The Florida Master Naturalist Program

The Florida Master Naturalist Program

Kayaking over seagrass beds and stingrays, hiking among pitcher plants, boating past diving ospreys, and meeting hundreds of fascinating, like-minded people—these are just some of the great experiences I’ve had while teaching the Florida Master Naturalist Program. More than 20 years since its inception, the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) has inspired the creation of dozens of similar courses in other states and proven itself to be one of the most popular outreach programs to come out of UF IFAS Extension.

Kayaking Santa Rosa Sound in Navarre is one of the highlights of our Coastal Systems FMNP class. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The mission of the FMNP is simple—to promote awareness, understanding, and respect of Florida’s natural world among Florida’s citizens and visitors. I have always felt strongly that if you want people to care about something, they need to understand it. And to really understand something, you need to experience it. I know my own passion for science and ecology was ignited early on by teachers who took us outside and helped us encounter the many wondrous surprises in the natural world. With the FMNP, we seek to do just that.

Master Naturalist students conduct field work in small groups. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Over a span of 40 hours in 6-7 weeks, we spend about half our time with classroom presentations and the other half in the field, seeing the plants, animals, and ecosystems we discuss in class. In addition to classes and field trips, students produce a final project and present it to the class. These can range from labeled collections and slide presentations to building bird houses and new trails. The program is composed of three 40-hour core courses; Coastal, Upland, and Freshwater Systems. Seven “short courses” with 24 hours of class/field time include the Land Steward series (Conservation Science, Habitat Evaluation, Wildlife Monitoring, and Environmental Interpretation) and the Restoration courses (Coastal Restoration, Marine Habitat Restoration, and Invasive Plants). Locally, we try to rotate the core modules every couple of years and incorporate the short courses periodically. Registration includes a detailed course manual and, upon completion, FMNP patch, certificate, and pin denoting area of expertise. There are a handful of scholarships available for those interested in applying to offset costs.

Master Naturalist students walk “The Way” boardwalk in Perdido Key. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The classes do not count towards university credit but are an excellent certification and professional development opportunity that many will list on a resume. While we’ve had ecotour operators, park rangers, environmental consultants, teachers, and archaeologists participate, most of our FMNP students are not professionals in the field. They come from every background imaginable but share an interest in the outdoors. Because we meet weekly, class members often form long-lasting friendships during the courses.

Information on upcoming classes in northwest Florida and all around the state is available online. Classes range from fully in-person to hybrid and online options. FMNP classes are restricted to adults 18 and over, but a new “Florida Youth Naturalist” curriculum has been designed through our 4-H program for young people. For more information on that, check out their website.

We Did It; In 2023 Less Than 30% of the Fecal Bacteria Samples Collected in the Pensacola Bay Area Required a Health Advisory

We Did It; In 2023 Less Than 30% of the Fecal Bacteria Samples Collected in the Pensacola Bay Area Required a Health Advisory

Health advisories issued by the Department of Health (DOH) due to high levels of fecal bacteria have been a problem for some parts of the Pensacola Bay system for decades.  Though most of the samples collected near our beaches rarely require them (usually between 0-5%) the bayous near downtown have been at, or above, 30% of the samples.  Bayou Chico is often between 50-60% of the samples.  Fecal bacteria have been such a problem in Bayou Chico that it was required to adopt a state Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) to rectify the problem.   

Closed due to bacteria. Photo: Rick O’Connor

I began following the health advisory reports provided by DOH’s Healthy Beaches Program in 2012.  As mentioned above, swimming beaches near our islands rarely have health advisories issued.  The problem was with the three bayous near downtown.  In 2012 all three consistently reported 30%, or more, of their samples required an advisory to be issued. 

