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Shared Stories and Practices

Buying Time Against Rising Seas

By Ken Warren, USFWS Southeast Region

Botanist Dave Bender prepares ground to plant a Key tree cactus. Credit: Dave Bender/USFWS.
Botanist Dave Bender prepares ground to plant a Key tree cactus. Credit: Dave Bender/USFWS.

In what may be a first, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has attempted to reintroduce a federally listed plant at a higher elevation in the Florida Keys, for the express purpose of buying more time against the rising seas.

Botanist Dave Bender with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Vero Beach, Florida Ecological Services Office, recently worked with staff at Fairchild Botanical Gardens and Florida State Parks to reintroduce 72 Key tree cactus plants. Bender calls the reintroduction an "interim solution" to help reverse alarming negative population trends for this highly endangered species.

"The numbers for this species have dramatically declined over the past decade or so…by as much as 90 percent," Bender said.

The new location is on high ground for the Florida Keys.

"This is the first time we’ve tried reintroducing this species," Bender said. "This is a publicly protected site where Key tree cacti previously existed, but hasn’t been seen in many years. Also, plants for the project were propagated from a population on a nearby Key, so we believe they’re genetically very 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," he said.

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,’" Bender added.

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 300-400 plants left in all of the Keys," Bender said. "We’re trying to create a new home for this species, as well as trying to buy some time, as we anticipate the impacts of sea level rise."


Last updated: November 9, 2012
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