Federal Court Found Federal Agencies failed to comply with Endangered Species Act in Wetland Permitting Program in Florida.

Federal Court Found Federal Agencies failed to comply with Endangered Species Act in Wetland Permitting Program in Florida.

A significant victory for environmental conservation occurred when a Federal Court ruled in favor of multiple environmental groups in a case against the EPA and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife. The case, which dates back to December 2020 during the final days of the Trump Administration, challenged the transfer of the permitting process under section 404 of the Clean Water Act to the State of Florida. The court found that this transfer violated provisions of the Endangered Species Act, which safeguards threatened and endangered species during the permitting process.

In January 2021, seven environmental organizations, represented by Earth Justice, filed a lawsuit against the EPA, contesting the wetland permitting transfer to Florida. This coalition, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Miami Waterkeeper, and the St. Johns Riverkeeper, argued that the move would “degrade and ruin Florida’s natural landscape, all in violation of federal environmental laws.”

While the recent court ruling addressed the violation of the Endangered Species Act, unresolved issues related to the Clean Water Act and Administrative Procedure Act are still ongoing. Restoring the protection provided by the Endangered Species Act is crucial to ensuring that agencies adhere to laws aimed at protecting wetland ecosystems and drinking water across the state.

A preliminary injunction, requested by Earth Justice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club in December of the previous year, came at a crucial time when Florida was in the process of permitting development projects that could have damaged Florida panther habitats and imperiled other species in Southwest Florida, such as the crested caracara. Some of these projects were planned in critical wildlife corridor areas containing essential wetlands.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman expressed satisfaction with the court’s recognition that Florida cannot ignore the law regarding endangered species protection.

“St. Johns Riverkeeper is pleased the court recognized that Florida can’t ignore the law when it comes to endangered species protection,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman. “Whenever the state reviews permits from people who want permission to impact our critical wetland ecosystems, they need to follow the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.”*

Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife, highlighted the significance of wetlands as the lifeblood of Florida.

“Wetlands are the lifeblood of Florida, providing essential habitat to the world’s only population of the critically endangered Florida panther and many other rare and endemic species, all found within one of the most biologically diverse states in the country,” said Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife.*

The transfer of permitting power to the state of Florida was initially proposed during Rick Scott’s administration, aiming to expedite permit issuance, but it wasn’t until DeSantis administration that it came to fruition. However, concerns arose regarding the potential degradation of wetland ecosystems, lack of oversight from federal agencies, and insufficient staffing in Florida to handle the increased workload associated with issuing more development permits.

*As published on news released issued by the Center for Biological Diversity on February 16, 2024 www.biologicaldiversity.org

It’s that time of the year for Manatees

It’s That Time Of The Year For Manatees

By Reinier Munguía

As temperatures drop in Florida, our beloved manatees embark on their migration towards warmer water sources. Traditionally, these sources comprised Florida springs, maintaining a consistent temperature range of 70 to 88 degrees. However, in the present era, manatees seek any available sources that offer them the desired warmth and comfort. This includes power plants and their associated warm water outfalls. Currently two-thirds of all manatees depend on these artificial warm water sources, as most of the springs have been blocked by dams, have reduced waterflows or are extensively used for recreation. This leaves the manatees with limited alternatives, and the future of these water sources may also be jeopardized with the ongoing phase-out of power plants and their replacement with solar projects. This underscores the critical need for discussion, as the well-being of manatees relies heavily on these warm water sources. Without access to these wintering sites, manatees face the potential threat of cold stress, posing a significant risk to their survival.

Over the course of two years, I had the privilege of working on a project centered around the Ocklawaha and Silver rivers, bringing me in close proximity to manatees and the challenges they confront. During an exploration of the Silver River, I encountered Millie, a renowned female manatee with a rich history. Millie was initially spotted at a power plant in Brevard County in 1980, and since then, researchers have meticulously tracked her movements along the east coast of Florida, ranging from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to the Upper St. Johns River. Notably, Millie has garnered recognition for nurturing at least nine calves, with the first born in 1985 and the most recent in 2004. In the winter of 2014-2015, she was observed nursing an orphan at Blue Spring.

On that particular day, Millie likely traversed the Buckman lock at the Rodman Dam to access the Silver River, where she could find abundant warm water and indulge in one of her favorite foods, eelgrass. However, navigating through the lock system poses potential challenges and dangers, as there is a risk of being trapped inside the lock for an extended period.