To rectify the problem the city and county have been doing a lot of work replacing old infrastructure that allowed sewage to leak from pipes or reach surface waters through sanitary sewage overflows.  Many communities around these bayous are converting from old septic systems to sewer, the communities around Bayou Texar are now all on sewer.  These same efforts are occurring along the north shore of Bayou Grande, and in neighborhoods around Bayou Chico.  Between 2012 and the present, I have seen the frequency of health advisories decline some.  Bayou Texar hovers around 30%, some years they are below, others above the mark.  In recent years Bayou Grande has consistently been between 25-30%.  Bayou Chico has declined some but is usually at or above 30%. 

In 2023, for the first time since I began following this, all 13 sites monitored in Escambia County were below 30%. 

2023

Body of WaterNumber of samples takenPercent of samples requiring an advisory
Bayou Texar4522
Bayou Grande1822
Bayou Chico1921
Bruce Beach469
Big Lagoon State Park195
Sanders Beach464
Casino Beach180
Park East180
Park West180
Quietwater Beach180
Ft. Pickens70
Johnson’s Beach70
Opal Beach70

It is worth noting that our rainfall was low this year as well.  Historically, Pensacola received 60-61 inches of rain a year.  Over the last decade this has increased to 70-71 inches.  The current rainfall total for 2023 is 58 inches.  Many studies show a strong correlation between rainfall and the number of advisories issued.  It may very well be that the reduction in rainfall played a large part in the reduction of health advisories.  Despite a lot of progress repairing infrastructure, and this effort needs to continue, there are still some issues. 

Along with the city and county retrofitting old infrastructure, there are things area residents can do as well.

  • Many of these are related to poorly maintained septic systems throughout the area.  If you are a septic system owner and would like to learn more on how to properly maintain your septic system, contact your county extension office. 
  • If you are a septic system owner and are interested in converting to sewer to reduce the need for maintenance, contact our county extension office.  For some communities in the Pensacola area, there is a cost share program with DOH to help make this conversion. 
  • If you are on a sewer system in one of the older parts of town, the pipe leaving your house and connecting to the line under the street is your responsibility and may need repairing or replacing.  Many plumbing companies have a television scope that can examine this line and provide you feedback. 
  • For everyone, be careful what your pour down the drain.  Fats, Oils, Grease, and even milk can clog the pipes and cause sanitary sewage overflows or backups in the system.  Heavy rains only make this worse.  In the Pensacola area the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority (ECUA) provides free plastic gallon jugs to place your cooking oil and grease in and, when full, can be swapped for another at several locations around town.  To find the closest disposal site to you visit https://ecua.fl.gov/live-green/fats-oils-grease.
The FOG gallon containers are found in these metal cabinets placed around the county. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Despite low rainfall this year, it is still good that all 13 sites were below 30% this year.  With the help of the local governments, agencies, and residents, hopefully it will remain so. 

The information provided here can be used by communities all along the Florida panhandle.  High fecal bacteria count, and health advisories are not limited to the Pensacola Bay System.  Contact your county extension office for more information on how you can help to reduce health advisories in your area. 

The 2023 Year in Review – Water Quality

The 2023 Year in Review – Water Quality

Based on an annual evaluation recent competed, and feedback from my advisory committee, water quality issues are the number one natural resource concern for those who follow my extension programs.  It makes sense.  Poor water quality can negatively impact businesses who depend on clean water, waterfront property values, tourism, and the untold numbers of Florida panhandle residents who recreate in our estuaries and bays.  The water quality issues I provided education on in 2023 are focused on the Pensacola Bay system, but these issues are probably similar across the Florida panhandle.  Those issues include excessive nutrients, fecal bacteria (and other microbes), and salinity.  We also wrote one article on the increasing water temperatures occurring in the summer. 

Let’s begin with the fecal bacteria issue.  In the Pensacola Bay area, it may be our number one concern.  The Florida Department of Health posts local health advisories each week and some bodies of water are issued advisories for over 30% of the samples that are taken.  Frequently Bayou Chico (in Pensacola Bay) is issued an advisory over 50% of the samples taken.  However, in 2023 (in the Pensacola area) the number of advisories never exceeded 30% for any body of water.  Seven of the 13 swimming beaches monitored did not post an advisory at all.  This is one of the best years we have had since I began monitoring them. 

