Sunday, February 12, 2012

Bone Headed Idea Being Pushed by Tampa's Lowery Park Zoo

Rep. Shawn Harrison
Proposes Exotic Animals On State Environmentsl Lands
 In case you haven’t heard, there are two bills being pushed by Tampa’s Lowery Park Zoo that, at first blush, may sound reasonable because most of us are simply ignorant. 
Slender Horned Gazelle

For example, what could be wrong with using our state lands - that were purchased for environmental preservation and restoration - to provide new homeland for poor animals that are close to extinction in other parts of the world like Wildebeests, Asian Buffalo, the Wild African Ass, Hooked-Lipped Rhinoceros, Slender Horned Gazelle, Western Giant Eland, Bactrian Camel, Bairds Tapir, etc., etc.?  
African Wild Ass

This is what HB 1117 and SB 1456 would allow if Rep. Shawn Harrison of Tampa (who sponsored the bill in the House) and the Lowery Park Zoo get their way.
Turns out there are a lot of things wrong with this idea and scientists are rattled.
Given all the problems this state already has with invasions of all sorts of exotic plants and animals that threaten our own delicate ecosystems, the idea is plain dumb if we listen to those who know.
Hooked-Nose Rhinocerous
The fear is that a legislature that is not exactly known for doing the right thing about dumb issues, even when educated, will do something really dumb here.
So, in the interest of giving you something to sink your teeth into, here’s an exchange between the zoo’s public response person and well respected scientist, Mary Barnwell, a former employee of SWFWMD where she pioneered many land management concepts that are today considered the “how to” by land managers around the state.
As email goes, you need to start at the bottom and read up if you want to see the full exchange.  But if you only want to learn what such a proposal could bring, just read Mary’s final response immediate hereafter.  Then you might be motivated to email your friendly, always available, and interested-only-in-your-opinions local legislator and tell him or her – in case they’re vacillating - what a truly boneheaded idea this is.
2/9/2012; 7:29:42 P.M.

From: Mary Barnwell
Dear Ms. Nelson,

Thank you for responding so quickly.  My understanding of the bill and the intent is not flawed.  Many people that are not directly involved in management of public land believe that there are "marginal" conservation lands, such as improved or semi-improved pasture, that are not important for either Florida wildlife or natural vegetation. I can assure you - with less than 1/2 of the needed habitat in the state preserved, and many of the areas that are protected under direct siege from organizations such as your own and other special interests, every square inch of our public lands is needed for wildlife, plants and ecosystem services. 
Bactrian Camel
As a public land manager for 17 years, I can assure you that those semi-improved and improved pasture lands are utilized as primary habitat by Florida wildlife, including federal and state protected species.  In addition to being a land manager, I am also a restorationist who has restored hundreds of acres of improved pasture back to functional native habitats.  Species that occur in pasture include gopher tortoise and its commendams (Florida mouse, gopher frog).  We have now found sand skinks, a federally imperiled species, are found in pasture more than they are found in their intact habitat. 
In Lake County, FL - FLorida scrub jays and sand skinks occur in these altered areas more than in natural areas of scrub and sandhill.  Burrowing owls use pasture almost exclusively, and a suite of rapidly declining sparrows also use pasture.  So do Florida sandhill cranes, which seem to prefer to nest in wetlands embedded in pasture, and SE American kestrels, as long as snags are kept standing.  In fact, the ability for African wildlife to alter the strature of vegetation is a key concern. 
In some pastures, for example, on land I managed in Marion County, scrub oaks that resprouted from land formerly logged and cleared for pasture became habitat for one of the most robust scrub-jay populations in the state.  Snags are also a key concern, since shortage of open habitat and sufficient cavities are reasons for declines of many cavity nesting birds. 
Another point is that exotic wildlife may potentially reduce groundcover vegetation - even if it is exotic turf grasses - sufficiently to reduce fire intensities and fire spread in pasture habitat.  Fire is essential in Florida ecosystems (and in altered areas with native wildlife), and anything that potentially alters fire patterns is an issue. 
Next I would like to address exotic vegetation.  We have no idea how exotic vegetation will respond to being fed on or dispersed by exotic wildlife.  A read of Invasion Ecology may instill in you an understanding of the complex ecosystem interactions between soils, plants and animals.  Since millions of dollars are spent in Florida trying to control exotic vegetation, introducing species that may even have co-evolutionary histories with some exotic plants that occur on our preserves could cause severe repercussions.  
Another concern is the potential for exotic species to introduce exotic disease and parasites into the population.  Please spare me a lecture about quarantines and veterinarian care, since I do know that these measures are not always sufficient to prevent contagion and epidemics. 
Finally the mere presence of African wildlife in Florida may have additional, more indirect consequences for native species that we are as of yet unaware.  Land managers are already battling a huge number of invasive plants and animals and we do not need any more problems or diversions.  Instead of worrying about another set of species, and how to monitor the impacts and decipher what is going on at all community levels, land managers needs to focus their scarce resources on what they are hired to do - protect and manage Florida's few scraps of natural habitat remaining.

