Sunday, February 8, 2015

Maintaining and Protecting Pine Rocklands and Biodiversity

Miami Pine Rocklands Preservation Coalition Rally for the Rocklands
January 17, 2015_Copyright Sandy Koi

  The Importance of Maintaining and Protecting Natural Ecosystems, Especially the Pine Rocklands, an Environmentally Endangered Land

Biodiversity loss is occurring at an unprecedented rate, newly and aptly named the “defaunation” of our ecosystems. Urban interface areas, where the concrete meets the wild, are classic fields of controversy when conflicts between human wishes and endangered species are involved, and are occurring more and more frequently worldwide. This is especially troubling when the ecosystems supporting endangered, threatened, vulnerable and imperiled life forms are themselves under threat. When these geographical areas are also recognized as biodiversity hotspots globally, this devastation is a conservation concern of even greater import.

The foundations of life on this planet are literally upheld by the vast abundance and diversity of invertebrates, but are largely ignored for the services they perform. Insects and other invertebrate life forms occupy every trophic level, niche and habitat in existence; they perform requisite ecosystem services, including pollination, the cycling of organic material in both soil and water, atmospheric nutrient exchange, provide food resources for many other vertebrate and invertebrate life forms, control over-population levels of other vertebrate and invertebrate life forms, and provide innumerable other services that allow life to exist on the planet we inhabit.

So when people ask, “Why should we care? What good are they?!” We should respond as E.O. Wilson did when someone asked him why we should care about ants: “What good are YOU!?”

If you are not being a responsible consumer, recycling, eating local produce, supporting the environmental programs at your children’s schools, and all of those other humane, conscientious choices in everyday life, you are taking and putting nothing back into the ecosystems that support us. We live in a terrarium. As one person’s sign stated at the Rally, “There is no planet B.” to which to escape.

Scientists demonstrate that more than half of monitored invertebrate populations of insects show a nearly fifty percent decline in abundance. Seventy-five percent of global food crops are pollinated by insects and terrestrial defaunation is cited as a major driver in ecological changes, playing a major part in the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event. Shortly after the term "defaunation" was coined late last year, marine biologists noted the same frightening loss of biodiversity and abundance of marine life in our oceans. In other words, we are losing species at an unprecedented rate.We do not seem to understand that we depend on the biodiversity in the natural environment to maintain a healthy planet.

The numbers and types of butterflies and moths is almost 8 times higher in undisturbed habitat than in disturbed sites, such as housing developments, roadways and shopping plazas. Climate change has also expanded or reduced potential range of many insects, but human-altered landscapes very often impact an animals’ ability to move across inhospitable habitat preventing them from reaching new establishment sites, even if they exist.

These non-native patches further inhibit some of these insects’ ability to disperse or to self-establish new colonies without assisted relocation. In addition, it is becoming increasing difficult to find suitable locations for re-location or assisted translocation because of increased habitat degradation. It has been stated that we may be reaching a point where restoration of species is no longer a viable alternative because of the anthropomorphic alteration of the remaining landscapes.

South Florida’s natural areas are rapidly diminishing, but as part of the Caribbean archipelago it is considered a hotspot for biodiversity and rates high for conservation priorities. Endemic plants, insects and animals are under the constant barrage of invasive non-native species, urban pollution, and the unnatural fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides required to maintain the heavily manicured non-native landscapes of many developments. Mosquito control spraying in occupied areas is necessary to protect humans from devastating diseases such as West Nile Virus; however, its impact on non-target insects has been shown to be detrimental to the insects that act as vital crop pollinators, the insects that are break down organic matter to form soil, and the insects that provide food resources for other wildlife, such as migrating birds.

Developers often choose to landscape with non-native, and sometimes invasive, ornamental plants, most of which do not contain nectar for insect pollinators, such as beetles, butterflies and moths, as well as birds. There are many other factors that affect butterfly survival as well, including food plants, weather and disease. But the destruction of the natural environment is one of the most ecologically expensive factors; when habitats are devastated, not only are larval host plants and native nectar sources destroyed, we also lose the biodiversity found in a coherent environment and these disrupted environments often create havens for non-native invasive plant and animal species, thus doing further damage.

Pine rocklands are distinctive to South Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas and contain unique plants and animals that are highly adapted to a rather harsh environment with a limestone substrate that is subjected to stochastic weather events, including hurricanes, floods and droughts. They are categorized as globally endangered by the Florida Natural Areas inventory and are considered “Environmentally Endangered Lands” (EELs) by Miami-Dade County. Has the county forgotten this somehow?!

