It recently occurred to me that “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection” doesn’t really work these days. It would be no contest. Humans would win. If we aren’t continually mindful of how our quickly growing civilization impacts Mother Nature, hundreds of species pay the price. Of course, human progress (especially during full throttle times like the Industrial Revolution) has already taken a toll. However, in the National Parks of South Florida (Dry Tortugas, Biscayne and Everglades) we learned an increasing number of conservation efforts throughout the 20th century have worked hard to counteract the toll of human progress.
As Joe Podgor, former Director of Friends of the Everglades famously said, “The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet.”
We hear a lot of downer stuff these days about climate change, pollution and being in the midst of another mass extinction. So I wanted to share a few examples of where humans aren’t screwing everything up – examples of animals in South Florida that were once in danger of disappearing, but are now thriving thanks to coordinated conservation efforts, legislation like the Endangered Species Act and greater public awareness. Many of these animals we enjoyed seeing ourselves, as I discussed in our post on the best places to see wildlife in Everglades. (photos and stats from esasuccess.org, a project of the Center for Biological Diversity)
- American Alligator– Habitat loss and poorly regulated hunting got alligators listed as endangered in 1967. Through subsequent conservation efforts, the American alligator recovered throughout the south (NPS estimates 1 million gators in FL alone). It remains protected due to similarity of appearance to the endangered American crocodile.
- American Crocodile– Hunting for sport and skins as well as over-collection for zoos and museums had reduced their numbers to as few as 200 when it was listed as endangered in 1975. The entire population, including only 10 to 20 breeding females, lived in one small area of Florida Bay. In 2005 the crocodiles’ numbers reached 2,085 and they had returned to much of their historic range, from Biscayne Bay and Key Largo to Florida’s southwestern coast.
- Florida Panther– Listed as endangered in 1967, the species was near extinction due to habitat loss, hunting, persecution, and vehicle collisions. The recorded populations in the 1980s were just 30-50 animals. After public awareness and genetic intervention in 1990s, the population has rebounded to around 140 in 2015.
- Snowy Egret– During breeding season, Snowy Egrets develop long, wispy feathers on their backs. In 1886 these plumes were valued at $32 per ounce, twice the price of gold at the time. Plume-hunting for the fashion industry killed many egrets and other birds until reforms were passed in the early twentieth century and the huge-plume-hat rage faded. In 1985, the birds were delisted as an endangered species. (picture from birdnote.org)
- Manatee– Habitat loss, coastal development, and motor boat collisions had severely hurt populations when it was listed as endangered in 1967. Through intense effort, manatee numbers started increasing in 1971 and grew 227% between 1991 and 2011 (1,478 to 4,834 manatees).
- Key Deer– Hunting and habitat loss caused the Key deer to decline to about 50 animals by the 1920s. After being listed as endangered in 1967, the population decreased from 400 to 200 by 1971. It has increased steadily and the 2011 population likely exceeds 800.
- Okaloosa Darter– Its range was reduced by habitat modification, increases in the brown darter population, habitat degradation due to erosion, and water impoundment. 1978 estimates ranged from 1,500 to 10,000. The population size reached 802,668 fish in 2011.
- Wood Stork– Loss of suitable wetland feeding habitat reduced wood stork populations from 15,000-20,000 pairs in the late 1930s to 5,000 pairs in the late 1970s. The number of wood stork nests has increased to 12,000 in 2009.
- Brown Pelican– Reproductive failure due to eggshell thinning, caused by the pesticide DDT, was the main reason brown pelican population declined. Brown pelican nests on the Atlantic Coast increased from 2,796 in 1970 to 15,670 in 1999 and were delisted as endangered in 1985. We enjoyed watching brown pelicans dive into the water to feed from the beach at Dry Tortugas.
- Leatherback Sea Turtle– Declined due to habitat destruction, commercial fishery by-catch, harvest of eggs, hunting of adults, and loss of beach nesting habitat. Globally, leatherback sea turtles have been declining for decades. U.S. populations, however, have increased since being listed as endangered in 1970. Between 1989 and 2011, nests at core habitat Florida beaches increased from 27 to 615.
- Atlantic Green Sea Turtle– sees most of the same threats as the Leatherback. Its population has increased in the U.S. since being listed as endangered in 1978. It grew by 2,206% in Florida between 1989 and 2011 (464 to 10,701) and has achieved its population size recovery goal. We even learned Biscayne National Park recently saw it’s first Atlantic Green nest due in part to the terrific work of the Coastal Cleanup Corporation, which we highlighted in our Biscayne post.
There are plenty more success stories in South Florida and elsewhere. Conservation efforts have also made strides in South Florida the fight against several invasive species (e.g. Melaleuca, which was introduced to suck up water from Everglades so land could be developed). Conservation saved pristine Biscayne National Park from being an extension of Miami Beach. And conservation has put the Everglades watershed on the path to restoration (see diagram from Shark Valley Visitors Center below). But that’s three whole other stories.
There’s no denying there are plenty of species around the world that are still in grave danger, but the current conservation efforts we saw in the Everglades prove detrimental human impact can be reversed. Species are resilient and will rebound. If only we give them the chance.