How Are Cities Connected to the Plight of Florida's Endangered Species?

Decisions on what types of plants to use in urban landscapes can have consequences for our endangered species. For example, many non-native plants are used as ornamentals in urban areas, but some have escaped and become established in surrounding natural habitat.
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Many of Florida's unique species, such as the Florida Panther, Florida Scrub Jay, West Indian Manatee, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Florida Ziziphus, Schaus Swallowtail, and the Key Deer are at risk of becoming extinct or at least being extirpated from Florida. There are about 111 endangered and threatened plant and animal species in Florida. Several of these endangered species are endemic and found nowhere else in the world. Even more relatively common, native species are at risk at becoming listed as endangered (e.g., Burrowing Owl). Without concerted efforts to conserve and restore habitats, they may be gone forever. You might ask, "Why don't we just concentrate on conserving habitat outside of urban areas?" Below, I discuss why cities are critical to the long-term health of Florida's native and endangered species.

2013-09-19-chairslawnwild.jpg Photo Credit: Mark Hostetler

Cities and Invasive Exotic Plants: Decisions on what types of plants to use in urban landscapes can have consequences for our endangered species. For example, many non-native plants are used as ornamentals in urban areas, but some have escaped and become established in surrounding natural habitat. Non-native species that invade natural areas are called weeds or invasive exotics. The establishment of an invasive exotic plant in natural areas can impact endangered species because they displace native plants, change ecosystem structure or function, or hybridize with native species (see; A few examples include, Coral Ardisia (Ardisia crenata); Old World Climbing Fern (Lygodium microphyllum); and Melaleuca (Melaleuca quinquenervia). Thus, the types of plants used in neighborhoods can impact species in natural areas well outside of urban areas.

Cities and Invasive Exotic Animals: Peoples' pets, when they are released into the wild, can dramatically impact our endangered species. I bet most of you have heard about the Burmese Python (Python molurus) that is now numbering in the thousands in the Everglades. These pythons were peoples' pets that were released into the Everglades. Growing up to 20 ft. long, they are eating many of our native species including deer and even alligators! The Nile Monitor Lizard (Varanus niloticus) is a small pet that can be purchased in pet shops, but they can grow to be 7 footers! These large reptiles are now running loose in Cape Coral, FL and are thought to be eating Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) and sea turtle eggs. Another exotic pet that impacts Florida wildlife is the cat. Cats are known predators of a large variety of lizards, birds, and small mammals. Cats not only impact species in urban areas but also endangered species in nearby habitats; for example, cats located near habitat of endangered beach mice habitat have been implicated in preying on this species. Even releasing pet exotic fish, such as Mayan Cichlids (Cichlasoma urophthalmus), cause havoc with our native fish assemblage; the cichlids are efficient hunters. Take home message, never release pets into the wild!

Solutions? As seen above, cities impact surrounding natural areas. I only mentioned invasives but also implicated is urban stormwater runoff and even the daily maintenance of lawns and how this impacts climate change. The day-to-day decisions by planners, developers, and citizens are directly connected to the survival of our endangered species. Conventional development practices and daily yard maintenance are only going to exacerbate the plight of Florida's endangered species. Change is needed! When land is developed, decision makers should implement proper design and management practices, and they must address issues during the design, construction, and post-construction phases. No longer can we designate natural areas within and outside of cities and just hope for the best.

Changing the design and management of cities is up against several significant barriers: plain inertia (we have always done it this way!); sometimes codes and regulations that prevent alternative practices; and perception (whether real or not) that conventional designs are what the public wants. I am utterly convinced that the way we turn this ship around is to have model developments and model yards in every city in Florida. That one developer or one homeowner that does something different allows people to "see" what can be done. I have found that these models help to create a buzz and interest in alternative practices. Even as a potential homebuyer, one can ask the right questions to determine the "greenness" level of a subdivision. However, to get that one model subdivision or yard in a neighborhood, local government policies and planning strategies must create the enabling conditions. Regulators can use "sticks" but I suggest using "carrots," i.e., incentive-based polices where adopters get a financial benefit. Incentive-based policies help get the ball rolling.

There are many opportunities for urbanites to help endangered species. For example, if you live in or near scrub habitat and a population of Florida-Scrub Jays live nearby, you and your neighbors should be vigilant in keeping cats indoors; also, residents should be supportive of nearby prescribed burns that help to preserve the habitat for this species. For people living on or near springs and coastal waters, individual actions can save the West Indian Manatee. The greatest threat to West Indian Manatees is watercraft collisions; thus slowing boats down around known Manatee areas is important. In addition, irrigation and fertilizer impacts Manatee habitat in several ways. If the flow of water to the ocean is reduced (because of ground water sources being used for irrigation), then seagrass beds begin to degrade and Manatees starve. Further, reducing fertilizer usage and irrigation can reduce nutrient levels in stormwater runoff and this can help improve the health of springs, which are used by Manatees during the winter.

To learn more about biodiversity and green development, The Green Leap: A Primer for Conserving Biodiversity in Subdivision Development is a book with more detailed information for politicians and citizens alike. Also, check out the Living Green TV show with 30-minute videos that address various sustainable solutions. Finally, the Department of Wildlife's Extension web site gives excellent information about Florida's wildlife.

First Published as part of University of Florida's Public Interest Education Blog Series

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