August 15, 2012
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service botanist Dave Bender takes a break from planting Key tree cactus plants. (Photo by Dave Bender)
“The numbers for this species dramatically declined over the past decade or so…by as much as 90 percent,” said Bender, a botanist with the South Florida Ecological Services Office (SFESO), a unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
That prompted Bender to work with partners to find a site where a new population can hopefully be established -- somewhat insulated from the threat of sea level rise. “This is the first time we’ve tried reintroducing this species,” he said. “This is a publicly protected site where Key tree cacti previously existed, but haven’t been seen in many years. Also, plants were propagated from a population on a nearby Key, so we believe they’re genetically close to the plants that once existed at the reintroduction site.”
Topographic data was used to identify higher sites in order to help protect the newly reintroduced plants from the threats of sea level rise and high tides, which deposit large amounts of salt into the soil.
“Hurricanes and tropical storms also increase salinity levels in the soil. These plants don’t like that,” Bender said. “The areas with the highest mortality rates are the same areas with the highest levels of soil salinity.”
Another problem is poaching. There are those who collect and sell plants, especially cacti and orchids, for commercial purposes. “We’re not publicizing exactly where this new population is because we don’t want to give potential poachers a treasure map,” he added.
In the meantime, representatives from the state and Fairchild Botanical Gardens will monitor the newly reintroduced plants at least monthly for the first year, and then on an annual basis. “This new population takes us from seven to eight. There are only 300 to 400 plants left in all of the Keys,” said Bender. “We’re trying to create a new home for the Key tree cactus, as well as trying to buy some time, as we anticipate the impacts of sea level rise.”
Dana Hartley, leader of the SFESO’s Endangered Species Team, said, “We’re fortunate to have a botanist of Dave’s caliber. He’s so thorough and conscientious, and so good at establishing the right priorities and building the right relationships to make things happen.”
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