VERO BEACH - Endangered animals that depend on water for their food are fleeing the drought-parched Everglades and seeking refuge in the newly restored marshes of western Indian River County, wildlife observers say. With Florida's Everglades at their driest since 1957, the snail kite and wading birds that live off small fish are seeking other feeding areas, and alligators are searching for dwindling water holes.
Some of the animals are showing up hundreds of miles to the north, in western Indian River County in Central Florida, an area filled with a broad band of freshwater marshes, wetlands and Blue Cypress Lake.
"It's one of the few good large tracts of open marsh," said Brian Toland, biologist with the state Game and Freshwater Fish Commission. "We're really pleasantly surprised to find them."
More than a dozen endangered snail kites have been seen in the marshes, where its favorite food - the apple snail - is found, state wildlife officer Tim Miller said.
Only about 500 snail kites live in the United States - all in South Florida except when droughts force them to move to find food.
The St. Johns River Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are in the midst of a $125-million marsh restoration project that is ensuring the kites have a place to stay.
Miles of dikes are being built to flood marshes along State Road 60 that had been lost to farming. State officials have purchased a 36-mile long finger of the marshy wilderness in Brevard and Indian River counties.
When the project is completed in 1994, a dike will extend almost to U.S. 192 west of Melbourne, a corps spokesman said.
Wildlife officials say water levels already are higher in reclaimed marshes, including vegetable fields northwest of Fellsmere in rural Indian River County, and that is attracting aquatic animals to the marshes.
In contrast, the Everglades is suffering from being cut off from its historical water supplies: Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River.