Pine rocklands contain a rich biodiversity in flora and fauna. Hundreds of rare plants are endemic to this ecosystem. The Richmond tract, for example, contains over 280 taxa of native plants, including two federally endangered plants, including Small’s polygala and Deltoid Spurge. Thirty-three plants on this property are considered threatened or endangered by the State of Florida.

Eighteen species of butterflies are listed as imperiled, meaning that they are in need of urgent conservation action. Butterflies are highly regarded as model organisms for research in ecology and evolutionary and act as a surrogate for monitoring biological diversity and health in an ecosystem. (In other words, they are “the canary in the coal mine.”)

Florida Purplewing butterflies are now found in very isolated and small populations, one of which is the Coastguard pinelands next door to this property. Protecting the surrounding areas is vital for its continued survival. The Atala butterfly was called “the most conspicuous insect in semi-tropical Florida” in 1888, but by the early 1950’s the Atala was not only rare, it was feared to be extinct because of the destruction of its host plant and pine rockland ecosystem. It now thrives in the remaining pine rocklands, including this site and has adapted well to domestic gardens that provide the needed host plants for the butterfly and its offspring.

Home gardens located near these remnant preserves provide vital pathways that extend essential natural corridors IF the butterflies can get them. Although the host plant, coontie, is often used as an ornamental in landscaping commercial properties, if the butterfly finds the plants, the caterpillars will defoliate it, and the property managers usually resort to a pesticide for control. So even if the butterfly finds a new site, it is still potentially in peril.

Bartram’s Scrub Hairstreak and the Florida Leafwing were recently listed as Endangered by the federal government, and they live here and in the remaining pine rocklands. Bartram’s, the Florida Leafwing and the Atala butterflies all use specific host plants. The host for Bartram’s and the Leafwing is pineland croton, which is seldom found outside the remaining vestiges of pine rocklands in southeast Florida. It is not a plant likely to be found in any urban garden except for the most attentive of native plant enthusiasts. Even so, the proximity of those gardens to pine rockland fragments would practically be a pre-requisite for hosting a Bartram’s Scrub Hairstreak or a Florida Leafwing in a backyard garden.

Pine rocklands are increasingly under threat by developers and county commissioners who seem to wish to pave over what remains of this rare and unique ecosystem. Less than 2% of the original pine rocklands remain outside of Everglades National Park, The largest tract outside of Long Pine Key is Navy Wells, but the Richmond tract is the second largest, containing 21% of the remaining pine rocklands!

Another rare insect is the Miami Tiger Beetle, first described in 1934, but not seen again for over 70 years. It was rediscovered here in 2007 and there are many, many other plants and animals we could talk about!
Protecting this disappearing habitat and maintaining its ecological coherence to support the species living in it is of vital importance and the only ethical choice. Aldo Leopold wrote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

(References for these statements & data available on request!)

Happy Tu B'Shevat, called the "Birthday of the Trees", to all.

Richmond Pine Rocklands

Dear friends,
I know that all of us are incredibly busy these days, but if you could take a moment to send a letter, even if brief, to the county commissioners in Miami-Dade County, expressing disappointment and outrage about the decisions they are contemplating about destroying what remains of the Richmond Pine Rocklands, next to the Zoo Miami, it would be appreciated by those who live in this community. The neighborhood is NOT a slum and is not in need of "economic development", especially in the form of a Walmart, an LA Fitness and other retail shops, as well as hundreds of housing units.
I have attached a number of articles about the issue, as well as a brief paper I wrote concerning it, to help you with thoughts, and I will post all of this on my blog as well. Those of you who have participated in NABA counts or FNAI surveys know how important every remaining tract of green space is. Thank you for being the voice for the trees, the butterflies and the other creatures who live there (not to mention the humans who live in the neighborhood!) Send this to anyone you know who cares about our environment (and political ethics!)

Here's the addresses of the Miami-Dade Commissioners:

Remember the email addresses are district(1-13)

Actual letter address is:

Office of Commissioner (XXXXXXX)
Stephen P. Clark Government Center
111 NW 1st Street, Suite 220
Miami, Florida 33128

·         District   6 - Rebeca Sosa
·         District 10 - Javier D. Souto
·         District 11 - Juan C. Zapata
·         District 12 - Jose "Pepe" Diaz

Remember the email addresses are district(1-13)

Actual letter address is:

Office of Commissioner (XXXXXXX)
Stephen P. Clark Government Center
111 NW 1st Street, Suite 220
Miami, Florida 33128

 Here's an article from Sierra Club.
 Here's another from Eye on Miami.

Stand up for what is right!

And as an aside, yesterday at the Navy Wells Pine Rockland, we documented an Atala, a Florida Duskywing, Little Yellows, a Queen, Baracoa, a Three-spot Skipper, and others. The pine rocklands ROCK!

