Protecting Florida's Wildlife

Cathie Bleck

In the beginning, Miami was a wonderland of all godly creatures both small and large. But then the swallowtail butterfly, Florida panther, Ghost Orchid and other natural wonders faced extinction caused by rampant development. Award-winning environmental journalist Craig Pittman reports on the efforts to save a trio of indigenous species and preserve a regional identity.

Every time I visit Miami, I see a city full of flash, a place of noise and neon, its vast network of highways jammed with drivers racing along as if they needed to be somewhere ten minutes ago. Sometimes, just for fun, I imagine I’m a visitor arriving in the 1880s. Things looked very different then, and not only because there were no cars. Chicago, Boston and New York were well-established­ cities, already thick with brick streets and bustling citizens. But not Miami.

No city by that name even existed yet. I can picture stepping off a sailboat—the only reliable way to get around South Florida back then—and finding nothing at the landing but a ramshackle hotel and trading post run by William Brickell. His building stands in a clearing that’s been hacked out of the tropical hammock at the mouth of a remarkably clear river, one the Seminole Indians have dubbed Miami, meaning “sweet water.”

I’d be known as a “swell,” because visitors seemed to wash in with every tide. Most were attracted by the clean air, the limpid bay and the abundance of game. Panthers prowled the surrounding wilderness at night. Deer and turkey filled the forest. Alligators, turtles and tarpon swarmed the shoreline. The luckier pioneers who were quick with a net or a rifle might haul in a delicious manatee to share with their neighbors. A good-sized one could feed a family for several days.

On land, every oak and mahogany tree was festooned with colorful orchids that dazzled, their petals painted with astonishing shades of yellow, orange and purple. During the day clouds of butterflies—magnificent swallowtails, zebra longwings and one unnamed species with a wingspread the size of a man’s hand—bobbed along with every breeze. At night, with no streetlights to banish the darkness, fireflies blinked like stars down from heaven.

Then, in 1896, everything changed.

Henry Flagler had made a fortune with Standard Oil and was spending it building a railroad line that slowly extended its reach down Florida’s east coast. At last, it arrived at the riverfront settlement­—incorporated months later as the city of Miami—and soon began carrying hordes of tourists, hunters, anglers, con men and more than a few land speculators. It would then return north loaded with goods. Mostly that meant citrus, but it also included millions of orchids harvested from all the oaks and mahoganies. Soon the trees were cut down, too, for use as lumber and to make room for the spread of houses, stores, offices and roads. The fireflies began to flicker out, killed off by the draining of their ponds and the insecticides sprayed around to kill the swarms of mosquitoes.

As more native wildlife disappeared, exotic animals and plants filtered in and flourished. Some invaders were imported into South Florida on purpose, like the melaleuca planted to dry up the Everglades. Some were unintentional or accidental arrivals, like the pythons that have spread through the River of Grass, or the green iguanas that thrive in the region’s usual warmth but freeze and fall from the trees like icicles when the temperature dips low enough.

Throughout the 20th century, Floridians began to notice these changes and to worry. In the early 1900s game warden Paul Kroegel­ contributed to the creation of America's first national wildlife refuge­ at Pelican Island on the east-central coast. Years later another Floridian, Nathaniel Pryor Reed, grew up amid the natural splendor of Jupiter Island and thus went on to help enact the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Nowadays Floridians are working hard to bring back what’s been lost. Take the butterflies, for example—the ones that were as big as a man’s hand.

The Schaus Swallowtail Butterfly

In 1911 a physician named William Schaus came to Miami­ to treat yellow fever victims. Wandering around, he noticed a gargantuan swallowtail fluttering among the torchwood and wild lime trees. Its chocolate brown wings were striped in yellow with a dash of blue. He wrote up a scientific description of what became known as the Schaus swallowtail butterfly. Within six decades, it would be classified as threatened under the law that Reed helped pass, then 14 years later, upgraded to endangered.

