Habitat restoration project managers juggle many priorities. One of those priorities is ensuring that the created habitat is useful for local wildlife. But which species? Threatened and endangered or economically important species often top the list.
The restoration plan will change with the priority species. Gopher tortoises need different things than tarpon, for example. Then there are considerations for public access, which can conflict with goals for species restoration. Yet public access to these spaces is critical to human health and public support for restoration projects. A quality job results in public land, inviting to all people, that provides safe places for wildlife to feed and breed.
Robinson Preserve is a shining regional example of restoration success. Hardly a day passes when the preserve's parking lots are not close to full, yet wildlife from wading birds to mangroves to oysters have taken the place by storm. The driving force behind this year’s 135-acre restoration effort at Robinson Preserve Expansion is an effort to make habitat for snook, an important game fish in Southwest Florida. Manatee County Parks & Natural Resources staff have been working with leading inshore fisheries biologists to design wetlands that will provide high quality habitat for juvenile snook life stages.
So, what do juvenile snook need in a restored habitat? First, they need interconnected habitats so that snook larvae can find the restored habitat. Yet the habitat must restrict access for larger fish so that the young fish do not become prey. Their other needs are similar to our own. Young snook need food, a safe place to go when they’re tired of wind and waves, temperature control to keep them from getting too cold in winters, and shade to prevent their sensitive eyes from exposure to Florida’s strong sun.
The preserve will be fantastic refuge for other species, too. The expansion’s habitat plan includes adding diverse native plants to create hammocks, freshwater and saltwater wetlands, flatwoods, and freshwater ponds. Recycled oyster shells will be placed close to tidal connections to invite oyster larvae to settle.
Manatee County is planning for future change in the Expansion. Saltmarsh flats will be planted with cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), but mangroves are likely to colonize that habitat quickly, as they have in many other local restoration projects. Several areas will be planted in succession over the span of several decades to allow trees planted this year to grow tall and create shade for shrubs and groundcovers.
People’s needs won’t go unmet either. Plans for the Expansion include pavilions, benches, restrooms, kayak storage tubes, and trail-side shade structures. These amenities should be more than enough to make up for the Expansion’s seven-month closure to accommodate the project.
The $2.8 million habitat restoration project is funded through a combination of grants including a $1.5 million contribution from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as a result of the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill Settlement. The remaining funding comes from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).