Closed due to bacteria. Photo: Rick O’Connor

In 2023 eight of the 13 water quality articles I wrote were on this subject.  Three additional articles were posted by other extension agents on our panhandle e-newsletter team.  But my annual follow up survey showed very few adopted best management practices (BMPs) they could adopt to help reduce fecal bacteria in area waterways.  The reduction was more likely due to the effort by our local city and county to improve sewage infrastructure and the fact that we were in a drought for much of the year – there is a positive correlation between rainfall and the number of advisories issued for local waterways.  Despite the fact that few readers adopted BMPs this year, and advisories declined – at least in Pensacola – we still believe adopting these practices would help reduce this issue.  We will be developing a fact sheet in 2024 to help homeowners better understand these practices and help reduce health advisories.    

Another local water quality issue that is high on everyone’s mind is excessive nutrients.  This is actually one of the largest concerns nationwide.  Excessive nutrients can lead to algal blooms, which can lead to harmful algal blooms or low dissolved oxygen, which can lead to fish kills.  In the Pensacola Bay area large fish kills have not occurred in decades, but nutrient monitoring continues.  The UF IFAS Lakewatch program trains local volunteers how to collect water samples and measure water clarity.  The samples are analyzed in the Lakewatch lab on campus in Gainesville and the results sent back to the community.  In the Pensacola Bay area, we are currently monitoring six bodies of water (three stations in each).  Nutrients values are stable, or improving, in four of the six locations.  They are slightly elevated in Bayou Chico and one station in Bayou Texar is quite high in total nitrogen.  Despite the values at those stations, no algal blooms or fish kills occurred in either Bayou Chico or Bayou Texar (or anywhere else in the Pensacola Bay area) in 2023.  There are numerous sources for nutrients in local waterways and many behavior practices businesses and residents can adopt to help reduce nutrient pollution.  In 2023 I wrote only one article on this topic but plan to provide more education in 2024.     

A body of water receiving excess nutrients can turn green and unhealthy from too much algae growth. Photo Credit: UF IFAS FFL program

A third topic that caught attention this year was the warm water that occurred this past summer.  Extreme water temperatures can decrease dissolved oxygen below levels where most estuarine creatures can survive.  Many creatures have a thermal tolerance that could have been exceeded this year.  Industries like oyster farming are negatively impacted.  Many varieties of harmful algae thrive in warm conditions.  My extension program does not conduct any citizen science project that monitors water temperatures within the bay.  Working with our local oyster farmers, the local estuary program is beginning to monitor such, and more folks are taking notice of the issue.  Extension agents posted four articles on the subject this year.  Whether the summers of high-water temperatures will become more common is unknown.  The first thought on cause is climate, and management practices on how to reduce climate change are well documented.  It is also understood that adopting such practices will not reduce intense warm summers immediately but should still be adopted for the long term.  It is also possible that the current extreme heat summers are cyclic, and things will cool down (relatively) in coming seasons.  2023 was an El Nino year.  Monitoring and time will tell how this issue will play out.  That said, it would be smart to consider behavior changing practices for the future.  Extension will post more information on this topic in 2024.   

The Gulf of Mexico at sunrise. Photo: Rick O’Connor

One issue of concern personally was the impact of increased rain on the salinity of our bay.  There has been a noticeable (and measured) increase in rainfall in recent years.  For Pensacola, we historically received about 60 inches of rain each year – one of the wetter locations in the southeast.  But over the last decade this has increased to 70 inches per year.  Along with the increase in rainfall, there has been a noticeable increase in development.  This increase in development reduces the surface area of land that would naturally absorb this rainwater and recharge the much-needed aquifer.  Instead, this rainwater is diverted from the new developments to stormwater management projects – some that work well, others that do not.  The question I have on the table is whether this increase in stormwater run-off is decreasing the salinity of area waterways?  And, if so, is it to a level where local marine species (and those we are trying to restore) will be negatively affected?  To answer this question, I have trained volunteers to monitor salinity at locations around the bay area.  They are monitoring once a week, at the surface, near the shoreline.  Though the sampling location is not ideal, it is what our volunteers are able to do.  I had determined that the data would be collected until each volunteer reached 100 readings (about two years).  As of the end of 2023, five of the 13 monitoring locations (38%) have reached that 100-reading mark.  We know that the turtle grass and bay scallops, both species we would like to see increase in our bay, require salinity be at (or above) 20 parts per thousand.  Though there are many more weeks of monitoring needed to reach our mark, current data suggests that salinities have not altered from data posted decades ago and are high enough for these species to return in areas where they historically existed. 

