Tom Hoctor is a landscape ecologist and conservation biologist who directs the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning at the University of Florida. Tom earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard University and his doctorate at the University of Florida. He’s recently undertaken the challenge of contributing to work on the Florida Wildlife Corridor. He’s also a friend of mine, from my hometown in Gainesville, and a kick-ass bird watcher. I asked him to answer a few questions for an ad-hoc series I hope to do here on Wild Muse that will explore the work of scientists, conservationists and their inspirations.
Florida has a unique history of settlement, development, and exploitation of natural resources. What do you think are the biggest defining conservation problems the state faces?
Sea level rise is likely the biggest problem that will define Florida’s future. Given the size of Florida’s coastal human population, and the extremely flat topography, Florida stands to be impacted more than any other state by sea level rise, and even a 1 meter rise in sea level could have catastrophic consequences. It is already extremely difficult to balance continued development with environmental conservation in Florida, but sea level rise will greatly complicate this balance with the potential shift of millions of people away from the coasts to currently rural inland areas that are extremely important for conservation.
Can you briefly describe what you do as Director of the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning?
I conduct applied research regarding the relationship between ecological conservation and land use planning and policy. A primary goal of the Center is research and education regarding the importance of protecting green infrastructure for maintaining both healthy ecosystems and human communities. Green infrastructure promotes the critical concept that ecosystem function, biodiversity, and the health of human communities are inextricably linked. As part of this work, the Center attempts to integrate various disciplines including conservation biology, landscape ecology, landscape architecture, and urban and regional planning. Recent projects include the Florida Ecological Greenways Network (FEGN) and the Critical Lands and Waters Identification Project (CLIP).
You’ve been very active in helping the State of Florida to plan greenways and wildlife corridors. Can you describe what goes into planning a greenway or wildlife corridor — what factors must be taken into account, and what tools you use?
First, there is some confusion about the term “greenways.” In many places greenways are considered to be linear recreational amenities such as various types of developed trails that may or may not include significant green space. In our work here in Florida, ecological greenways can be considered equivalent to wildlife corridors although there are other potential ecological conservation benefits such as protection of water resources.
GIS is an essential tool in efforts to identify wildlife corridors or other conservation benefits of landscape-scale conservation design. The general process involves data inventory, working with technical experts including species biologists or other resource scientists, identification of core conservation areas, connectivity analysis, and then design of ecological networks integrating cores (or hubs) and corridors. Factors that we have to address include the characteristics of the focal species, landscape structure, and the general scientific guidelines for designing functional wildlife corridors. Since the species and landscape structure can vary significantly, ensuring functional corridor design is complicated and there is still much to learn about minimum characteristics of functional corridors.
Once a greenway or wildlife corridor has been identified and proposed to regional or state planners, what are some of the challenges to implementing it?
Having the requisite political will is the most important aspect of getting wildlife corridors or conservation reserve designs implemented. Anywhere in the U.S. this is complicated by a well-established emphasis on private property rights and a general feeling that the economic value of land for development overrides its conservation value. However, ecosystem science and ecological economics have made it increasingly clear that conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services have very important, including economic, value for people. So the primary challenge is to get most people to understand the value of intact or restored ecosystems so that they become an integral part of land use planning at all scales including local, regional, state, national, and global. States like Florida and Maryland have identified statewide green infrastructure and there is a growing conversation about the value of ecosystem services and what needs to be done to conserve them. These efforts also include attempts to create more, and increase the value of, various conservation incentives that will make protecting and restoring species habitat and ecosystem services economically valuable to private landowners.
What are some of the species you focus on conserving in Florida? What are the special issues facing their conservation?
Through many projects I have worked on many different focal species in Florida and especially various federal or state listed species. The two species that I have worked with the most, due to their relevance to protecting a statewide network of conservation lands, are the Florida panther and Florida black bear. Both species require very large areas to support viable populations.
The Florida panther is now relegated to only one breeding population in southwest Florida within a former range that went north to Georgia and west to Texas and Missouri. This remaining population is only barely viable and constrained from growing bigger by coastal urban development associated with Naples and Ft. Myers and the Caloosahatchee River, which drains out of Lake Okeechobee, to the north. One goal is to re-establish a breeding sub-population north of the Caloosahatchee River to increase the viability of the current population. In addition, the Florida Panther Recovery Plan requires the re-establishment of two additional independent populations within the panther’s historic range. Some of these areas include parts of north Florida, and one goal of the FEGN is to protect remaining large landscapes and functional corridors to make re-establishment of a panther population in north Florida feasible.
The Florida black bear still occurs in four large populations and several smaller populations dispersed across Florida. However, continued habitat loss due to development and increased transportation infrastructure (more and wider roads and more vehicle traffic) are impacting bear habitat that could result in further fragmentation of populations or even loss of at least some populations. The FEGN is also relevant to black bears in Florida with one of the primary goals being to protect existing corridors, or restoring connectivity, between all bear populations across the state. We are also working on a specific smaller Florida black bear population called the Highlands-Glades population that occurs in a critical connectivity area in south-central Florida linking the south and central parts of the state.
I am also currently working on a regional gopher tortoise habitat model for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service across its range in the southeastern U.S. to identify potential habitat and conservation opportunities. This work may expand into more detailed habitat assessments for both gopher tortoise and associated xeric ecosystem species to identify habitat conservation and mitigation strategies based on habitat quality, patch size, and landscape context.
What keeps you motivated to work for conservation of natural places and wildlife?
There is always hope. Though those of us interested in biodiversity and nature conservation seem to lose a lot of battles, at the same time there has been a lot of land protected for conservation. In Florida, every time a piece of property has been protected for its conservation values, we have all benefited. And I think we are moving in the right direction with more people understanding the values natural and rural landscapes provide.
Who or what has been your greatest inspiration?
Growing up in Florida while spending summers in Maine (I was born in Maine but moved to Florida when I was very young) had an important influence. I was always interested in nature and specifically fish since childhood. I remember the drives to Maine and wondering what fish might be found in the various rivers we crossed or lakes we passed along the way. And Florida and Maine are very different but the same in that they both still have very large tracts of forest and other ecosystems, share various migratory birds and other species, and have amazing coastlines. Maybe I’d have turned out the same elsewhere but certainly my love for nature was fostered by my specific experiences in both states.
During my undergraduate and graduate degrees various professors and other people provided a lot of inspiration and guidance that resulted in my career path. As an undergrad, E.O. Wilson was incredibly inspirational (which, of course, is not surprising) in the evolutionary biology course he taught at Harvard. I also worked for professors Karl Liem and Raymond Paynter who were in charge of the ichthyology and ornithology collections at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. But my major professor at the University of Florida, Larry Harris, who wrote the book, The Fragmented Forest, about integrating the concept of habitat fragmentation with landscape ecology and reserve design provided the greatest inspiration and guidance that led me to where I am today. His breadth and depth of knowledge and his passion for conservation are truly remarkable and very influential.
Finally, one of my closest colleagues, Dr. Dave Maehr died two years ago in an airplane crash while doing telemetry for his Highlands-Glades black bear research project from the University of Kentucky. Dave worked for a decade on the Florida panther for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, got his Ph.D. at the University of Florida, and became a professor of conservation biology at the University of Kentucky. I got to know him during his Ph.D. work and since then we worked on a number of Florida panther and Florida black bear projects and papers. He is and will always be sorely missed, but I and others that worked with him on the Highlands-Glades bear project and on panthers are committed to continue working on the conservation of these species on his behalf.