Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Palm trees threaten Florida panthers on wildlife refuge

Cabbage palms threaten panthers at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge; stimulus funds will be used to eliminate them

POSTED: October 28, 2009

Even though it is the official state tree of Florida, the cabbage palm has gotten too invasive at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge near Naples.

The dense, nearly impenetrable stands drive out forage plants for deer, adversely impacting the deer population, and an abundant deer population is necessary for maintaining the refuge's panther population.

So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has hired Wildland Services, Inc., of Moore Haven to cut down the invasive cabbage palms on more than 1,700 acres inside the refuge, part of the overall land management program at the refuge. The $171,094 contract will use funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, sometimes known popularly as stimulus funds.

"The construction of canals over the last century for flood control has altered the balance of nature," said Larry Richardson, refuge wildlife biologist, in a prepared statement. "They channel water away from the refuge to the Gulf of Mexico and prevent the summer rains from recharging the aquifer. And the palms have invaded the open pine habitats and wet prairies due to these man-made changes."

"This valuable project is one part of a multifaceted land management program on the refuge," said Acting Refuge Manager Ben Nottingham. "Invasive cabbage palm removal, fire management, and non-native plant control are crucial to managing the refuge for panthers and the many other species of wildlife and native plants that depend upon a healthy and diverse environment."

"The construction of canals over the last century for flood control has altered the balance of nature," said Richardson. "They channel water away from the refuge to the Gulf of Mexico and prevent the summer rains from recharging the aquifer."

Many people know that the cabbage palm is Florida's state tree, and the "heart of palm" is a favorite cabbage-like dish enjoyed by many.

"Nevertheless, the palms have invaded the open pine habitats and wet prairies due to the man-made changes in the hydrology," Richardson added.

In the 20 years Richardson has been working on the refuge he has seen grassy prairies gradually taken over. Cabbage palms have formed dense, nearly impenetrable stands, shading out forage plants for deer. Thousands of acres of the refuge have been degraded by this cabbage palm invasion, which has adversely impacted the Refuge's deer population. A healthy and abundant deer population is necessary to maintain the refuge's resident panthers.

Additionally, thick stands of cabbage palms make the pinelands undesirable for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, a former resident of the lands now within the refuge.

Wildland Services will use crews and equipment to cut cabbage palms over six feet tall, dropping them in place to rot away or be consumed by prescribed fires, which the service uses routinely to manage fuels that otherwise can promote catastrophic wildfires. Smaller palms will be eliminated with herbicides as more funding becomes available. Minimal ground disturbance is a requirement of the contract to prevent invasion by non-native plants such as Brazilian pepper and protect the native grasses and low growing plants.

Darrel Land, Panther Section leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is pleased with the restoration that has already occurred on 2,500 acres of pinelands along the eastern boundary of the refuge.

"The restoration so far has greatly benefited panthers by improving habitat for deer, the panthers' primary prey," Land said.

On the web: http://www.fws.gov/floridapanther/

For more information: contact Phil Kloer, public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Office, (404) 679-7125 philip_kloer@fws.gov

Larry Richardson, Refuge Biologist, is also available to talk about the project at (239) 353-8442 Larry_Richardson@fws.gov.

http://www.cape-coral-daily-breeze.com/page/content.detail/id/511720.html

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