Florida's Big Bend Wildlife Refuges
Some would say that St. Vincent is the ideal wildlife refugean island with no human habitation, accessible only by boat, and wild. Its habitat consists of over 12,000 acres of lakes, marshes, dunes, and pine and hardwood communities giving protection to unique sub-tropical understory species. Occupying one of the largest northern Gulf Coast barrier islands, St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge is 500 yards off-shore not far from the city of Apalachicola, Florida and, therefore, an easy target for Gulf storms. The refuge headquarters had to be relocated to Apalachicola after it was washed away from its mainland site across from the island by hurricane Kate in 1984.
Established in 1968, the refuge was intended as a sanctuary for waterfowl, the majority of which are resident wood ducks and migrating blue winged teal. But refuge managers soon learned of the amazing variety of other wildlife that the island sustains and management is now directed at preserving the full diversity of plant and animal communities.
Great egrets, snowy egrets, tri-colored herons, and little blue herons nest in the island rookeries. Snowy plovers and American oystercatchers nest on the beaches. Wood storks stop for nourishment. Seaside sparrows nest in huge numbers and neotropical birds stop for food and shelter during spring and fall migrations. Over 260 birds species have been logged on the refuge. Christmas bird counts of 100 species are typical.
Other documented wildlife includes 10 amphibians, 34 reptiles, 18 fishes, and 21 mammal species. Over 300 alligators have been tallied in August censuses. Loggerhead turtles use the island's Gulf beaches to lay eggs in their buried nests. During the summer of 1997, 59 turtle nests were found in the daily beach patrols done by the refuge staff, close to the all-time record number of 65 nests, each containing as many as 100 eggs. Plants on the island include 15 species that are listed as threatened by the state of Florida.There is even a family of red wolves living on the island.
The island was named in the 1600s by missionaries and ended up in the early 1900s becoming a private hunting ground with a collection of exotic game animals. The zebras and elands are gone, but the imported sambra deer still roam mostly in the island's marshes, leaving the drier land for the smaller white-tailed deer. Sambra deer are an elk native to southeast Asia and can weigh up to 700 pounds. Recognizing the importance of the island habitat to future wildlife populations, The Nature Conservancy bought it in 1968 for $2.2 million, a sizable increase over the $140,000 that the Loomis brothers paid to buy it in 1948 to continue the hunting preserve. The property was later bought from the Conservancy with Migratory Bird Conservation Funds to establish the refuge.
The pride that refuge manager Don Cosin takes in his refuge is obvious, in part because of the loving care of the island by his maintenance worker pair, Robert and Tommy Gay. The brothers have a long and close relationship with St. Vincent, having been born and raised there and boarding on the mainland to attend school on weekdays while their father was caretaker for the former island owner.
"They know and love the island well," says Cosin who marvels at their mechanical, boating, and aluminum working skills and their ability to modify refuge equipment no matter what the special needs. Assistant manager Randy Cordray says the devotion they have for the area was made clear to him when one of the brothers took his vacation in a campground within sight of the island!
Besides the inventorying of wildlife and general maintenance, Cosin and his small staff manipulate water levels and conduct prescribed fires to maintain vegetation balances by emulating natural cycles. When in desirable locations, lightning fires are sometimes allowed to continue to burn all the while under the watchful eyes of the firefighters who are added to the staff during the fire season. On one occasion, however, a helicopter had to be called in to help fight a wild fire that was not controllable from the ground alone.
"You may hike along miles of beach without seeing any man-made structures or another person," says the refuge brochure. In fact there are some 14 miles of beaches and 80 miles of sand roads, many along the dune ridges that mark the ancient beaches left by fluctuating sea levels. As many as 2400 visitors boat to the island and walk the roads and beaches each year. In May, 5th and 6th graders from local schools are given interpretive tours and open house tours are given by the refuge in October. No motor vehicles are permitted.
Hunting on the island is used as a management method to reduce animal populations, particularly the deer which have no predators on the island. Seasonal fishing is allowed in the island's fresh water lake system from small boats that may be propelled with electric motors. Polling is necessary between lakes and low water can make access difficult.
Large crowds are not in the offing for St. Vincent NWR. To provide public accommodations would be expensive and the small size of the island refuge does not permit the necessary buffers to avoid wildlife disturbances. Cosin hopes, however, to install a nature trail and boardwalk through the salt marsh on the 86 acre refuge mainland parcel within sight of the island, a project that is on hold for lack of funds. But wildlife supporters can rejoice in the knowledge that this critical and unique habitat has the permanent protection of the National Wildlife Refuge system.
Primitive Is the Rule
Deer hunting on St. Vincent NWR is a substitute for natural predation. Manager Don Cosin gets concerned about the state of the habitat and the impact on other wildlife as the vegetarian deer populations climb. He uses hunting to avoid population unbalances. But hunters must abide by strict rules including primitive camping and the use of primitive weapons; muzzle loaders and bows.
Hunters can stay on the island for 3 days. They live in tents at 2 locations. Disabled are sometimes carried in by refuge staff. At the first night campfire, the refuge staff instructs the hunters on safety practices. They know beforehand that the deer must be dressed on the island and that they must pack in enough ice for a 150 pound animal. The hunters warn each other that everything packed in must be packed out, except animal remains which Kosin says are gone within days.
Departure from the island by 11 AM on the last day is strictly enforced. However, the hunters are warned never to leave at night. One party did not heed that caution. Their boat capsized. They lost all their belongings. The wind blew them back. Fortunately for them, refuge officials were there to give them the refuge they needed by returning them to the mainland.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication