Damage from Hurricane Ian in Sanibel Island, Florida, on October 5.
Families return to Sanibel Island homes for first time after Hurricane Ian
03:13 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Southwest Florida looks a lot different than it did before Hurricane Ian ripped through the area six weeks ago.

The verdant Sanibel Island has browned, its trees felled by the storm or drowning in salt water. And Cape Coral, a meticulously neat planned community cut by rows of canals, is still digging itself out from under debris.

Ian resulted in the deaths of at least 130 people and displaced thousands more. Now, as residents begin to rebuild, questions remain about the future of its diverse, critically important native species.

Animals are built to withstand natural disasters – but they’re not equipped to survive in destroyed habitats with poor water quality. Species like gopher tortoises, burrowing owls and even American alligators, who all play a significant role maintaining their ecosystems’ balance, have been displaced or injured since Ian struck. Some of the animals have hardly been spotted since the storm.

Burrowing owls have had to vacate their burrows after Hurricane Ian.

“Wildlife has co-evolved with natural disasters – they understand when it’s coming,” said Breanna Frankel, rehabilitation manager at CROW Clinic, a wildlife hospital on Sanibel. “It’s all of the extra things that the hurricane led to that I think we’re starting to see more problems with.”

It will take months, maybe years, for wildlife experts to understand the extent of the damage. But what they’ve seen in the weeks since Ian uprooted their lives hints at what the future could hold for the state’s native wildlife.

“So many habitats are slowly going into shock,” Frankel said. “Whether our ecosystem can overcome that” remains to be seen.

Gators and turtles fight salt water intrusions

Southwest Florida is home to a unique array of ecosystems that house critically important keystone species: Wetlands and mangrove forests, beaches off the Gulf of Mexico, hammocks, prairies and grasslands, among others.

Keystone species are the engines of their local ecosystems – their habitats run because they do. In Florida, keystone species include gopher tortoises, whose burrows provide shelter to more than 350 species, and alligators, who dig holes during dry season for freshwater that turtles and wading birds use, too. Gators’ nesting habits also make them perfect security guards for other species’ eggs – the reptiles protect their nests fiercely and keep coyotes and raccoons at bay.

But imbalances in water are disruptive: Gopher tortoises are terrestrial creatures, meaning they don’t spend copious amounts of time in the water (they’re also poor swimmers). They can hold their breath if their burrows are flooded, but Hurricane Ian’s floodwaters also brought debris into their homes and clogged them. Alligators can tolerate salt water for short periods of time, but they are used to hunting, breeding and living in freshwater habitats.

CROW Clinic veterinarians and rescuers cared for juvenile gopher tortoises during and after Hurricane Ian.

Salt water has overwhelmed some of Sanibel’s freshwater sources, said Chris Lechowicz, a herpetologist and director of wildlife and habitat management at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF). While taking readings of the Sanibel River, a major freshwater habitat for several turtle species, he found that its salinity levels in some places had shot up from 0 grams of salt per kilogram, or 0 ppt (parts per thousand), to 24 ppt, a few grams away from salt water classification.

“The freshwater system was almost seawater,” Lechowicz said. “That’s going to change a lot of the diversity in that area.”

All that saltwater is harmful, too, to native tree species. Many of them died already after being struck down by strong winds, but the survivors often can’t bear salty soil. This will drastically change the ecosystems on Sanibel, Lechowicz said.

“We’re going to see a reduction of trees,” he said. “A lot of trees got knocked down, but the ones that are still standing may die anyway from saltwater intrusion of the islands.”

Debris blocks burrowing owls and other species

Debris from damaged homes still clutters areas of southwest Florida that were hardest hit by Ian – Sanibel and Cape Coral among them. Lechowicz, who typically observes a very rare Florida mud turtle population in a small wetland on the island, hasn’t been able to reach the area in weeks.

Countless homes were destroyed in the area, particularly homes closest to the water. When they flooded, their sliding glass doors and windows were often knocked out, and the water pushed out the contents of their homes. Many of those items ended up in wildlife conservation areas, he said.

“Some things in people’s houses may have toxic elements in them,” Lechowicz said.

Pascha Donaldson of Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife noticed that burrows formerly belonging to owls were covered with fallen streetlights and other debris.

Enter the clean-up crews: Pascha Donaldson, a former leader of Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, has trekked across the city to clear trash out of the homes of burrowing owls. The diminutive owl, a threatened species in Florida and highly concentrated in Cape Coral, often makes its burrows in empty lots or front yards, but many of those holes were covered up completely when Donaldson found them.

“The owls will return if they didn’t get killed or blown away,” she told CNN. “If (the city) doesn’t clean out the actual burrow, the owls won’t come back – they can’t dig through that.”

She’s noticed tire tracks on top of some burrows and entire boats on top of other lots dedicated to the owls. While she’s spotted owls in some unusual places – such as her front porch – she’s still seeing fewer owls than usual, she said.

Burrowing owls perched on front porches after Hurricane Ian.

“Owls are like any other bird – unless they get cut up in a wind or crash into a building, they’re pretty smart to save their feathers,” she said.

She won’t conduct the annual population count until June, which is burrowing owl “baby season,” and in the meantime, she’ll keep cleaning out burrows and encouraging neighbors to dig burrows in their front yards to beckon the owls back home.

“Hopefully when I clean them out, I’ll see more of them,” she said. “I guess time will tell.”

In the weeks following the hurricane, the “bigger concerns” for wildlife rescuers were animals who can’t climb or fly out of harm’s way, said Dr. Robin Bast, a veterinarian at CROW Clinic. The clinic has seen an uptick in turtle patients since the storm, who, in seeking fresh water, have been increasingly hit by cars. Squirrels, too, have been blown from their trees and wound up at the clinic.

A young eastern cottontail rabbit received care at CROW Clinic after the hurricane.

For most species, it’s too early to tell whether – or how drastically – populations suffered, but SCCF has identified a few markers of habitat health: Before Hurricane Ian, there were 17 sea turtle nests on the island. SCCF teams found only one in the weeks afterward – the others were likely washed away before hatching.

Marsh rabbits, once considered a nuisance by Sanibel homeowners for frequently munching on their yards, have barely been seen. And the American alligator, perhaps the state’s best-known predator, was nowhere to be found after the hurricane, Lechowicz said.

“Alligators are able to tolerate salt water for short periods of time,” he said. “But eventually, they’ll need fresh water. I would love to know how alligators did.”

Finding hope after a hurricane

The hurricane has only exasperated the existing challenges native species faced to their continued survival. Almost every keystone species in Florida is threatened by habitat loss, including gopher tortoises, gators and burrowing owls. And as Florida continues to grow at a seemingly exponential rate, the fight to preserve critical habitats intensifies.

Florida’s native wildlife are often considered “sentinel species” that bear the brunt of environmental impacts before their human neighbors do. And if hurricanes as powerful as Ian, a Category 4 storm, become the norm, there will be fewer opportunities to devote to clean-up and animal care in between.

“With these hurricanes, you can’t underestimate – it can change on a dime,” said Lechowicz, alluding to the fact that Ian changed course from Tampa to southwest Florida shortly before it made landfall. “But it’s an incredible amount of work to get ready for a hurricane.”

Florida wildlife rescues can’t stop a hurricane, but they can learn from Ian to improve chances of wildlife survival for the next one. And they certainly learned a lot – the team at CROW was doing critical work during Ian, with some vets and medical interns holed up in a Fort Myers hotel with neonatal patients that needed around-the-clock care, like infant squirrels and possum joeys. Frankel, meanwhile, filled her garage with birds of prey who had been housed in the clinic’s ICU – red-shouldered hawks, osprey and one ornery horned owl.

Frankel and friends with little veterinary training cared for birds of prey in her garage during Ian.

When the power went out, the CROW crew got creative: Frankel recruited her family and friends in helping her care for critically ill birds. Interns at the hotel did jumping jacks and squats with cans of food and water in their clothes to warm them with body heat, said Dr. Laura Kellow, a veterinarian at CROW.

And some species have slowly, cautiously started to reemerge in the weeks since Ian: At the end of October, an SCCF employee spotted a single red-bellied cooter, a turtle with a grumpy disposition, attempting to cross the road. Coastal birds like plovers and terns are coming back, dotting the beaches where they feast and nest. And CROW is still caring for – and releasing – animals including burrowing owls, seagulls and baby rabbits.

A juvenile barn owl received care at CROW during the hurricane.

Organizations like SCCF are pleading with the public to share photos and stories with them of animals they’ve seen in the area as the wildlife rescue teams chart their recovery. It’s too soon to know how all of Florida’s beloved animals fared, but slivers of hope have started to peek out during the recovery process.

“Several of us lost homes or vehicles, but we continue to help wildlife patients and help each other,” Bast said.