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

December 2014_Good news, bad news and ugly news

Two years have flown by at an amazing speed! I earned my Masters’ in entomology from the University of Florida in Gainesville, worked part time for USDA Biocontrol and later for the UF Vero Beach campus in the Medical Entomology Department (identifying non-target insects found in mosquito control experiments).

I am finally back in south Florida, living “deep in Dade” and working as the Biological Scientist in the Ornamental Entomology Department at the UF Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) campus in Homestead. (Note: the plants are ornamental, not the insects…although if you know insects, you know that they can be extremely ornamental and beautiful.See Tiger Beetle below. I think the department should be named ‘Ornamental Plant Entomology’, but no one asked me.)

I’ve continued to be involved with Atala colonies, and working more closely with NABA volunteers in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. We've had two amazing experiences with whole colony rescues coordinated with Palm Beach NABA volunteers in the last few months. 

In August,  Jeff Gagnon, the planning and zoning administrator for the City of Riviera Beach, contacted NABA about the fact that a city park by the beach was going to be razed and renovated, but a self-established Atala colony had ensconced itself in the perfect habitat there. We were surprised and very happy that he knew to contact us! By early September, Chris Lockhart from NABA Palm Beach did the preliminary scouting for us; shortly thereafter, Alana Edwards and me, and four of our student volunteers, went to the site and literally dug up and moved over sixty large (huge) coontie plants as well as over 50 Atala adult butterflies. Here's Jeff, Vince, me and Cristian at the site with a truckload of coonties and a cage full of adult butterflies:

We then schlepped the plants and bugs to their new home at the Robert J Huckshorn Arboretum, where Alana and her students had planted a wonderful butterfly garden, in Florida Atlantic University’s Honors' College in Jupiter. Within minutes of being released in the garden, the females were already scoping out ovipositing sites on the newly moved coonties, which were not yet in the ground!  Cristian dug sixty+ holes for the plants and a second group of FAU students installed the coonties later in the day. 

This highly successful rescue was made possible by many people, and I especially thank Jeff and the City of Riviera Beach for being both ecologically sensitive and conscientious about the Atalas on the property. The good news here is that Jeff and the City of Riviera Beach want their colony back when the renovations are complete. We will be very happy to accommodate them!

And then, within a month, yet ANOTHER self-established Atala colony was due to be destroyed by a commerical developer! Lana Edwards of the Atala NABA chapter in Palm Beach had been monitoring this very urban site for us for many years. Located in an abandoned parking lot, surrounded by concrete, heavily trafficked streets, businesses and residential housing, this seemed like an unlikely place to find a flourishing self-established Atala butterfly colony. But that is exactly what this site was. 

The Atalas had found a goldmine of large healthy coontie plants, huge trees for shade, and abundant nectar in the alley-weeds and trees adorning the compact site. The Atala population erupted and crashed over the years as normal, but was firmly ensconced and we considered it a permanent site for many years.

Lana just happened to be at the site counting Atalas (probably bent over in a highly uncomfortable position), when a man approached her to ask, with puzzled curiosity, “What are you doing?” 

She explained patiently that she was counting the eggs, larvae and pupae of the Atala butterfly, an imperiled species, and had been doing so for about ten years. She told him that the colony was self-established, and how important it was for the conservation of the species….At that point, the man revealed that he was the superintendent for a developer located in Jacksonville that had recently bought the property and that they were about to raze it in a week! Yikes! Lana sent out emergency emails for help from all.

NABA volunteers had to act fast again…..very fast! Lana convinced the superintendent Rodney to allow us three weeks to remove not only the butterflies, but as many of the beautiful coontie plants as possible. If the coontie plants at Riviera Beach were huge, the coontie plants at this Delray site were enormous. And there were a lot of them. 

Immediately, NABA volunteers from Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade were called in (AGAIN!) and many individuals came to the rescue. Literally truck load after truck load of coontie plants were removed from the site; the rootstocks on these plants were deep and heavily entangled. It was back-breaking work that took days to accomplish. You can read more about it in the Dahoon, the newsletter for the Palm Beach Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society here.
I removed a large number of adult butterflies to a safe haven in Miami, but the immatures (eggs, larvae and pupae) were removed with the plants and relocated in many new locations to start new colonies. Any remaining adult butterflies dispersed by themselves to establish new sites nearby. Volunteers graciously counted the immature insects for me so that we could have a final count of the last denizens of this colony. (That data is still being processed.) 

Unfortunately, this colony will probably not be reintroduced once the new development is in place, unless they decide to plant coontie as an ornamental which case, we may get called in to rescue the bugs again when the caterpillar herbivory makes the new owner's unhappy about the plant's appearance.