Also, even if pasture is not important for native species or holistic management of our conservation lands, these altered areas are where other uses that are mandated by legislation and vital to the people of Florida can occur.  For instance, recreation-based uses such as trailheads, camping sites and picnic facilities, and equestrians staging facilities are placed.  Will the use of this land, such as at WRB in Green Swamp West, mean the area cannot be utilized by the public for other uses?  I have to assume that is the case, since how safe could it be for hikers and horseback riders to enjoy their activity on the same land utilized by large ungulates. 

Finally, even on areas where cattle are grazed, this is not the best use of conservation lands.  In fact, cattle have been associated with colonization & spread of exotic vegetation, and also seem to be closely affiliated with imported red fire ants (another species that may respond favorably to African savannah animals).  Cows collapse tortoise burrows, destroy wetland vegetation, cause damage to river banks and wetland edges.  In fact, the removal of cattle on private mitigation banks has actually resulted in an elevation of "lift" and is acceptable for additional mitigation credit.  The only reason it is not given the same status on public lands is because of the financial gain being had by county sheriffs', water management district board members, politician’s families, etc. 
If Lowry Park Zoo is concerned about doing the right thing instead of just looking after how to promote their own agendas and research projects, perhaps you should open your eyes and see whose company you are in.

Florida's public conservation lands are under siege and I as well as many of my colleagues and peers will not tolerate this anymore.  If Lowry Park Zoo staff and its supporting financiers are truly concerned about the wildlife in Florida, they will immediately withdraw this poorly thought out bill.  I would be happy to meet with backers of this proposal to educate them about the short-comings and unsuitability of our public lands for the purposes being proposed.  Otherwise I and people of like mind are prepared to mobilize and to target the accreditation entity to petition for revocation of Lowry Park Zoo's accreditation. 
After the Lex Salisbury incident, do you think that this kind of publicity is wise?  I hope you will spare us all this battle and do the right thing - withdraw your support for this bill, and convince any other partnering zoos to do the same. 

Mary Barnwell

Subject: RE: Contact Us Form Submission
Date: Thu, 9 Feb 2012 15:34:15 -0500
To: Mary Barnwell
Ms. Barnwell,

Thank you for your recent correspondence to Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo.  Please know that we welcome all comments, and have shared yours with the most appropriate staff.  We appreciate the opportunity to correct any misunderstanding you may have from news accounts of HB 1117 and SB 1456. The phrase “opening public lands to herds of African wildlife” makes for a sensational headline, but is not the intention of this bill.  The intention is not to open Florida’s wilderness, which in the opinion of so many who work at accredited zoos, aquariums, and other conservation organizations, should indeed be preserved in perpetuity.  The intention is to allow for space in existing pasture -- tracts already being grazed by domesticated livestock not at risk of extinction -- for other ungulate species that are at risk of extinction. Accredited zoos and aquariums are committed to doing what we can to ensure species survival locally and internationally, and to promote conservation of the natural habitats on which we all depend.
Rachel F. Nelson
Office of Public Affairs
Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo

To: Lowery Park Zoo
Subject: Contact Us Form Submission
 Wednesday, February 8, 2012 at 21:43:38

I am incredulous and dismayed at a pending request by Mr. Killmar, representing Lowry PArk Zoo, to the Florida legislature to allow exotic zoo animals to be released onto our precious public lands for research purposes.  Unless this request is immediately withdrawn, we will ensure that zoo visitors are made aware of the hypocrisy of your conservation agenda, and we will seek a boycott of the zoo.  We will also petition the American Zoological Accreditation entity to censure this action and review the zoo's accreditation.  Finally we will appeal to the City of Tampa for penalties.  
Again, we request immediate withdrawal of the legislation, and suspension of all future plans to use public conservation lands, intended to preserve FLORIDA'S DWINDLING WILDLIFE, for introduction/research on exotic species of any kind.  
Thank you.  
Mary Barnwell, M.S. Natural Resource Management


  1. Mr. V,

    Have you seen this post from Gov. Graham yet? Any comments?

    Legislature Taking Over the Water Management Districts

    1. Anonymous,
      Yes I have seen it. JD Alexander has gone ballistic. We are all in danger. Paul Dockery wrote on her Facebook – “It's official, I'm not really in the Florida Senate, I'm in the twilight zone.”

      Until this angry, vindictive, havoc wreaking, crazed excuse of a Florida Republican Senator is out of politics ... pray. -Sandspur