Sunday, November 27, 2005

GreenPeace and Green n' Grey

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Sorry...if you were expecting some daring Bob Hunter and his band of hippie environmentalists putting themselves between Russian whaler's harpoon guns and the whales story, it's not here. They were amazing though and I firmly believe if it were not for their theatrics we would be an almost whaleless planet now. I am forever grateful.

This is more the story of cooperation between the United States Government and a "radical" environmental organization. I will wear two hats in this tale, I am both the "jack-booted government agent" and the radical environmental organization agent. The tale begins in 1988...

I had recently transferred back to Fort Matanzas National Monument as the ranger in residence. The park had a fledgling sea turtle nest relocation program in which seaturtle nests were excavated and moved to a safe hatchery inside the park.

The reason for moving nests was to protect them from poaching of eggs and vehicular traffic. St.Johns county beaches are a public highway and you can drive down onto them to park. Beachfront housing was increasing also and turtle nests were being robbed by condo pets.

The park had experimented a few years before by moving a few nests to sand filled buckets in the park garage, but then somebody read that turtle eggs are temperature sensitive. In effect, the sex of the turtles depends on the temperature of their egg environment. In the cool garage we could be raising all one sex ...not a good idea for an endangered species.

So the hatchery was built. It was a hardware cloth enclosed rectangle with boards inside dividing it into about 24 nest sites. The top was wire also to keep raccoons out. The whole thing sat out in the dunes in an area off limits to park visitors. (I will do a separate post on the specifics of moving seaturtle eggs so this post doesn't get too long.)

One day, a local Greenpeace rep came to me and asked if I would mind being the county coordinator for seaturtle nest patrols. It turned out that Greenpeace already had a band of volunteers who patrolled the beach early in the morning looking for nests to mark and monitor. They did not have authority or facilities to move threatened nests though and I had a special permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to handle endangered species.

This arrangement would take me outside the Park's legal boundaries so I had to run it by my boss, but she was all for it. So I began my life as a double agent.

My turtle patrol team was mostly made up of beachfront residents. I didn't have the heart to tell them that their beachfront houses were a big part of the problem, because their hearts were in the right place even if their houses were in the wrong place.

As the summer went on, more and more calls came in from my GreenPeace turtle patrollers. We only moved nests that were in eminent danger and we could only move them in the first 24 hours. This time limit had to do with the attachment of the turtle embryo to the eggshell, after which, moving the egg was not a good idea.

If you can read that middle of the summer newsletter above, you will see that 2391 eggs had been moved to the hatchery. As I recall, by August we had 3600 eggs in the hatchery. We had a 90% hatch rate. I am very proud of that and still grateful to the nice "radical environmentalists" that helped give these turtles a head start.

When a nest in the hatchery erupted, we gathered the babies and let them crawl frantically down the beach to the water.(Research at the time stated that the post hatch scramble might be important in the imprinting that would bring the adult females back to the same beach to nest in 20 years.) After that, they were on their own.

The program ended a few years later. These days, nests are left in place, but marked with warning signs. There were too many egg poachers when I was doing this to ever consider such a thing.

Somewhere in the Atlantic, there are survivors from these 3000+ headstart turtles. The males will never come ashore again, but the females are approaching the 20 year mark and will be returning to the same St. Johns county beaches in a few years.

On a high tide, on a moonless night, they will emerge from the surf and struggle up the beach to make their nests.

I will be there to welcome them home.

8 comments:

pablo said...

This is a great and heart warming story. I just wish I could lead as rich and varied a life as you.

swamp4me said...

You gotta love rangering - never know what you'll be doing or who you'll be doing it with (apologies to my son for ending that sentence with a preposition).

I hope you have a spectacular return rate of those females!

Wayne said...

That's a wonderful story, and thanks for the plug for Greenpeace too - I let my cynicism for environmentalists get in the way of appreciation for the things they do all too often.

I get the impression from what you have said and the meager number of stories my reticent father told of his rangering career that there's a fair number of rangers who take on the task of cementing the middle ground between widely different interests in a very constructive manner. I'm all for them.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

Such a great story. I would love to watch these turtles return. I hope you get to to do it, and to write about it.

Deb said...

I probably went to some of those same beaches as a child. How great that you were able to play a role in the protection of these turtles! I would love to be there to see the females return.

Floridacracker said...

Pablo,
Just checked my pulse...we're not done yet dude.

Swamp,
With seaturtles every little bit helps.

Wayne,
It's true...they are the boots on the ground so to speak. We were really doing bootstrap endangered species work, but at least we did something. The best rangers are specialists at being a generalist.

RD,
I have seen a lot of nesting seaturtles at night, but in 2008 they should be mine...at least some of them.

Deb,
That was you?

Hick said...

That was a very cool story. Thank you for your hard work on behalf of the turtles.

Floridacracker said...

Hick,
Your welcome. They aren't cute, but they do have a certain appeal.