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U.S. Department of the Interior
U.S. Geological Survey
OFR 2006-1126

Wildlife and habitat damage assessment from Hurricane Charley: recommendations for recovery of the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Complex

Executive Summary
Study area
Literature cited
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J. Michael Meyers1, Catherine A. Langtimm2, Thomas J. Smith III3, and Kendra Pednault-Willett4,5

24 April 2006

1 USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Warnell School of Forest Resources, The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602-2152. E-mail: jmeyers@smokey.forestry.uga.edu

2 USGS Florida Integrated Science Center, Sirenia Project, 412 NE 16th Avenue, Room 250, Gainesville, Florida, 32601-3701. E-mail: Catherine_Langtimm@usgs.gov

3 USGS Florida Integrated Science Center, c/o Center for Coastal & Watershed Studies, 600 Fourth Street, South, St. Petersburg, Florida 33701. E-mail: Tom_J_Smith@usgs.gov

4 United States Fish and Wildlife Service, J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel, FL 33957.

5 Present address: Johnson Engineering, 2158 Johnson Street, Ft. Myers, FL 33901


  • On 13 August 2004, the first of four hurricanes to strike Florida in <6 weeks came ashore near J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (JNDDNWR) Complex, Sanibel Island, Florida. The eye of Category 4 Hurricane Charley passed just north of Sanibel Island with maximum sustained winds of 145 mph (123 knots) and a storm surge of 0.3-2.7 m (1-9 ft). Three USGS-BRD scientists (coastal ecologist and research wildlife biologists) and a USFWS wildlife biologist surveyed the storm damage to JNDDNWR Complex on the ground from 20-24 September 2004.
  • At the request of United States Fish and Wildlife Service refuge staff, the USGS team concentrated on assessing damage to wetlands and habitat for selected bird populations (especially mangrove forests, Mangrove Cuckoos [Coccyzus minor], and Black-whiskered Vireo [Vireo altiloquus]), waterbird rookeries (mangrove islands), impoundments (waterbirds and waterfowl), sea grass beds (manatees), and upland hardwood hammocks and ridges (threatened eastern indigo snake [Drymarchon couperi]).
  • The refuge complex sustained moderate to catastrophic damage to vegetation, especially mangrove forests and waterbird nesting or roosting islands. Lumpkin Island, Hemp Island, and Bird Key waterbird nesting areas had >50% and sometimes 90% of their vegetation severely damaged (dead, broken tree stems, and tipped trees). The Shell Mound Trail area of JNDDNWR sustained catastrophic damage to its old growth mangrove forests. Direct storm mortality and injury to manatees in the area of the JNDDNWR Complex was probably slight as manatees may have several strategies to reduce storm mortality. Damage to seagrass beds, an important habitat for manatees, fishes and invertebrates, is believed to be limited to the breach at North Captiva Island. At this breach, refuge staff documented inundation of beds by sand and scarring by trees dragged by winds.
  • Because seagrass beds and manatee habitat extend beyond refuge boundaries (see Discussion), a regional approach with partner agencies to more thoroughly assess storm impacts and monitor recovery of seagrass and manatees is recommended.
  • Besides intensive monitoring of waterbirds and their nesting habitat (pre- and post-storm), the survey team recommends that the Mangrove Cuckoo be used as an indicator species for recovery of mangrove forests and also for monitoring songbirds at risk (this songbird is habitat-area sensitive). Black-whiskered Vireo may be another potential indicator species to monitor in mangrove forests. Monitoring for these species can be done by distance sampling on transects or by species presence-absence from point counts.
  • Damaged vegetation should be monitored for recovery (permanent or long-term plots), especially where previous study plots have been established and with additional plots in mangrove forests of waterbird nesting islands and freshwater wetlands.
  • Potential loss of wetlands (and information for management) may be prevented by water level monitoring (3 permanent stations), locating the positions (GPS-GIS) and maintaining existing water control structures, creating a GIS map of the refuge with accurate vertical data, and monitoring and eradicating invasive plants. Invasive species, including Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius) and air potato (Dioscorea bulbifora), were common in a very limited survey and may become more dominant in areas damaged by the storm. Special attention is needed to eradicate these exotic plants.
  • As an important monitoring goal, the survey team recommends that species presence-absence data analysis (with probability of detection) be used to determine changes in animal communities. This could be accomplished possibly with comparison to other storm-damaged and undamaged refuges in the Region. This information may be helpful to refuge managers when storms return in the future.

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