I will finish this review with a comment that articles were posted in 2023 on issues I am not directly involved with, but know they are a concern in many areas of the panhandle.  Private drinking wells being one.  There were several articles posted by Dr. Andrea Albertin addressing this issue in 2023 and for those interested in this topic I recommend they read these, and/or reach out to her directly (albertin@ufl.edu.).  There was also an article that focused on water quality improvement BMPs in general posted by Khadejah Scott (Wakulla County) that may be of interest.  https://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2023/10/05/simple-steps-to-improve-local-water-quality/.

With this being a large issue with many in the Florida panhandle, extension will continue to publish articles and have programs on this topic.  Reach out to your local county extension office for more information. 

Walton County’s Rare Coastal Dune Lakes

Walton County’s Rare Coastal Dune Lakes

October is Dune Lake Awareness month and as part of the celebration, Walton and Okaloosa County UF/IFAS Extension Agents are joining together to host a Coastal Dune Lake Tour at Western Lake in Grayton Beach State Park.  This free event will include a brief lecture and guided tour of the nature trail surrounding the lake.  Laura Tiu, Marine Science Agent, will start the tour with a history of the lakes, the unique ecology and some of the local protections.  Sheila Dunning, Horticulture Agent, will share information on the unique flora in the dunes including which plants have been used by native Americans and pioneers for food and medicine and the trees we find in the dune landscape surrounding the dune lakes and their adaptations to this sometimes-harsh environment.  If you have an interest in our local dune lakes or the tour, you may visit the Walton County Dune Lake website at https://www.co.walton.fl.us/97/Coastal-Dune-Lakes.  If you would like to register for this free tour go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/panhandle-outdoor-live-2023-coastal-dune-lake-lecture-and-trail-tour-tickets-722764316527?aff=oddtdtcreator or use our Facebook event link https://www.facebook.com/events/811943803961304.  Feel free to call our office, 850-892-8172, with any questions.

Western Dune Lake Tour
50 Years of the Endangered Species Act; Part 2 – The Perdido Key Beach Mouse

50 Years of the Endangered Species Act; Part 2 – The Perdido Key Beach Mouse

“I can’t do what? – because of a mouse? – it’s only a mouse.” 

This was a comment made by many who lived on Perdido Key when a small beach mouse found only there was added to the endangered species list.  It is a comment heard often when many species are listed.  A major reason most species begin to decline and become endangered is loss of habitat.  We enter and change the habitat to suit our needs.  Much of this includes construction of buildings and altering landscapes to a more artificial setting and much of the local wildlife is lost.  So is the case with this little mouse. 

The Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse is one of four Florida Panhandle Species classified as endangered or threatened. Beach mice provide important ecological roles promoting the health of our coastal dunes and beaches. Photo provided by Jeff Tabbert

The Perdido Key beach mouse (Peromyscus polionotus trissyllepsis) is one of seven subspecies of beach mice found in Florida, five of those found in the Florida panhandle.  Beach mice are a subspecies of the Old-Field mouse (Peromyscus polionotus).  They are small, about 5 inches long, with tails that have hair (which are an additional 2 inches).  Beach mice typically have a brown/gray color on top and a lighter white underbelly allowing them to blend into their environment very well.  The difference between the subspecies is the extent of the coloration. 

