Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, New College of Florida
While staying on Cumberland Island, Georgia, in the late 1970s, I went on a night beach patrol and witnessed an extraordinary event: A loggerhead sea turtle lumbering up the beach, digging a precise chamber with her rear flippers, and patiently dropping over a hundred glistening eggs. Previously, I’d been more of a plant person, but after that night on the shore, wildlife issues began to draw me in. Loggerhead sea turtles were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1978. Thirteen years later, I became a Commissioner of the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission.
As the Endangered Species Act turns forty, the future for each of these species is even brighter.
Florida’s imperiled species don’t stick to the wilderness. On our way to the grocery store, we often see wood storks in roadside ditches. Swallow-tailed kites skim the tree tops in our neighborhood, and least terns fish along the sea wall outside my office. These casual and affirming wildlife encounters are awesome, but they don’t begin to reveal the decades of diligent recovery work conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In Florida, we’ve seen success with the Florida panther, the whooping crane, and the Florida manatee. Thanks to construction of wildlife underpasses and introduction of female Texas pumas, the Florida panther’s population has increased from a low of thirty individuals in 1990 to over one hundred in 2013. Extirpated from Florida in the 1930s, whooping cranes were reestablished in the eastern United States by 2012, with nineteen non-migratory birds in central Florida and a population of 104 eastern migratory cranes. Manatees received protection from boat-induced physical trauma through restricted boat speeds, and may soon be down-listed from endangered to threatened.
As the Endangered Species Act turns forty, the future for each of these species is even brighter. Concern for endangered species has motivated Florida voters and legislators to acquire critical conservation lands, and the painstaking work of field biologists guides management decisions for these species and others, providing course corrections as recoveries progress. Education and outreach continue to teach people how to live with expanding populations of recovering species—countering claims that protected species are nuisances, and that people are the real endangered species.
These days, I spend more hours in meeting rooms talking about conservation than I spend in the woods. To keep myself grounded, once a year I ride with the night sea turtle patrol on a local beach. We see stakes with yellow flags marking nests laid earlier in the season, and the distinctive tracks of a false crawl. Then we spot a female digging a nest cavity and laying her eggs. And at the right moment, my companions measure and tag her, then log her data as she covers her nest and turns back to the Gulf waters.
The next forty years will hold new challenges for sea turtles and the people who manage their recovery. Thankfully, both the Endangered Species Act and the practices and wisdom we’ve gained through our recovery work will be there to guide us.