The Schaus swallowtail is an unusual butterfly, and not just because of its size. It has the rare ability to stop suddenly in midair and then fly backward to flee from birds, lizards and other predators. But it could not back away from the clouds of insecticide. Nor could it cope with the loss of habitat. By the ’80s the Schaus swallowtail seemed ready to flutter into extinction. A University of Florida professor named Thomas Emmel got permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to capture some females to launch a $50,000 captive-breeding program at the Florida Museum­ of Natural History in Gainesville.

Emmel scooped up his share of the rare butterflies in early 1992. Then in August, Hurricane Andrew nearly wiped out what was left of the wild population, meaning the butterfly’s future largely depended on Emmel’s captive-breeding project. Fortunately his efforts­ produced enough Schaus swallowtails that by 1995 he and another professor, Jaret Daniels, had about a thousand to release. Two years later there were 13 new wild colonies, including one in Miami.

But the $12,000 yearly budget for continuing the breeding and monitoring of the ones released dried up. There were other endangered species in dire straits. In 2008 federal officials declared the Schaus population “stable” and no longer in need of artificial assistance.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t stable at all. A nine-year drought in South Florida took its toll on the butterfly, which depends on a certain amount of rainfall for its survival. In 2012, to search for any remaining Schaus swallowtails, biologists dressed in head-to-toe mesh suits to ward off mosquitoes and spent the summer scouring the woods of Elliott Key island, part of Biscayne National Park near Key Biscayne.

They spotted just four. Only one was a female.

Alarmed by the news, federal officials approved Daniels catching more females to launch a fresh emergency captive-breeding program. But when he and his fellow scientists returned to Elliott Key, their nets came up empty. No females. No males, either.

They feared the Schaus—dubbed by one expert “the most charismatic­ butterfly in Florida”—was a goner, forever consigned to live only in textbooks. Fortunately, Daniels says, when they tried again in 2013, they found a few still flitting around Elliott Key. They collected 100 eggs and took them to the University of Florida, where Daniels and his staff were able to grow 1,000 larvae. In spring 2014 they released 11 adult females, four males and 308 larvae on Elliott Key in hopes of reestablishing the species in the wild.

Before releasing the butterflies, biologists marked each one on the wing with a Sharpie, writing a number and the letter “R”—1R, 2R and so forth. Next time you stop at Biscayne National Park, keep an eye out for the enormous butterflies with a letter “R” written on their wings. Those are the ones that were nearly wiped out and are now, with a little human help, trying to make a comeback.

Sometimes, though, saving a species through such extraor­dinary means can lead to other problems. Take what happened with the panthers.

The Florida Panther

One of the things I love about Florida is that it embraces so many contradictions. We call ourselves the Sunshine State, but many of our cities get more rainfall than Seattle. Our economy depends on attracting millions of tourists a year and yet our first state flag said, “Let Us Alone.” And our state animal is a tawny-furred predator that numbers no more than 160 cats in the wild. There are thousands more Florida panthers on our license plates than there are actual panthers.

The Florida panther used to roam not just the state but also the entire Southeast. Settlers feared the big predator so much that they usually shot it on sight. By 1958 the panther had become so scarce, state officials said no more hunting.

At the same time sprawling new subdivisions, citrus groves and cattle ranches were gobbling up the panthers’ habitat. For the past 40 years the elusive animal has been hemmed into the southernmost tip, trying to hang on to the last remaining wilderness amid encroachment by Florida’s fastest-growing suburban populations. In the early ’80s, when schoolchildren voted it the state animal, biologists feared it’d soon go extinct. By the early ’90s, of the 30 or so panthers left, only six females were producing kittens. Because of inbreeding, many of the remaining panthers carried potentially fatal birth defects, or genetic traits that prevented them from successful reproduction. “It was like they had hit a biological brick wall,” says Melody Roelke, the state vet who discovered the genetic problems.

An attempt at setting up a captive-breeding program failed because the kittens caught to launch the project suffered from the same genetic disorders that threatened to doom the species in the wild. With no other options, state officials took a $20,000 gamble.

