Turtles, and plovers, and bears, oh my! They are the coastal critters who live among us and need our assistance. Indeed, we are taking great strides to coexist with our unique, vulnerable wildlife neighbors.
Here are six such animals. Each is either endangered, threatened, and/or a protected species as designated by the U.S. federal government, the state of Alabama or both. They range from the meek, such as a mouse that fits in the palm of your hand, to the mighty — black bears that are stronger than you (don’t make them prove it).
Regardless of size, temperament, fur, scales or feathers, the animals in jeopardy attribute their troubles to common denominators: loss of habitat, encroachment and environmental disruptions.
Before exploring creatures in need, a disclaimer is in order. Though each is cute, huggable, and pet-able — don’t. It is best to let them do their own thing and you do yours. It is also the law. With that, meet the Southern six and discover what is being done to protect them.
Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Nature’s odds are against sea turtles. One in a thousand survive to adulthood. Chances are you will never see one, but it’s quite a sight. The mother buries her eggs on the beaches of Gulf Shores, Dauphin Island and other coastal areas. When hatched, palm-size turtles burrow out from the sand at night and race to the water. Most won’t make it. They fall victim to predators and beach lights.
“Turtles are programmed to follow light,” says Sara Johnson, director of Share the Beach, an organization devoted to helping baby sea turtles see the light — the correct one — reflected from moon-lit ocean waves. “Beach lighting from buildings, electrical poles and other sources confuses them. Babies will run towards artificial lights on shore and to their doom.
A species is considered endangered when it is under threat of extinction in at least a significant portion of its range. When a species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future, it is listed as threatened.
“We work with communities in establishing light ordinances and encourage property owners to use tinted beachfront windows. Amber or red spectrum lighting is best for turtles,” she notes. “They are not attracted to those colors like they are to white lights.”
Once in the surf, baby turtles swim thousands of miles into the Atlantic Ocean until reaching sargassum mats, their new home of floating seaweed. Male turtles will never touch land again. But in a few years, females swim back to the spot where they were born. They build a nest, lays eggs and the circle of life continues.
Though not as well traveled as loggerheads, red-bellied turtles populate Mobile Bay, the tributaries of Mobile and Baldwin counties, a few sections of coastal Mississippi and nowhere else on earth.
“It is a ‘big-river’ species,” says Evan Collins, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. “It prefers fresh water but will occasionally live in brackish.” Life is good in water but dangerous on land.
“Red-bellied turtles must come on land to breed,” Collins notes. “This makes them vulnerable to terrestrial predators and human activity.” Natural threats include raccoons, opossums and feral hogs. Human threats include a deadly, unintentional foe — roads.
Alabama is third in the nation for endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, following only California and Hawaii, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Females are attracted to elevated areas to lay eggs,” Collins adds. “The Causeway is one such elevated place that attracts them. It is a prime spot for egg laying and to be crushed in traffic.”
About a decade ago, knee-high turtle fences were constructed along the Causeway and are still in place. “It has been effective,” the turtle specialist says. “Fencing drastically reduced turtle crossings on the Causeway.”
He adds that the Fish and Wildlife service provides recommendations and project reviews for potential building, roadway and pipeline projects. The work can be done without harming turtles.
“One thing the red-bellied turtle has going for it,” Evans notes, “is that it lives in our Delta, which overall is still a wild, untouched place, affording a good deal of protection for the species.”
Alabama Beach Mouse
Chances are good that you will never see a beach mouse because it’s nocturnal, but you will likely see its home. It lives in sand dunes.
“Historically, the mice were first found on Ono Island,” recalls Bill Lynn, recovery and permitting lead for the Alabama beach mouse, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Today, it is an isolated population at Gulf State Park, between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and the west side of Little Lagoon Pass to the tip of Ft. Morgan.”
Those same areas are also prime real estate, and therein lies the problem. Early land development fragmented and destroyed the beach mouse’s habitat. “Today, we ask people to develop with the needs of the mouse in mind,” Lynn explains. “We want developers to use native landscaping — coastal plant species found on our coastline — and also leave areas in the building plans for the mouse’s habitat.”
Perdido Key Beach Mouse
Similar to the Alabama beach mouse, the Perdido Key beach mouse lives in — you guessed it — Perdido Key. It is a different species with different environmental concerns.
“Perdido Key mice live in a more precarious state of being than their Alabama counterpart,” Lynn notes. “Perdido Key is flatter and more susceptible to storm damage and washout. The Perdido Key beach mouse has less habitat than the Alabama beach mouse.”
Alabama ranks second nationally for number of species per acre.
Both live in a series of tunnels buried in sand dunes. The mouse family resides in an underground den with at least one main entrance, an exit tunnel and a secret escape route. The emergency exit remains sealed until needed. If a predator digs into the entrance, the mice race through the emergency tunnel, breach the surface and run to safety.
“We want people to minimize predators by controlling their pets,” Lynn adds, “especially free-roaming cats.”
Unlike others on our list, piping plovers are commonly sighted, but the birds are often mistaken for similar feathered beachcombers. Many wading birds are in the plover family, and most of us call them all sandpipers. They are not.
“The piping plover winters down here but does not nest,” says Roger Clay, wildlife biologist for the Non-game Wildlife Program with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The little surf-dwellers scurry along the beach in search of small bits of seafood during November through February.
“The plover population is stabilized,” the biologist adds, “but we keep it on the endangered species list because of the shoreline competition with people and loss of habitat. We encourage people to keep away from breeding grounds and other areas as much as possible.”
According to wildlife officials, “Lumbering, foreboding and misunderstood” are words that describe the black bear. Weighing up to 300 pounds, they are in our neighborhoods. Over the years, they have migrated to coastal Alabama from the north due to habitat encroachment. “The ones you see walking down the street are probably juvenile males,” notes Alabama Division, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries biologist Thomas Harms, speaking at a Satsuma, Alabama, bear seminar.
“Female bear cubs never venture far from home, but juvenile male bears are kicked out of the den forever. The boys are young, dumb, don’t know what they are doing, or where they are going. They don’t understand your neighborhoods or humans.”
But they do understand food and will eat anything you eat — and more.
Estimates suggest that nearly 100 species have become extinct in Alabama since colonial times.
Harms recommends not leaving pet food out overnight in bear-prone areas and securing garbage cans. In a recent Saraland City Council meeting, Mayor Dr. Howard Rubenstein reported bears transformed his garbage cans into an all-you-can-eat buffet, twice in a month.
Oh, and that hibernation thing does not apply. “It’s too warm down here for bears to hibernate in the winter,” Harms says. “They don’t do that in south Alabama.”
The good news is, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than being bear brunch. “Their first instinct when seeing you is to run away,” Harms says. “Give them space.”