The subspecies status, and genetic isolation, is part of the reason these mice are listed.  Members of a population who are genetically isolated from others can undergo a process called speciation where the genetic changes that occur in one isolated group cannot/do not flow through the gene pool of the other isolated group.  Over time, the genetics, and morphology, of one isolated group becomes different enough that a new subspecies, or even species, develops.  This is the case with the Perdido Key beach mouse.  It is isolated on Perdido Key, a barrier island, and does not interbreed with their closest neighbors – the Alabama beach mouse (P.p. ammobates) and the Santa Rosa beach mouse (P.p. leucocephalus).  Because of this, ALL of the Perdido Key beach mice in the world live on Perdido Key.  Their population is small and vulnerable. 

These mice are dune dwellers living in small burrows.  They prefer the primary dunes (closest to the Gulf) which are dominated by the grasses whose seeds they like to feed on.  They forage at night (nocturnal) feeding on the seeds of the sea oat (Uniola paniculate), panic grass (Panicum amarum), and blue stem (Schizachrium maritimum) usually in the secondary dunes.  Highly vegetated swales (low wet areas between the primary and secondary dunes) are used to move between these habitats, and they are also found in the tertiary dunes (on the backside of the island where trees can be found) where their burrows are more protected from storm surge during hurricanes.  During periods when seeds are not available, beach mice will turn to small invertebrates to support their diet.  Their foraging range averages around 50,000 ft2.  

Breeding takes place in the winter, though can occur anytime of year if enough food is available.  They are monogamous (males pairing with only one female for life) with the females giving birth after 23 days to four pups.  New members of the family can move up to half a mile in search of a foraging range for themselves.  It is understood that with limited available habitat on an isolated island, the carry capacity of the beach mouse would be low.  Owls and snakes are some of the predators they face, but the beach mice have evolved to deal with few predator issues.    

The increase of humans onto the barrier islands has negatively impacted them.  The leveling of dunes for houses, condos, swimming pools, and shopping centers has significantly reduced suitable habitat for them as well as reduced the seed food source.  Introduced feral and free roaming domestic cats have also been a large problem.  Bridges connecting these islands to the mainland have allowed foxes and coyotes to reach, and increase pressure on, them.  With these increased pressures, and small populations, these mice are now listed under the Endangered Species Act. 

Conservation measures have included, predator control, building and landscaping restrictions, translocation (moving mice from large populations to those that are smaller), and reintroduction (releasing mice into areas where they once existed but no longer do).  There has been success with the Choctawhatchee beach mouse in the Grayton Beach area, as well as the Perdido Key beach mouse in Gulf Islands National Seashore.  Things that beach residents can do to help beach mice populations include keeping your pets inside at night, plant native grasses in your landscape, reduce night lighting, do not walk over dunes – use the cross walks. 

Things seem to be improving for beach mice, but the development pressure is still there.  Hopefully we will have these creatures as part of our panhandle barrier island communities for many years to come. 

References

Beach Mouse Fun Facts.  Gulf Islands National Seashore.  U.S. Department of Interior. 

Bird, B.L., Branch, L.C., Hostetler, M.E. 2021. Beach Mice. University of Florida Electronic Data Information System (EDIS).  https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/uw173.

Perdido Key Beach Mouse. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/mammals/land/perdido-key-beach-mouse/.

50 Years of the Endangered Species Act Part 1

50 Years of the Endangered Species Act Part 1

In 1973 the United States Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.  Controversial at the time, and still is today, the law was designed to help protect, and possibly restore, species that were near extinction within the boundaries of the United States.  At the time there was a lot of concern about what was happening to whale populations across the world.  These majestic creatures were being hunted by humans for food and other products.  The hunt had been going on for centuries but in the mid-20th century it moved to an industrial scale and many populations were on the verge of extinction.  The backlash from many around the world was enough for regulators in the United States to take notice. 