Recently, during a visit to the South Bay Boat Ramp in Lake Okeechobee, I was surprised to encounter a manatee feeding on water lettuce. This raises questions about whether the manatee would successfully make its way out of the lake in time to locate a warm water refuge. Such scenarios prompt reflection on the impact of human activities on other species as we strive to enhance our own lifestyles.

Over the past few years, various initiatives have been undertaken to enhance access to warm water. These include the dredging of the Fanning Springs run in the Suwanee River and the replanting of seagrasses in the Weeki Wachee Springs, aiming to offer a vital food source for manatees during the winter. If you’re interested in supporting manatees, here are a few things you can do:


Minimize fertilizer usage: Runoffs from fertilizers are associated with algae blooms that contribute to red tide and large-scale mortality of marine life, such as fish, sea turtles, dolphins, and manatees.

Exercise caution and reduce speed: When operating a boat, adhere to designated no-wake zones and lower your speed when manatees are present.

Protect sea grass beds: Avoid shallow waters to prevent harm to sea grass beds from boat propellers.

Give them space: When snorkeling or diving near manatees, always maintain a safe distance, allowing them ample room to move, and refrain from approaching or touching them.

You might be wondering about the connection between the residents of Polk County and manatees. Well, the explanation is both straightforward and intricate. Although situated far from the ocean and the rivers frequented by manatees, Polk County holds the origin of five crucial rivers that eventually flow into manatee habitats.

For instance, the Peace River serves as a vital water source for the Charlotte Harbor Estuary, where numerous manatees rely on seagrass for sustenance. Unfortunately, these seagrasses are negatively affected by an excess of nutrients in the water, stemming from practices such as over-fertilizing lawns, septic tank leaks, and various pollutants entering the water. What occurs upstream has repercussions for all the organisms downstream.

Take the Hillsborough River as another example, originating in Polk and concluding in Tampa Bay, another highly significant Manatee Area. It’s essential to recognize that our actions, even though we reside far from the ocean, have a substantial impact on it.


Want to see some manatees? Here are some places you may want to visit.

Manatee Vieweing Center
6990 Dickman Rd, Apollo Beach, FL 33572

Three Sisters Springs
601 Three Sisters Springs Trail, Crystal River, FL 34429

Blue Spring State Park
2100 W. French Ave. Orange City FL 32763

Panthers stressing the need for wildlife corridors and ecopassages

Panthers stressing the need for wildlife corridors and ecopassages

The latest reports of four Florida Panthers being lost in a single week serve to highlight the pressing concern that our ongoing development and population trends are pushing this iconic species toward extinction. So far this year, 12 panthers has lost their life to vehicle collisions. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission currently estimates the panther population to range between 120 and 230 individuals, with a significant portion residing south of the Caloosahatchee River.

On November 6, a juvenile male Panther was struck by a vehicle in Hendry County, and the following day, a young female suffered the same fate in Glades County. Later that week, on Sunday, tragedy struck again with two separate incidents of panther fatalities due to vehicle collisions. The first incident involved a 3-year-old male in Hendry County on CR 833, while the second incident, just a few hours later, claimed the life of a 4-year-old male in Collier County. This has been one of the deadliest weeks for the species since 2021 when three panthers were killed on the same day, again by vehicle collisions.

Florida has experienced a 1.9% increase in its human population between July 2021 and July 2022, surpassing 22 million residents. This surge has led to the expansion of land and roads to accommodate the growing population, posing a threat not only to panthers but also to numerous other species. During a recent visit to the Everglades and the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve, I had the opportunity to travel along the renowned Tamiami Trail. In a stretch of less than 30 miles, I encountered three deceased alligators and over 20 birds, including a Barred Owl and various wading birds, along with a few raccoons—all victims of vehicle collisions.

Florida not only attracts retirees but also individuals seeking to experience its rich wildlife. However, the question arises: are we adequately safeguarding this biodiversity as we encroach upon their habitats? A new initiative is on the horizon aiming to establish one of the most extensive conservation areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has introduced the Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area Initiative as a response to climate change impacts and the rising population in Florida. This undertaking seeks to address the displacement of wildlife from coastal regions due to increased human activity, offering crucial corridors along four watersheds. Such connectivity is essential for species like Florida Panthers, black bears, and deer, among others.

