Threatened Eastern Indigo Snake Reintroduction Marks Habitat Restoration Success at The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve
First Indigo Release in Florida in 30 Years.
Tallahassee, FL | July 17, 2017
Today, the federally threatened eastern indigo snake, an icon of the southern longleaf pine forest, is being reintroduced to northern Florida at The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve (ABRP). The release of indigo snakes to the restored habitat marks a milestone in successful landscape restoration and ecosystem management, and is a key step towards species recovery in the region.
The Nature Conservancy, Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC), Auburn University, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), The Orianne Society, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, Gulf Power, Southern Company through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), and the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida have partnered to reintroduce this non-venomous apex predator, an essential component of the longleaf ecosystem, and have worked together for many years to make this release possible.
The indigo, which often seeks shelter in gopher tortoise burrows, can grow to be between 8 and 9 feet long, and is the longest native snake in the U.S. The indigo’s historic range included the southernmost tip of South Carolina west through southern Georgia, Alabama, into eastern Mississippi, and throughout Florida, though it is now far more restricted. Largely eliminated from northern Florida due to habitat loss and fragmentation, the indigo was last observed at ABRP in 1982. The indigo forages on a variety of small animals including both venomous and non-venomous snakes. It serves a critical function as an apex predator that is important for a healthy and balanced wildlife community.
The reintroduction begins a 10-year commitment to species recovery through annual indigo releases, and continues a focus on establishment of healthy ecosystems through collaborative land, water, and wildlife conservation efforts.
“Today’s eastern indigo snake reintroduction at the Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve is a testament to the decades-long effort by Conservancy staff, and the teamwork of an incredible group of partners in the implementation of innovative restoration methods that resulted in healthy, restored longleaf pine landscape,” said Temperince Morgan, Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy in Florida.
ABRP is a 6,295-acre nature preserve in northern Florida’s Liberty County which protects a large longleaf pine landscape and embedded steephead ravines and streams. Located in the Apalachicola Bay region along the Apalachicola River, the preserve lies in the center of one of five biological hotspots in North America. This treasure trove of species diversity is unique to Florida and home to a disproportionate number of imperiled species. The preserve is a living laboratory for the development of novel restoration techniques and land management excellence, dedicated to natural community restoration, preservation of biodiversity, and education and training.
The longleaf pine ecosystem is one of the most diverse ecosystems globally; only 5% of this precious landscape remains. Over the past 30 years, The Nature Conservancy has employed science and technical expertise to develop the state-of-the-art groundcover restoration process that is now used by state, federal and private partners across the southeast to restore longleaf pine habitat. This restoration, combined with the Conservancy’s robust prescribed fire program, has resulted in improved longleaf habitat on over 100,000 public/private north Florida acres in recent years.
The indigo reintroduction celebrates the shared commitment to longleaf pine restoration, made a top priority at places like the Apalachicola National Forest and Torreya SP – both neighbors to ABRP -- by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
“The eastern indigo snake has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1978, and today’s release is an important milestone in our efforts toward recovering this important reptile,” said Cindy Dohner, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast region. “Conservation work like this requires many partners like those here today, and the efforts of everyone today will help ensure that future generations can see this beautiful snake in the wild. It marks an important step in our collective effort to recover the indigo snake and ultimately remove it from the list of protected wildlife.”
Bred and raised by the OCIC, the world's foremost comprehensive-based conservation organization dedicated to reptiles and amphibians, the 12 young snakes, 8 males and 4 females, have most recently been living in outdoor enclosures that allow them to be exposed to natural environment they would encounter in the wild, in preparation for their release. The snakes have been implanted with radio transmitters by the Central Florida Zoo's vet staff, to allow for the tracking and monitoring of the snakes.
"The Central Florida Zoo's Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation is honored to be involved in the repatriation of the Eastern Indigo Snake in Florida,” said Michelle Hoffman, Curator, Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation. “As the sole facility that is breeding indigo snakes for release back into the wild, the OCIC provides these animals with expert care to ensure the breeding success of this challenging species in captivity."
Indigo expert The Orianne Society, was integral in the creation of the indigo snake reintroduction team and continues to play a role in reintroducing eastern indigo snakes into places they no longer occur. The Society works to conserve critical ecosystems for imperiled reptiles and amphibians using science, applied conservation, and education. “The indigo snake reintroduction effort in Florida is one of the greatest partnership driven conservation stories of modern times,” said Chris Jenkins, Chief Executive Officer, The Orianne Society. “Not only is it a considerable accomplishment to bring a group together that can make the reintroduction of wildlife possible, it is an especially significant show of support for an imperiled species of snake.”
Auburn University’s Museum of Natural History’s Alabama Natural Heritage Program has been involved in the planning of the project and brings expertise and knowledge, particularly in terms of monitoring the snakes once they are released. Monitoring will include growth, behavior, and survivability. The monitoring program is supported in part by The Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, whose mission is to understand, demonstrate and promote excellence in natural resource management and landscape conservation in the southeastern coastal plains.
“We hope that the release of indigo snakes into The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve will eventually result in an independent population of these animals,” said David Steen, assistant research professor at Auburn University. “Establishing new populations of indigo snakes where they used to occur is essential to meeting federal recovery goals for the species.”
The indigo reintroduction efforts are supported by grants and other funding, including a Conserve Wildlife Tag Grant from the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, funded through purchase of Conserve Wildlife Florida license plates and designated for conservation of non-game species and the habitats that support them.
“This is a big day for a big snake and a long time in the making,” said Dr. Thomas Eason, Director of the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. “In addition to all the partners, we need to thank Floridians who purchase the Conserve Wildlife license tag, which has generated the funds to support this indigo snake reintroduction effort.”
Additional funding has been provided by Gulf Power, and Southern Company through NFWF. “Gulf Power has a long history of contributing grant dollars and providing volunteers hours to The Nature Conservancy,” said Jeff Cole, Gulf Power Environmental Stewardship coordinator. “Our partnerships with The Nature Conservancy and the other sponsors in restoring the longleaf pine ecosystem has made it possible to reintroduce the indigo snake species. This milestone is a true success story and highlights our commitment to conservation efforts in Northwest Florida.”
“All of the pieces have come together – the protection and management of the landscape, the advancement of the animal husbandry expertise to raise young snakes for release, and the development of the science necessary to make good decisions and monitor project success. This project is an exceptional example of a strong partnership dedicated to success,” said David Printiss, north florida program manager, The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “The restoration is complete, the snakes are flourishing, and the monitoring program is well equipped and ready – all systems are go!”
The selection of ABRP as the first eastern indigo reintroduction site in Florida is an affirmation of the Conservancy’s dedication to landscape restoration and ecosystem management. Throughout the state, the Conservancy continues to pursue conservation projects and support policy that protects natural systems for people and wildlife.
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.