Wildlife in the hard-hit Gulf region is most imperiled by human activity
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2005:
Hurricane Katrina first hit wildlife along the east coast of Florida.
“About 200 loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings born on
Hutchinson Island were unable to crawl through deposits of sea grass
washed ashore by the storm,” Palm Beach Post staff writer Kimberly
Miller reported. “Beachgoers from Delray Beach south found about two
dozen hatchlings that experts believe made it into the water, but
were spit back worn out onto the beach by the waves.”
Treated for dehydration and exhaustion by the Gumbo Limbo
Environmental Complex in Boca Raton and the Marinelife Center in Juno
Beach, most were returned to the sea within days.
There they encountered a new threat. After hurricanes the
National Marine Fisheries Service often suspends the requirement that
shrimpers must use turtle exclusion devices (TEDS) on their nets,
because floating debris often fouls TEDS and tears nets.
The timing of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma meant
that the TED rule was continuously suspended from September 26 to
Meanwhile, as Katrina roared westward, about 50 sea turtle
nests were destroyed along the Alabama coast. Habitat for the
endangered Alabama beach mouse and red-cockaded woodpecker was also
Rita and Wilma did similar damage on Caribbean islands and
along the coast of Mexico.
“Sea turtles are well-adapted to survive even intense natural
disasters such as hurricanes,” noted Janice Blumenthal of the Cayman
Islands Department of Environment. “It is human impacts such as
accidental capture in shrimp nets, hunting turtles and eggs,
long-line fishing, and loss of nesting and feeding habitat which
threatens sea turtles with extinction.”
“Hurricane Katrina washed away sea turtle eggs, tore holes
in beaches and drowned alligator nests in the Everglades,” observed
David Fleshler of the Florida Sun-Sentinel. “But scientists and
environmental officials expect most of the effect to be temporary.”
Agreed Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
biologist Thomas Eason, “Wildlife in Florida have co-evolved with
hurricanes for thousands, if not millions of years. Bears, deer,
and panthers hole up on some high ground or find a safe spot and
weather the storm. Butterflies wedge themselves into tree hollows,
sharks head to open water, and migratory birds delay flights.”
Among the 120 nonmigratory Mississippi sandhill cranes at the
Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Gautier, 31
of 32 with radio transmitters survived Katrina and Rita, biologist
Scott Hereford told Gary Holland of the Biloxi Sun Herald–but 31 of
the 35 observation posts on the refuge were damaged or destroyed.
“The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in charge of 16
now-closed refuges along the Louisiana coast, said the storms
reduced the Breton National Wildlife Refuge from more than 18,000
acres to barely 9,000, and caused $94 million worth of damage to
facilities,” wrote Dina Capiello of the Houston Chronicle.
While missing major cities, Rita actually hit protected
habitat harder than Katrina, “wreaking havoc on more 300,000 acres
of state and federal wildlife refuges in southwest Louisiana,
pushing the salty Gulf of Mexico into freshwater marshes, washing
away levees, killing animals, and possibly further eroding fragile
coastal areas,” wrote Richard Burgess of the Baton Rouge Advocate.
“The largely rural region hit by Rita is home to four federal
and three state refuges,” Burgess wrote, “from the 124,511-acre
Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron Parish to the 9,000-acre
Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, set aside in 2001 as habitat
for the Louisiana black bear.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom MacKenzie
guesstimated that the damage from Rita would cost about $41.7 million
Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries staff told Jason Brown
of the Lafayette Advertiser that the hurricanes might cost the state
hunting and fishing industry $2.3 billion over the next two
years–about 16% of the expected gross.
Two weeks before the November 1 opening of the 2005 Louisiana
deer season, basic hunting license sales were down 56%, and big
game permit sales were down 65%.
Near Cameron, Louisiana, high water made state highway 27
an evening haunt of turtles and alligators, the latter apparently
hunting nutria, reported Jennifer Steinhauer of Associated Press.
At Moss Point, Mississippi, the Gulf Coast Gator Ranch lost
about 200 alligators. About 80 were recovered during the next
six weeks. The same ranch lost 30 alligators during Hurricane
Georges in September 1998, Associated Press recalled.
“The manatees who grazed in Lake Pontchartrain before
Hurricane Katrina haven’t been seen since,” Janet McConnaughey of
Associated Press noted on October 13, “but eight dolphins were
leaping in the lake this week.”
Observed Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation executive
director Carlton Dufrechou, “If the big critters are back, the lake
is definitely coming back.”
Dufrechou pointed out that the dolphins and flocks of pelicans
soaring over the lake appeared to be feeding successfully, an
indication that the food chain had survived.