dot-Dash-Dit Islands, Roberts Bay, Estero Bay, Pine Island Sound, Port Orange, BC49, the Stick Marsh and Lanark Reef. These are in addition to improving five existing CWAs.
Meanwhile, the cave boundaries — for Withlacoochee Caves in Citrus County — will remain at the originally proposed 10 to 50 feet from the entrances.
The boundaries are called Critical Wildlife Areas, or CWAs, which are meant to protect wildlife during critical points in their life, such when baby birds are being raised in nests.
Also, birds naturally flock together in high numbers, which made it easy for the FWC to identify which islands needed boundary protection, said Frohlich, the deputy director of the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation
CWAs are “a conservation tool that we’ve had for a long time, and it really allows you to protect concentrations of wildlife where they’re really aggregated from human disturbance,” he said at Friday’s meeting.
The sites and boundaries will be up for a vote on final approval by the FWC’s seven commissioners at their meeting on Nov. 16 and 17.
Some Withlacoochee Caves are already prohibited from visitors, but the new CWAs will provide clearer enforcement.
“Some of the caves are already off limits,” said Frohlich, who noted that the Florida Forest Service partnered with the FWC on the cave project. “This just provides a more clear enforcement strategy by posting them as CWAs.”
He said the CWA will help protect the bats during the seasons they need them most: winter for some bats and summer breeding months for others.
At the meeting, FWC commissioners weighed in on the debate.
“I really think it’s important – that we owe [wildlife] this small measure of protection,” commission Chairman Brian Yablonski said.
Commissioners encouraged Frohlich to continue developing the sites before the November vote.
“These are the great wildlife ambassadors of the state of Florida and the reason that folks come here – and the reason, quite honestly, that we have conservation programs today,” Yablonski said.
Yablonski said the CWAs are important for the community as a whole.
“It’s often our enthusiasm and joy,” he said, “to see these birds that sometimes constitutes the very thing we seek to minimize, which is harm and disturbance of a species we love to see.”
Between now and the November vote, Floridians can leave comments about the proposed CWAs at CWAcomments@MyFWC.com.