In 1995 biologists turned loose eight female Texas cougars that had been brought over to breed with the panthers. The Texas cougars are close cousins to the Florida panther, so state officials figured the genetics would match. They were right. The cougars not only replenished the panthers’ gene pool, but the offspring proved so fecund that they boosted the population to between 100 and 200. But the boom, which was otherwise good news, highlighted another threat.

For three decades biologists have known that maintaining enough habitat for these wide-ranging predators is the key to saving the species. Females need 29,000 acres, males 62,000 acres. Yet as the population grew, federal officials granted permits that converted panther habitat into a new university, new roads, new subdivisions—including, ironically, one called the Habitat.

Soon the people who had moved into panther habitat discovered they had some feline neighbors who didn’t respect their property rights. One was Mark Poole.

One night Poole was walking the fence line at his house in Naples, trying to find the hole that he figured his missing goats must have escaped through. At the back of his yard, 300 feet from his house, he saw a dark shape. When he got within 12 feet, it growled. A panther was eating one of his chickens. It was not going to let go, not even when confronted by a human. Poole’s unsettling encounter with a panther—which over several weeks gobbled up three turkeys plus a dozen goats and more than two dozen chickens—is one of a rising number of conflicts between­ humans and the big cats documented­ in the past five years. Biologists are concerned that the panthers, which once shied away from people, may be changing their ways, adapting to life in a landscape that’s no longer a wilderness.

There are now so many panthers, biologists say, that they have all but run out of undeveloped room to roam in South Florida. The obvious solution would be to expand their territory into wild areas of Central Florida. Males have already been straying that far north, in a few cases going all the way to North Florida and beyond. But so far, no females have followed. Despite some urging from the state, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say they aren’t going to let anyone load females in a truck and drive them north to start a new colony. “It’s best for them to do that on their own,” says Dawn Jennings, the panther coordinator at the federal agency.

Unlike the panthers, though, Florida’s endangered plants need a lot more help moving around. Fortunately, a Miami institution is working on reviving South Florida’s long-lost orchids—even in the city.

The Orchid with the Upside-Down Heart

The orchid story begins the way the others do. Those blooms that so delighted the settlers were lost as their habitat fell to development. Collectors harvested far more than would ever regrow. Soon, many of the 50 species of native orchids became so scarce, they were in danger of disappearing. That includes such stunners as the cockleshell, with its clam-shaped flower and dangling sepals that make it resemble a ’50s movie monster; the butterfly, with a vivid blotch in the center that can look like an inverted heart; and the cowhorn, with its odd, antler-shaped blooms.

Fortunately the 83-acre Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, a 76-year-old oasis of greenery, still has a few of those orchids in its collection, growing on some of the remaining native trees. During a visit to Singapore, its director, Dr. Carl Lewis, saw that a garden there was systematically growing native orchids and then planting them in the patches of forest that remained in that city. If it worked there, he figured, “we can certainly do it in Miami.”

Using the seeds of the Fairchild orchids, the staff began propagating a crop that could be transplanted. On Earth Day 2014, Fairchild planted its newly grown orchids into the treetops of Merrick Park. Fairchild hopes to produce and distribute enough of the native blooms in the next five years to justify the operation’s name: the Million Orchid Project. Of course, that means it has to produce far more than a mere million, Lewis explains.

The reason: Some people see a beautiful orchid and simply must possess it. Florida’s most famous native orchid, the ghost orchid, has been repeatedly stolen from the swampy state preserve where it grows. The situation has become so serious, biologists have mounted security cameras in trees to keep an eye on the remaining ghost orchids. Thus, Lewis says, the Fairchild staff had to take into account not just the nature of plants but the occasionally larcenous side of human nature as well, accommodating not just the people who like to see the orchids but even the ones who like them so much they want to swipe them out of the trees. “Our goal,” he says, “is to produce so many orchids that we can even satisfy that demand.”