Earth Day ought to be a day to celebrate conservation and the natural world — to inspire, encourage and talk about conservation that works. True to its origins, Earth Day has been characterized over the years by Malthusian observations of the dire state of the planet, due to swelling growth and human population. For a change of pace, I thought we could all use a little infusion of optimism into our conservation conversation here in Florida.
Not only is Florida the nation's third most populous state, but it also functions as a wildlife paradise. We have a growing population of over 20 million residents and 100 million visitors a year — a lot of activity within 58,500 square miles of land and 1,350 miles of coastline. Yet Florida's wildlife continues to rebound and recover, with major conservation successes for a number of key species. The traditional view is to see growth and wildlife conservation in conflict — as population grows, wildlife declines. Yet Florida is showing they can thrive together.
What is the secret sauce? Foremost, it helps that people appreciate what makes Florida beautiful and unique, and want to keep it that way. That is a credit to the conservation ethic of Floridians and visitors, and the many partnerships among governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Private landowners, including ranchers, conserve wildlife habitat, and Florida in turn supports its private landowners. Robust public lands and waterways, including Florida's 6 million-acre Wildlife Management Area system, also provide valuable protected habitat.
Engaged citizens encourage laws and programs like Florida Forever and restoration of the Everglades ecosystem. A multitude of active sportsmen's and conservation organizations also provide support and resources for our wildlife populations. And Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists and law enforcement officers are using state-of-the-art science and technologies to better perform their jobs. All these ingredients together are making a difference in conserving wildlife populations.
What does wildlife conservation success look like? The status of our iconic Florida species tell the untold story:
• Surveys of Florida manatees in recent years show their numbers at over 6,000, up from 1,200 back in 1991, and the highest numbers since the surveys began. Just last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified the manatee as a threatened, and no longer endangered, species.
• Florida hosts one of the largest nesting aggregations of loggerhead sea turtles in the world, and has seen a 32 percent increase in nests since 1989. The number of green sea turtle nests on our beaches has increased from less than 500 in the early 1980s to a record number of over 37,000 in 2015.
• The Florida black bear, no longer listed as a state threatened species, now has an estimated population of over 4,000, compared to 300-500 bears in the 1970s.
• Florida has one of the highest populations of breeding bald eagles in the lower 48 states, with 1,499 active bald eagle nests in 2014, the last official estimate. This compares to only 88 bald eagle nests in 1973.
• Finally, the Florida panther, our state's official animal, is another sign of progress. Numbering as few as 20 to 30 in the 1970s and 1980s, there are now an estimated 120 to 230 adults. And the big news: Biologists recently documented a female panther and kittens north of the Caloosahatchee River, a natural barrier to panther habitat expansion. Just days later north of the river, trail cameras identified another female panther. This one engaged in mating behavior with a male panther. These are major milestones on the road to recovery for the Florida panther, with the kittens presumed to be the offspring of the first wild female panther documented north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973.
This is not fake news, and good news does not always make the best news. But the trend lines are up, in many cases dramatically. Floridians, old and new alike, should take a moment on this Earth Day to think about what we are accomplishing together for the benefit of wildlife even as our state population has grown by 7 million people in the last 25 years.
Conservation is hard, never-ending work. We are still keenly aware of the ongoing challenges in conserving wildlife and their habitats. We need to keep moving forward and adapt in how we protect our wildlife.
Florida is a balance — the intersection of growth and preservation. Even our greatest conservation president, Theodore Roosevelt, understood this when he said, "Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land, but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us."
With an eye looking forward to the generations to come, the state of our fish and wildlife species is strong. And for that, we thank you Floridians on this Earth Day.
Brian Yablonski is the chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.