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Hurricanes Hurting Endangered Species
Hurricanes Dennis and Katrina and two tropical storms have put the habitats of endangered species at risk.
By Tiffany Chaparro

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Hatchling
Loggerhead Sea Turtle Hatchling
(Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
Hurricanes Dennis and Katrina and two tropical storms have damaged the shrinking habitats of threatened and endangered species along the Gulf Coast. The two species most affected by the storms have been the Alabama beach mouse and sea turtles.

Damage to vegetation may also affect migrating neo tropical birds that are now beginning to fly south to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. They rely on the Fort Morgan peninsula in Alabama for food while flying south, according to Jereme Phillips, a wildlife biologist at the Bon Secour National wildlife Refuge on the Fort Morgan peninsula.

"They've survived hurricanes and these species have persisted for thousands of years," Philips said. "It's when you combine a hurricane or drought with habitat loss that the cumulative effects on these species can be devastating."

Unfortunately, the recent storms only added to the damage from last September's Hurricane Ivan. The storms damaged sea turtle nests across Alabama's Gulf Coast, destroying about 30 nests, according to a volunteer group that monitors sea turtle activity on the state's beaches.

Because the storms came early this year, they hit after the start of sea turtle nesting season in May but before many eggs had time to hatch. As a result, only six nests hatched naturally along the Alabama Gulf Coast, according to Kelly Reetz, a Gulf State Park naturalist. But there is still a possibility that other nests could hatch too in Orange Beach.

"Even though that sounds really, really bad, we're happy we got that many," Reetz said.

There was also a seventh nest that was in the process of hatching and was dug up before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Reetz said she and another volunteer found dozens of baby turtles. Some of the baby turtles still had their yolk sacks attached and others were still breaking from their eggs. So the entire nest, 55 babies, was put into a five-gallon bucket and then released into the Gulf two days after the storm, according to Reetz.

But according to Philips, the Alabama beach mouse may have the toughest time surviving. The three-inch mouse usually lives in the first and second lines of dunes among sea oats and seashore elder plants, but these were basically destroyed by the storm.

The mouse also lives in the hilly third line dunes. The third line dunes usually endure storms better because of the roots of live oaks and woody scrubs. But salt spray has killed much of the plants in those habitats, hurting the food supply.

Fish & Wildlife officials are planning to plant sea oats, beach morning glory, and seashore elder across the wildlife refuge's five miles of beach this spring to help regrowth of the surfside dunes. Until then biologist are scanning the remaining dunes for likely beach mouse habitats and leaving seeds among patches of plants where the beach mouse's footprints appear. U.S. District court Judge Michael Moore has also ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stop issuing flood insurance for new development in areas populated by endangered species in the Florida Keys to keep their habitat for other endangered species free of human interference.