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Dune Ecosystem Restoration

Panhandle Dune Ecosystem Project

The coastal dune ecosystem is a series of sand ridges that extend from the mean high-water line landward and is characterized by unique, highly diverse plant communities. The plants help stabilize dunes and provide essential habitat and food for many species of wildlife, including endangered species such as beach mice. Although the system exists in dynamic environments, it is fragile – disturbances, whether natural or human-caused, can cause significant, long-term changes to the system. Many parts of the coastal dune ecosystem across the Florida Panhandle have been severely damaged by tropical storms over the past 25 years. Human-caused disturbance adds to those problems on many sites. Unfortunately, as dune systems have become fragmented many plant species removed by storm events are not readily able to recolonize those areas. Restoring vegetation is critical for the long-term resilience of the coastal dune systems and to ensure those systems regain their natural biodiversity and ecological functions.   

The goal of this project is to incorporate an adaptive management framework to improve habitat quality and connectivity in the coastal dune ecosystem by implementing well-designed, targeted restoration activities to recover these fragile habitats. This approach restores dune habitats at a local scale to help recover ecological functions in the coastal dune ecosystem across the Florida Panhandle. We will work with conservation partners and stakeholders to better understand their perspectives on potential restoration needs, landscape-level threats, and multi-species use of specific sites. Our goal is to work collaboratively to ensure the project activities are strategic and focused on locations that will maximize the diversity and resilience of the coastal dune ecosystem while minimizing potential conflicts.

Project Information

This 6-year project is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (NFWF GEBF) and is a collaboration between FWC and the USFWS. The Project Oversight Team includes individuals from FWC and the USFWS, who are working collaboratively to oversee all management, monitoring, and construction activities of the project. The team will coordinate with key partners and stakeholders (e.g. landowners, land managers, and stakeholder organizations) to strategically identify areas for restoration that will maximize diversity and resilience while minimizing potential conflicts with other imperiled species.

The project’s Restoration Coordinator will work collaboratively with the Project Oversight Team and coastal restoration experts from the University of Florida (UF Team) to identify areas along the panhandle where dune restoration is potentially necessary. Specific criteria for categorizing restoration need will include considerations such as: willingness of landowner or partner, proximity to public conservations lands, current state of the habitat, potential to enhance connectivity, minimizing conflicts, and importance for wildlife.

Priority areas for restoration will be identified on public conservation lands and, where possible, along seaward margins of private properties. The intent is to work with property owners and managers, find willing partners, and zero in on specific project sites, which may be located in either foredunes or back dunes, depending on the needs within a given area. Potential needs may include increasing plant diversity, fortifying the resilience of the dune system, providing additional beach mouse forage, and restoring or enhancing dune habitat connectivity both within and between conservation lands.

To ensure that negative impacts to marine turtles, nesting shorebirds, or other critical resources are minimized while conducting these dune restoration activities, project staff will collaborate actively with other conservation experts throughout the course of this project. The project team will actively incorporate steps designed to ensure patches of open, bare sand beach are retained and not restored where those are important for nesting shorebirds.

Beach mice (Peromyscus polionotus) forage among the dune vegetation and require dunes to construct their burrows. Loss of dune habitat is a primary reason for the imperiled status of most beach mouse subspecies. Because of their conservation significance, their reliance upon dunes, and their reluctance to cross areas without appropriate vegetation, beach mice are a good species to use for evaluating the effectiveness of dune restoration activities.

We will monitor beach mouse populations before and after restoration at selected restoration sites, at nearby unrestored sites, and at high-quality reference sites. The objective for monitoring is to determine how effectively restoration activities produce increases in the occupancy or abundance of mice on restored sites. The Lead Biologist for this project will oversee wildlife monitoring.

We will also conduct vegetation monitoring before and after restoration. The UF Team, in coordination with the Project Oversight Team and FWC Restoration Coordinator, will develop protocols for vegetation monitoring that will be used to collect pre-restoration baseline data and post-restoration assessments to measure changes in the dune community relative to non-restored conditions.

We will not only evaluate success of each restoration project by comparing assessments of habitat at each site before and after restoration activities are completed, but also with conditions on high-quality reference sites.

The Project Oversight Team will evaluate and select each restoration site. Then the FWC Restoration Coordinator will collaborate with the UF Team and the landowner or manager to develop a site-specific restoration plan that maximizes ecological benefits in terms of the project objectives. Restoration efforts will focus on reintroduction or augmentation plantings of native dune plant species that will achieve project objectives and promote natural dune building processes.

Restoration approaches will include tested techniques for plantings that will be matched as appropriate to the location within the dune system and the restoration need. Restoration plantings will include combinations of dune plant species that effectively modify the environment as they grow – that is, ecosystem engineering species – (e.g., sea oats and panic grass, with extensive root systems and an ability to grow through accumulating sand that help them hold blowing sand) and a diversity of other herbaceous and woody plant species. Project restoration protocols will incorporate planting or interplanting multiple species selected to achieve site-specific restoration objectives.

The Adaptive Management Plan (AMP) is an important component of this project. The AMP will use a structured decision process to address uncertainties that are inherent in the environment and the activities conducted for the project. Expected uncertainties include site access, variable site conditions, program operations, planting success, and unanticipated conditions such as storms. The AMP will focus on strategies for revising restoration plans and actions as appropriate when evaluating progress relative to the project objectives. Data from the wildlife and vegetation monitoring conducted throughout the project will be applied to inform this process.

Terry Doonan

Mammal Taxa Coordinator

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission