Many residents lack the knowledge of how to properly interact with some types of wildlife commonly found in Charlotte County neighborhoods.
Educate participants about wildlife and the natural habitats they may encounter.
Alligators and scrub-jays and tortoises, oh my!
With diverse wildlife in Charlotte County, Fla., the Charlotte County Community Services Department’s Parks and Natural Resources Division established an outreach program to educate county residents about the animals, habitats and natural environment they may come in contact with throughout the county.
The Nature in Your Neighborhood program launched in November 2018 and is an annual, six-part series that covers a variety of topics relating to local wildlife.
With low residential density in areas throughout Charlotte County, many county residents interact with wildlife every day. Parks and Natural Resources staff respond to questions daily at county parks and over the phone about environmental and wildlife issues.
Through the program, participants learn about the sensitive habitats of bald eagles, alligators, scrub-jays, gopher tortoises, sea turtles and shorebirds.
Senior Environmental Lands Manager Jason Thompson said the program started as an educational outreach opportunity.
“We came up with an opportunity to reach out to our citizens and bring about awareness for some of our more prominent environmental issues like protected species, gopher tortoises and scrub-jays, but also the environmental issues that people may deal with day to day,” he said.
According to Thompson, it is not uncommon to find animals like snakes or alligators throughout the county. Specifically, he described how gopher tortoises, one of five North American tortoise species, may be problematic in the county because they impact development. He added that many county residents often see gopher tortoises in their backyards.
“We felt like it was important to bring some greater awareness to some of these wildlife issues — things that are very much in line with what is in our neighborhood,” Thompson said.
The program is offered for individuals of all ages and abilities. Each session begins with a 30- to 45-minute lecture, which Thompson described as more of a group discussion among participants. During the discussion, Thompson and his team talk about the science behind many animals found throughout the county, such as why scrub-jays are on the endangered species list.
Following the group discussion, participants meet at one of the parks in the county to learn about the animals and their habitats in the field.
“We bring a lot of knowledge and a perspective of the science portion without going too deep into it but also when we bring folks out into the field, they get to see with their own eyes the nature in your neighborhood,” Thompson said.
In the field, participants learn about the different types of sensitive habitats, why they are important, what local, state and federal agencies do to protect them and where they can find these areas on Charlotte County’s conservation lands.
“We bring them out in the field with professionals and show them what to look for and give them almost a crash course in what it takes to do the work that we do,” he said.
The program includes different modules that focus on different animals. The alligator module covers the life cycle of the alligator, conservation of the species and educates participants on what to do if they encounter an alligator in Charlotte County.
Modules discussing scrub-jays, sea turtle and shorebirds discuss conservation efforts, where the animals can be found and each animal’s life cycle. In the gopher tortoise model, individuals learn about the most popular animal in the county.
More than 100 participants have attended the program with half of the participants attending more than one module.
“Some of them [the participants] we’ve come to know very well and they come annually just to come out and take an opportunity to go out in the field with us,” he said.
The program is funded through in-house programming with the department.
To encourage county residents to attend, Thompson said the department advertises the program on the county website and through local media.
He added that they are constantly reviewing feedback about the program and are considering expanding it to cover different animals.
“We’re always looking to freshen it up and change things up to see what works and see what people are interested in,” he said.