So although it is very sad that two healthy, large self-established Atala colonies had to be removed, but it is better to be relocated than destroyed! And it was beneficial to a number of new sites: the locally owned “Swinton Community Garden” was one recipient (the owner, Michiko Kurisu, designed the Morikami Museum, so the butterflies truly have an awesome new site to live in). 

Another new colony was established in the Town of Wellington, and several new colony introductions and re-introductions took place via the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources, including Delray Oaks Natural Area, Pondhawk Natural Area, High Ridge Scrub Natural Area and Jupiter Ridge.
Volunteers from the Native Plant Society pitched in as well, and a number of private individuals benefited, too. The “pay” for all that hard labor was a few plants and some larvae to start or compliment their Atala gardens. NABA was also able to raffle off some of the plants for fund-raisers…there were hundreds of coonties and plenty to share with the three counties. 
One of the large coontie plots located in the parking lot; each section was filled with scores of very mature entangled plants that took a lot of muscle to remove!

 ZooMiami even benefited as volunteers made the trip from south Miami to Delray Beach to dig up their own native coonties for the endangered pinelands. A group of us planted over 250 host plants for the Atala, Bartram’s Scrub Hairstreak, the Florida Leafwing and the Florida Duskywing a few weeks later. 

Frank Ridgely (standing in black shirt) and I (kneeling at the coontie) explaining various aspects of the coontie plants to volunteers who helped install hundreds of host plants for the endangered and imperiled butterflies located on the properties around ZooMiami.
And ….Would that other such perfect butterfly habitats were being so carefully handled:

Most of you have most likely heard about the “Richmond Pineland” property by ZooMiami being sold by the University of Miami to a developer, who wants to bulldoze acres of the land to build a housing development, a Walmart and a retail shopping mall! The property is one of the largest remaining pine rockland habitat in Miami-Dade County outside of Everglades National Park, and represents a big part of the 2% which remains.
Florida Duskywing (Ephyriades brunnea), taken by Barbara DeWitt, at an FNAI survey we did on the Coast Guard property, in danger now what I consider to be a madman's desire to put an amusement park ("Miami Wilds") in its place.

The area by ZooMiami includes the Richmond tract, the Coast Guard Communications Station, and smaller tracts of pine rocklands still belonging to the University of Miami. It is home to not only the ‘imperiled’ Atala butterfly, but also two other pineland denizens, Bartram’s Scrub Hairstreak (Strymon acis bartrami) and the Florida Leafwing (Anaea troglodyta floridalis), both recently listed as ‘Endangered’ by the USFWS. In addition, this property is adjacent to the Coastguard pinelands, where the Florida Duskywing (Ephyriades brunnea floridensis), another imperiled butterfly can be found.

There are endangered Bonneted Bats (Eumops floridanus) on the site, and the Richmond pine rocklands only place in the world where you can see the beautiful green iridescent Miami Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scabrosa floridana). Tiger beetles are named for their aggressive stalking and lightning-fast predation. I added my name to the emergency petition submitted to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to get the Miami Tiger Beetle listed as federally endangered.This is one of those "ornamental" insects! Photo of the Miami Tiger Beetle by C. Barry Kingsley.

There are also plants located on the site that are listed as endangered! The deltoid spurge (Chamaesyce deltoidea) is there in the Richmond tract, which successfully stopped the destruction of Rockdale pine rockland many years ago, but it did not have to fight the mayor, the president of the University of Miami, the big bad dog developer, as well as seemingly the county itself! Times have changed very sadly. 

The Richmond tract also has Brickell-bush (Brickellia mosieri) and tiny polygala (Polygala smallii) growing in its limestone substrate. That is a harsh environment to survive, but the unique plants, insects and mammals evolved over millennia together. Destroying them for the sake of an amusement park and shopping plazas is just insane.

All parties seem to be oblivious to damage they are causing. The entire extent along SW 152 Street in Miami is an extremely valuable ‘corridor’ that hosts all of these butterflies, from the east coast to the furthest western boundary. There are not only remnant pinelands along the entire region, but there are many domestic gardens as well. One home near the zoo boasted a Martials Scrub Hairstreak (Strymon martialis) in their garden (host plant Florida Trema and Bay Cedar). 

And yet, this is the area the city wants to declare a slum and blight, so they have the excuse to bring “economic development” to the community. The community does not need or want this kind of development. I do not know one person who would voluntarily opt to have a Walmart or an amusement park in their back yard. Please help us stand up against this travesty against our remaining wildlife and ecosystems!

PLEASE join us all for a RALLY for the ROCKLANDS on January 17, 2014: 

We need as many of your to join hands as possible. Share the news on Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media you use.

For more background, and there is lots of twists to the story: