NAPLES — The population of wood storks may be rebounding, but that doesn't mean they're returning to nesting sites in southwest Florida.
The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in northern Collier County was the largest nesting site for wood storks in all of North America until about six years ago. As their shallow wetland habitat continues to decline, the birds are forced to find other places to nest, said Jason Lauritsen, the sanctuary's executive director.
Nesting populations in Georgia and North Carolina, where the birds once rarely nested, are booming.
"There is a stark contrast between what we saw years ago to what's being seen in Georgia and North Carolina now because there was virtually no nesting there at all. Before, they only summered there. They're responding to a lack of opportunity in their home base," Lauritsen tells the Naples Daily News (http://bit.ly/Wzs8ae).
There isn't enough information, however, to know yet if the fledglings will be as successful long-term being raised farther north as they were in their natural southern habitat, he said.
"It's important to focus on the Everglades," Lauritsen said.
Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the population of wood storks had rebounded to the point that they can be classified as threatened instead of endangered.
The proposed change wouldn't remove any protections for the bird, and it still requires a public comment period following publication in the Federal Register. That could take about a year.
Leaders of the National Audubon Society, which operates Corkscrew sanctuary, warn that the reclassification and the changes in nesting patterns aren't good for the South Florida ecosystem.
"What would help would be better regulatory controls," Lauritsen said.
Those regulatory controls should need to include a change in South Florida in building mitigation plans required by the government, he said.
Currently, mitigation plans call for replacing wetlands, but Lauritsen said shallow wetlands, the habitat for wood storks, aren't being restored as quickly and frequently as the deep wetlands.
The wood stork was first listed as endangered in 1984. Federal wildlife officials said the number of nesting pairs during the past 10 years has ranged annually from 7,086 to 8,996 — above the 6,000 threshold necessary for reclassifying the bird.