However, designating extensive wildlife areas with major roads running through it may not fully address the issue of vehicle collisions. Additional initiatives are required to ensure the safe passage of wildlife over or under existing roads. California is leading the way with the construction of the world’s largest wildlife bridge over Highway 101, a stretch traversed by nearly 300,000 vehicles daily. Interestingly, the construction of this bridge was prompted by the safe crossing of a Mountain Lion (P22) across the twelve-lane highway, while twenty other mountain lions were not as fortunate. I recently came across news about a similar bridge project slated for implementation in Polk County, Florida, spanning the I-4 corridor between Lakeland and Orlando. If realized, this would be the state’s first “wildlife-only” overpass. I sincerely hope this project materializes, given the significant threat posed to wildlife by the high volume of vehicles on that highway

Florida has a well-established reputation for grappling with road-related wildlife challenges, evident from turtles crossing roads in Tallahassee, leading to the development of the Lake Jackson Ecopassage, to the Paynes Prairie ecopassage established in response to Archie Carr’s discovery of over 765 snakes killed by vehicles on US 441.While is not all good news for Florida Panthers today, there’s hope for a better future.

P.S.> Just as this article was being finalized, another panther got struck on US 27 in Glades County, making it the 5th panther killed in November, raising the total for this year to 13 individuals.

Lakeland Highlands Scrub

Lakeland Highlands Scrub Preserve

Located in the southern region of Lakeland, the Lakeland Highlands Scrub stands as one of the few remaining undeveloped scrub habitats within the Lakeland Ridge. Similar to the Lake Wales Ridge, this ridge was created through the accumulation of sand during periods of changing sea levels millions of years ago when most of Florida was submerged in water. Today, these ridges exist as sandy islands confined by land, in contrast to their state 25 million years ago when they were surrounded by water.

This property showcases various natural communities, such as xeric hammock, scrubs, and scrubby flatwoods. As you venture into the preserve through the Shady Oak trail, you’ll notice an oak scrub characterized by the presence of highly contorted oak trees, indicating the effects of drought stress. The trail offers a wide, unobstructed path, largely devoid of vegetation because of the ample shade cast by the oak trees. In this environment, you can encounter various amphibians, such as the oak toad and the pinewood treefrog, as well as reptiles, including the yellow rat snake and the tiny ground skink. Decomposing trees offer plentiful habitat for insects and fungi to thrive, with a rapid colonization, especially following periods of rain. Additionally, you can spot Saw Palmettos, American Beautyberry, and Muscadine grapes distributed across the region.

As you reach the end of the Shady Oak trail, you’ll encounter the Lichen Loop trail, an area predominantly characterized by dwarf live oaks, sand live oaks, and Chapman oaks, with the ground adorned by an abundance of mosses and lichens. This environment provides an excellent opportunity to observe some of the common year-round birds, such as the Carolina Wren, White-eyed vireo, Northern mockingbird, and Northern Cardinal. Later in the autumn, you’ll also witness the presence of migratory species like the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black & White warbler, Eastern Phoebe and Gray Catbird.

To the west, a boardwalk extends through an ephemeral wetland, a very important water source for wildlife. These wetlands are vital breeding grounds for both insects and amphibians. Larval stages of damselflies and dragonflies, as well as frog tadpoles, rely on the presence of water free from predators to complete their journey to adulthood. If the hydroperiod, or the duration of water presence, persists for a long time, numerous water plants that had remained dormant in the dry substrate will start growing again. Throughout the year, you’ll come across common plant species like Spatterdock, Carolina Redroot, and water lilies thriving in the marsh, while seasonal plants like the Smooth Beggarticks beautify the marsh during the autumn season.

During the wet season, a variety of reptiles are drawn to the pond. You may come across Florida Red-bellied Turtles, Banded Watersnakes, and even alligators in the marsh when conditions are favorable. Additionally, several mammal species are attracted to the pond, including White-tailed Deer, Common Raccoons, Virginia Opossums, and occasionally, Bobcats. In the vicinity of the wetland, you can find amphibians such as the American Bullfrog, Leopard frog, Cricket Frog, Green treefrog, and the Little grass frog.

The boardwalk marks the beginning of the Tortoise Loop Trail, which leads you through open scrubland dominated by oaks, palmettos, grasses, and goldenrods. The terrain features open sandy patches where various species of flowering plants, many of which are unique to Central Florida Scrub, can be observed. This area is favored by reptiles like the Six-line Racerunner, Eastern Fence Lizard, and the Gopher Tortoise, which is perhaps the most iconic reptile species in the scrub. As a keystone species, the Gopher Tortoise, with its extensive burrow system, provides habitat for nearly 300 other animal species. Snakes like the Eastern Rattlesnake and the Coachwhip seek refuge in the burrows created by the Gopher Tortoise.

