Wildlife drama on pristine island


Published: Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 18, 2010 at 1:19 a.m.

APALACHICOLA, Fla. — The bloodstained dirt, the tracks of perhaps a half-dozen attackers and the lethal wounds to an enormous beast spoke of a methodical killing that Thomas Lewis has never forgotten.

The federal biologist came across the scene a few years ago in the Florida Panhandle, on an island where antlered creatures five times bigger than native deer spend their days munching lily pads — until they are devoured by a top predator once declared extinct.

That's just part of the surprising character of St. Vincent Island, home to the state's only free-roaming wolves, as well as eagles that hunt freshwater lakes, and sea turtles that nest along nine miles of pristine Gulf of Mexico beach.

It might just be Florida's wildest wilderness, a coastal treasure few people set foot on but everybody should be aware of when considering the potential for spills from offshore drilling and rising seas from climate change.

"It's an intact barrier island with no human habitation," said Lewis, who worked there for 16 years. "People who do get a chance to feel St. Vincent's sand beneath their toes grow to love the place pretty quickly."

Florida's coastline for most visitors amounts to a theme park of dredged sand and hotels. By contrast, the 18 square miles of St. Vincent, though not as untouched as they were when they first rose from the Gulf of Mexico, come pretty close.

The island, now owned by the federal government, is officially known as the St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. You can paddle to it in a canoe, angling through the tidal currents of Indian Pass. Or you can examine it from at home on Google Earth for an overhead glimpse of what makes it so different.

Google's aerial image shows the triangular island streaked with fine white lines. Those are former beaches facing the Gulf of Mexico; like the rings that build outward on a tree, those lines provide a growth record of the island. Gulf of Mexico waves build a new beach every so often, with fresh sand transported by the nearby Apalachicola River from eroding Appalachian Mountains in Georgia.

Most Florida islands display only a few of these "beach ridges." St. Vincent has nearly 150. Some of them are knee-high; others, built up by windblown sand, are more than twice as high as a tall person and are steep enough to ski down. Joseph Donoghue, a Florida State University geology professor, excavated the ridges to determine their ages so he could calculate the island's birth date. He put it at 5,000 years ago.

But the beach ridges are more than interesting geology. They are the bones of the multiple, overlapping wilderness types that make St. Vincent one of a kind.

The ridges, spaced from 30 to 300 feet apart, have low spaces in between filled with wetlands and lakes. Pine and oak forests cover the rising slopes, while a desert mosaic of cactus, rosemary and bare sand dominates the ridge tops. This intense variety of environments is home to a wide range of wildlife, including alligators, nesting ospreys, falcons, gopher tortoises, and Eastern diamond rattlesnakes many 7 feet long and thick as a young tree.

"The island is an ecological marvel," said Eddie Eckley, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological specialist who until recently was a wildlife tracker on St. Vincent.

It turns out that St. Vincent's fauna is even richer than it should be. A behemoth species of deer known as sambar was imported from its native India a century ago by an American tycoon who wanted to turn the island into an exotic hunting reserve. Left alone, such big animals often can't survive in foreign lands. But the sambar elk-like in stature and weighing as much as 750 pounds waded into St. Vincent's swamps and thrived.

In 1968, the Nature Conservancy bought the island for $2.2 million and soon resold the land for slightly less than that to the federal government as a wildlife refuge.

Refuge managers elsewhere usually go all out to exterminate exotic species, except those cherished by visitors, such as the wild horses of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. So the Fish and Wildlife Service commissioned a study on what to do with the St. Vincent sambars, which by then were a growing favorite of local hunters.

Biologist Steve Shea, who analyzed the animals' habits for 18 months, found 200 of them hiding in the island's wetlands. They posed little threat to Florida deer or the island's environment, so the creatures from India got a federal pardon.

"They have an alarm (cry) called a 'pook,' and when that sounds out in the middle of the night, it scares the hell out of you," Shea said. "But they are really a cool animal."

Not everybody agrees with that assessment. Bruce Means, a Florida State University biology professor, wants the island rid of alien species so it could be managed as a "lifeboat" for native wildlife species in danger of vanishing from mainland Florida.

Meanwhile, the fewer than 100 sambars left on the island have become prized as lifetime trophies. Nearly 50 hunters camped through a cold, soggy weekend earlier this month to bag three stags, or males, and one hind, or female. Under refuge rules, shooting must be done with bow and arrow or black-powder guns. Those are classified as "primitive" weapons, though they are ultra-modern compared with the methods employed by the island sambars' other pursuers: red wolves.

Red wolves, native to the Southeastern U.S., were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. But with offspring from the fewer than 20 wolves then in captivity, federal officials have rebuilt a wild population of about 120 wolves at a refuge in North Carolina. They started putting wolves on St. Vincent in 1990 not to live there permanently but to breed pups for the Carolina clan.

Biologists soon learned those wolves were happy to include sambars in their diets.

The coming together of two such species, among the very rarest wild animals in Florida, is extraordinary. Not even an exotic Burmese python taking on a native alligator in the Everglades has the drama of such a large, deerlike mammal being stalked by a hungry wolf pack.

Lewis, the longtime St. Vincent biologist, went out one afternoon for routine wolf tracking the animals are fitted with radio collars. Although he couldn't see them, he realized with surprise that he was closely surrounded by a male, a female, three of their juveniles and possibly as many as three pups.

"I thought, 'Wow, they're all right here.' "

He soon learned why: Lewis turned up a road to get another radio fix and came across the carcass of a sambar, a hind still warm and bleeding that weighed several hundred pounds. Blood and tracks in the sandy road told of a frenzied take-down.

"They hadn't really opened the carcass yet and started foraging on it," Lewis said. He slipped away, and the animal was gone the next day.

Through the years, 45 wolves have been brought to or been born on St. Vincent. The most on the island at any given time: a male, a female and about a half-dozen offspring. They are trapped once a year, given a physical exam and fitted with new radio collars.

Lewis said he felt lucky when he was able, without relying on radio-tracking equipment, to see a wolf a few times a year. But proof of their presence is easy to spot. The daily traffic of wolves, sambars, alligators, sea turtles, wild hogs, horseshoe crabs and seabirds is revealed by the trails they leave on the beach.

As of late this year, there were only two wolves on the island: a young male and a young female.

The female is the daughter of a legendary wolf, a "breeding mama," Eckley said, that was the mother of at least 14 pups, by far the most of any wolf placed on the island. That most-productive wolf was also incredibly wise, able to toy with the biologists' artfully set traps so good at it that she could no longer be caught, except by time.

This fall, the old wolf's radio collar began the double pinging of a mortality signal. Dale Shiver, St. Vincent's forestry manager, searched the island exhaustively until he finally smelled her decay. The animal was stretched out among pines behind a dune, about a hundred yards from the Gulf. She had been dead for a week and reduced by vultures.

But she had ruled her territory, as Mother Nature had originally intended, for an unusually long time. Red wolves typically live five or six years in the wild, but she was 11 when she died. Shiver said the old matriarch's canine teeth were so worn, he suspects she wasn't able to hunt anymore.

"I think she just starved to death."

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