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Ear to the Sand
Carol: Conservation Hero of the Year

Carol: Conservation Hero of the Year

Carol Ruckdeschel was named Wild South’s Conservation of the Year in 2014. Her lifetime of scientific work on Cumberland Island National Seashore distinguished her from an impressive slate of fellow wilderness warriors. She was noted especially for her work to help  defend Cumberland Island’s Wilderness and her 44-year effort to protect the island’s nesting sea turtles.

“Carol is who we all hope to be: an uncompromising, unflinchingly dedicated defender of wild places,” said her presenter at the awards ceremony.

Carol focused her comments on two threats to Cumberland: fire suppression and feral animals. Both are having significant effects on the long-term health of the island.

Natural wildfires are a very important part of the life cycle of the Cumberland Island ecosystem.  Several species and communities cannot exist without it.  Even live oaks benefit from fire. The wetlands rely on fire to control encroaching vegetation and remove accumulated organic material during dry spells. Endangered long leaf pines will not reproduce without the presence of fire.

Under National Park Service management, fires have been controlled and prevented. As a result, colonial nesting wading birds no longer nest on the island. Wood storks once nested heavily on Cumberland Island, but a lack of fire has allowed vegetation to encroach upon their nesting sites and made the storks vulnerable to preadtors. Wood storks, egrets, and night herons have abandoned the island as a nesting site.

Feral hogs have caused widespread damage to the island ecosystems of the Cumberland Island Wilderness. Feral hogs compete with native species for food and shelter, and destroy the nests of endangered sea turtles and ground nesting birds, including shorebirds.

The feral hogs’ foraging and rooting activities have also greatly disturbed the island’s plant communities, interfered with essential nutrient cycling and patterns of plant succession, removed vegetation vital for stabilizing the fragile dunes, and even destroyed archeological sites.

Feral hogs feed heavily on endangered longleaf pine seedlings, affecting the regeneration of this important plant species. This disruption of the island’s flora directly impacts the island wildlife that is dependent on those various plant communities for food, shelter, and nesting. The hogs need to be removed completely from the island.

The famed wild horses of Cumberland are also not native to the island. Therefore, they do not fit within the natural ecosystems and as a result, suffer immensely. Feral horses trample and graze upon key indigenous plant species, often dramatically reducing or even eliminating their populations. Feral animals drastically alter the island habitat, in some instances threatening the very existence of fragile ecosystems such as the beach dunes. Cumberland Island’s feral horses graze heavily on smooth cord grasses, the primary plant of the tidal areas on the mainland side of the island. Grazing reduces the density of the grasses in the marsh, which are vital for trapping and holding sediments.

Reducing the population of feral horses to a small herd on the south end is the best management strategy for the health of the animals and the island.