In the 1970s there was an estimated 1000 manatees in Florida.  These animals suffered from the increase of humans in their environment altering the habitat and literally running over them with an increase in boating traffic.  Many growing up in Pensacola at the time had never seen a brown pelican and had never heard of an osprey.  And then there was the decline of our national symbol – the bald eagle, and other national icons like the bison, bears, alligators, and moose.  The loss of wildlife was noticeable. 

At the time, if you looked at what was happening from the “30,000 foot” level, you could see the impact.  Our barriers islands, which supported dunes that reached 40-50 feet tall, were being cleared at an alarming rate.  Being replaced by large concrete structures, parking lots, and amusement parks.  This loss of habitat forced the decline of the diversity and abundance of wildlife and the carrying capacity of supported populations declined. 

If you looked seaward into the Gulf of Mexico, you saw a change from smaller boats with 75-100 horsepower motors to large vessels with up to four 350 horsepower motors on each boat.  The number of these vessels seeking fish increased from hundreds to thousands, to even tens of thousands in some locations.  Just visit one of the passes into the Gulf one weekend and you will witness the number of fishing vessels heading out.  These boats were heading to fishing sites that at one time supported a species’ carrying capacity that was high and could certainly sustain the human need for food.  Today these systems are stressed due to overharvesting. 

If you looked towards the estuary, you saw the increase growth on the island produce runoff that made the waters more turbid, creating conditions that stressed many species of fish, invertebrates, and plants.  Most notably was the loss of seagrass, which supports at least 80% of the economically important finfish and shellfish we seek.  We removed coastal salt marshes, which also support fisheries, and replaced them with piers, docks, seawalls, and manicured lawns.  These alterations again supported the decline of needed habitat and the diversity and abundance of coastal species.  Creatures that were once common in many locations like horseshoe crabs, blue crabs, and echninoderms were now hard to find in some bays.  The prized bay scallop is all but gone in many locations along with the recreational fishery that loved them. 

On the mainland side of the estuary, you find the large cities.  These are the locations that both the early European colonists and the Native Americans sought.  They were at the connection between the freshwater rivers and estuarine habitats that supported their way of life.  In the mid-20th century, these communities witnessed massive growth of humans.  These humans cleared land, built concrete buildings and roads, decreased suitable habitat for much of the life that existed there, and increased pollution in both the ground and surface waters.  Oyster beds began to decline, seagrasses that had reached the upper portions of the bay declined, and salt marshes were removed for a different sort of waterfront. 

Much of this had been noticed even in the 1960s.  The species that spawned the Endangered Species Act were mostly the large vertebrates that people felt close to, or the need for.  Species such as whales, dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles.  People were concerned about species like bison, moose, and pelicans.  But, as the draft of the law was formed, it included others that were not on their radars like alligators, frogs, and sturgeon.  The focus of the effort was the large vertebrates we were concerned about.  However, there were numerous small creatures that were being lost that became part of the movement such as river mussels, snails, even beach mice.  Then there were the numerous small creatures that will still do not know about. 

For decades scientists have written about the world of the tiny creatures that live within the sand grains, and on the surface of seagrass that play crucial roles in the over health of the ecosystem and support, directly or indirectly, the larger creatures we care about.  Even with the decision as to which species would be listed as “endangered” we saw favoritism for the large vertebrates that we appreciate.  When placed up for listing consideration species like spiders, sharks, and snakes were met with resistance.  Though their populations may have needed this protection, we did not want to protect those. 

Despite some opposition from the beginning, the Endangered Species Act has had many success stories.  Several species of whales are now stable or increasing, manatee populations have more than doubled, pelicans are common, everyone knows what an osprey is now, and viewing a bald eagle in Pensacola – though still exciting – is becoming more common place.  Another sign of success are species that have been de-listed from endangered to threatened or removed completely.  Alligators, bison, manatees, several species of sea turtles, and even the bald eagle have had this honor. 

Over the next few months, we will post articles about species that benefitted from the Endangered Species Act, and species who are still struggling and should benefit from it now.  There is no doubt that some humans suffered economically with the passing of this law, but its intent of preserving, and increasing the fish, wildlife, and even plants – that we love and need, as worked.