The Gopher Tortoise primarily feeds on a variety of plants, including the pads and fruits of the Prickly Pear Cactus. Along the trail, you’ll encounter numerous flowering plants, including the yellow blossoms of the Sandhill St. John’s-Wort, Coastal Plain Honeycombhead, and Slender Goldentop, interspersed with Shortleaf Gayfeathers and Blazing-Stars. These flowers attract various nectar-feeding insects, including several species of bees and butterflies. Predatory insects and arachnids can be observed in many of these flowering plants. Keep an eye out for Green Lynx, Jumping, and Crab Spiders within the yellow blooms. The preserve is home to over 20 species of spiders. Praying mantises can also be found, along with a variety of dragonflies.Similar to most scrub habitats, mammals are typically elusive during daylight hours, as they tend to conduct the majority of their foraging activities during the cooler nighttime hours. However, if you’re patient and observant, you can spot a wide array of other creatures that inhabit the Lakeland Highlands Scrub  during the day by paying attention to the smaller details.

Plants & Wildlife of Lakeland Highlands Scrub

Where Are the Pollinators?

Where Are The Pollinators?

By Reinier Munguia

Recent explorations of nearby natural areas have sent shivers down my spine. Although it is widely acknowledged that our world is grappling with a severe decline in pollinators, I wasn’t prepared to personally witness this phenomenon. As a nature photographer I have documented wildlife in Florida and around the world for over twenty years. Having documented nature from the smallest of insects to the largest of mammals I consider myself really lucky for each of these encounters. The time spent outdoors observing nature has provided me with information to understand the factors affecting natural process.

When I first moved to Polk County in 2003, I was surprised by the abundant insect diversity I encountered while exploring trails in places like the Green Swamp or the Lake Wales Ridge. Even urban parks were rich sources of beetles, stinkbugs, butterflies, and bees. Those were the days when daily thunderstorms were the norm after 2 pm. However, I observed a shift as time went on, marked by less predictable weather patterns. Tropical storms grew more intense, and seasonal weather exhibited fluctuations, ranging from cooler-than-normal springs to milder winters. All these weather-related factors significantly affect insect populations, their foraging capabilities, and their reproductive success. To compound matters, there was a significant decline in honey bee colonies across the country, and these bees are crucial to food production. Fortunately, the United States is home to nearly 4,000 bee species, with nearly half of them specializing in pollen or pollination tasks, although none of them produce honey or live in colonies.

This summer, I chose to carry out insect surveys in various areas that had previously teemed with insect activity. To my surprise, even some of the most commonly encountered insect species were noticeably absent. Both cotton-stainers and stinkbugs were present in diminished numbers, and various butterfly species were also scarce. Disregarding the impact of weather conditions, it becomes evident that human activities are significantly contributing to the decline of pollinators, and a multitude of interconnected factors are in play. The reduction in insect populations can primarily be attributed to habitat loss and the widespread use of pesticides. Any alteration in the utilization of natural land inevitably affects all the species reliant on that specific piece of land. The expansion of urban areas plays a major role in the loss of biodiversity, while poorly regulated large-scale farming and ranching operations exacerbate this decline. Among these factors, the use of pesticides appears to be the most harmful contributor to the decline in pollinator populations.

However, attributing the problem solely to these two factors may lack foresight. Our human lifestyle choices are jeopardizing insect populations. In Florida, homes are renowned for their luxurious lawns and elaborate landscapes featuring non-native ornamental plants that offer no support to insect populations. An increasing number of individuals are opting to remove their trees out of concern for potential damage caused by trees during storms. Insurance companies exert pressure on their policyholders to eliminate trees that could result in insurance claims. The increasing number of roads and automobiles also represents a significant risk to biodiversity, including pollinators. While many individuals can easily recognize the impact of vehicular collisions on the mortality of birds or mammals, few may have considered the extent to which insects are killed by vehicles on a daily basis. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service has estimated that between 89 and 340 million birds die annually in the U.S. due to vehicle collisions. Given these figures, one can only imagine the multitude of insects meeting their demise in your car’s radiator.

Although we have multiple choices to secure the survival of upcoming generations of pollinators, the solution begins with us, right at home, by creating the essential habitats. This can be achieved simply by reducing our lawns by planting pollinator-friendly flowering plants, establishing water features that can serve as a resource for insects, especially those with a water-dependent life stage, and minimizing the use of pesticides in our immediate surroundings. Additionally, supporting land conservation and preservation is crucial to guarantee that our pollinators and other forms of life have access to the resources they require, resources that we can also enjoy.

Pure Golden Green Sweat Bee
One of various species of pollinating bees native to the southeastern United States. 

Poey’s Furrow Bee
This bee is the workhorse of pollen transfer.

Palamedes Swallowtail
This bee is the workhorse of pollen transfer.