Despite Island Wildfire, Number of Sea Turtle Nest Sites Are up on Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge
“As of Sunday, there are a total of 205 nest sites on the island, which is a 22 percent increase in nesting activity over the 30-year average.” said Service Biological Technician Jake Tuttle, who is the on-site coordinator for the Blackbeard Island NWR Turtle Project.
Tuttle, who monitors the sea turtle nests on the island, is also a wildland firefighter and has been working with other firefighters in battling the Blackbeard’s Revenge Wildfire, which is burning in a Wilderness area on Blackbeard Island NWR.
The wildfire began as a lightning strike which hit the island on Thursday, July 6. Since then it has burned about 117 acres on the island’s south end. Soaring daytime temperatures, dried vegetation, and little to no rain has fueled the fire, hampering suppression efforts. The fire has remained mostly on the island’s southwest side; however, changing winds have recently stirred the slow creeping ground fire toward the southeast, not far from a cluster of Loggerhead nests along the beach.
“Fire crews have been intensely working the southeast side of the burn,” said Terri Jenkins, Incident Commander for the wildfire. “They’re concentrating on areas that continue to burn within the perimeter of the fire which has forced the closure of the entire southern end of the island until further notice.”
“At present there is no threat to the turtle nest sites, which are located along the beach,” says Jenkins, “but should the fire make a run toward the southeast, we have factors working in our favor.” These include a line of dampened swells in the dunes, which form a natural barrier to ground fires. Different vegetation types along the beachfront area pose a lesser threat to the nest sites as opposed the pine and palmetto stands that make up the maritime forest, where the fire is currently burning. “Additionally, our Wilderness boundary is located near the edge of the maritime forest. If the fire crosses this boundary, then we can employ a number of ground suppression methods against it.” “Either way,” Jenkins adds with a smile, “the nest sites are protected by a combination of Mother Nature and old fashioned sweat equity.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages Blackbeard Island NWR, has been monitoring loggerhead nesting activity on the island since 1966. The average nest contains between 100-160 eggs, which have an incubation rate of about fifty days. Because of increased loss of nesting habitat and declining populations, the loggerhead sea turtle was placed on the Threatened Species List in 1978.
“Our mission is to protect the natural processes and resources on this island for future generations,” says Refuge Biologist Deb Barnard, “Fire is just as much a natural process as the nesting activity of the loggerhead. Both have been occurring on this island for hundreds of years. Both have positive effects. Our job is to make sure that one doesn’t negatively impact the other.”
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