The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Institute for Regional Conservation will begin a two-month restoration effort in the pine rockland habitats of the National Key Deer Refuge this week. This work, funded through a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant for hurricane restoration of habitat and species, will include a reduction of potential fire fuels as well as invasive plant control, according to Dan Clark, refuge manager. The goal is to help restore natural habitats that were impacted by saltwater inundation and remove downed and dead vegetation.

The work will take place in 60 acres north of Palm Avenue and east and west of Key Deer Boulevard. This portion of the refuge will be closed to all public access during the work period for safety reasons. IRC’s personnel specialize in pine rockland ecology and wildfire hazard reduction and will be operating a skid steer tractor for this work.

Big Pine Key restorationSome vegetation and vegetative debris will be mechanically and manually mulched, which also reduces fire fuels to minimize the risk of wildfire. Equipment operators will be removing only about 3 percent of the vegetation in a mosaic pattern mimicking effects created by a prescribed or natural fire.

This project was planned and funded prior to the 78-acre wildfire that occurred this past April, Clark said. It also complements work done by the Florida Forest Service and USFWS on refuge fire breaks earlier this year. As vegetation thinning occurs, IRC personnel will also document and treat invasive non-native plants to prevent regrowth. Target species include Brazilian pepper, Australian pine and Leadtree. The project includes measures to minimize impacts to federally protected plant and animal species. Only 2 percent remains of the imperiled South Florida pine rockland ecosystem, and in the Keys, it is home to such species as the federally endangered Key deer, the Bartram’s hairstreak butterfly and the butterfly’s host plant, pineland croton.

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Restoration and maintenance of fire-dependent pine habitat are essential to support these plants and animals, Clark said. Fire suppression remains a primary cause for continued pine rockland loss resulting in habitat changes including the conversion of these rocklands into hardwood hammock habitat.

For more information, contact Clark at 305-304-4907 and follow refuge updates at fws.gov/refuge/National_Key_Deer_Refuge/ About_the_Complex.html.

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