Apalachicola, Florida — Bradley Smith stood tall on the bow of the SeaArk 21-footer with a VHF antenna held high. It was quiet, too quiet. It had been six days since Hurricane Michael devastated the Panhandle and Smith was listening for signs of life on St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge.
He couldn't hear the red wolf's tell-tale ping.
But then, almost imperceptibly, he heard it — the sonar-like sound that announces a wolf's presence. But, just as quickly, it disappeared. Smith, a biologist, couldn't tell if the wolf was alive.
He heard it again. And again.
"That's a wolf right there. That's the female," the easily excitable Smith said. "She's on the refuge somewhere and she's alive. She's probably three-quarters of a mile away. She's in there somewhere."
He switched frequencies hoping to hear the male wolf. The pings double in frequency if a wolf hasn't moved — i.e., it's dead — over the course of six hours.
Smith heard a ping and another at normal speed.
"That's the male," he said. "Probably about a half mile away. We've got two adult wolves pretty close together. That's good news."
The hurricane rampaged across Bay and Franklin counties with winds nearing 155 mph. Rainfall, thankfully, was limited. But the winds kicked up a surge of Gulf of Mexico water that inundated the barrier islands and wreaked havoc miles inland.
Michael killed at least 36 people across Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. It laid waste to nearby Mexico Beach and large swaths of Panama City, Lynn Haven and other communities. With recovery underway, people began inquiring as to the fate of animals, both domesticated and wild. Red wolves, listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, topped wild animal enthusiasts' concerns.
Yet many other animals — threatened, endangered, at risk or merely beloved — also faced Michael's fury. How did they fare as the waters rose and the winds roared? Maybe three-fourths of the low-lying St. Vincent island refuge was covered in salt water. Where did the animals go? And, if they huddled on the few hammocks remaining above the water line, what did they do? How did the critters — poisonous, venomous diamondbacks, rattlers and water moccasins, predator wolves, wild hogs, American alligators, exotic Sambar and whitetail deers, armadillos, raccoons, frogs, shorebirds, salamanders — survive?
Smith and other service biologists, after touring St. Vincent and St. Marks wildlife refuges earlier this month, said the animals mostly survived the hurricane. So-called stochastic events — like hurricanes and other natural, unpredictable incidents — have hit Florida's coasts for millenia. Wildlife adapts. Whatever doesn't kill them makes them stronger.
"Cyclones are part and parcel of the coastal habitat," said the ponytailed, bespectacled Smith. "Their impact maintains habitat over time and helps organisms adapt. A one-time event will not have a big impact on population levels."
The island's story
A group of brown pelicans fly over St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, where resilience is a way of life. (Photo: Nicole Rankin, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/Flickr)
Only one other known location in the South, in eastern North Carolina, is home to wild red wolves. The service began propagating the near-extinct canid species on St. Vincent in 1990. The lush barrier island is a perfect spot for the wily wolves: free of humans (possible predators) and coyotes (potential gene-diluting mates); 12,300 acres to roam; and an abundance of small game for food. Wolf 1804 (the male) and Wolf 2050 (the female) are tracked, tranquilized and checked-up annually to ensure health. Service employees have sighted, though not yet collared, two pups this year, further indication of St. Vincent salubrious red wolf habitat.
About 20 pre-Columbian Native American sites, shell middens mostly, have been discovered on the island. A Confederate fort made of sand and wood guarded Apalachicola Bay. R.V. Pierce, a Buffalo doctor who founded the Invalids' Hotel and Surgical Institute, bought the island in 1907. He built cottages and hunting lodges and imported Sambar deer — hunted to this day — from Asia.
A temporary wooden bridge to the mainland allowed loggers to cut St. Vincent oak and pine after World War II. The Loomis family owned the island from 1948 to 1968 and expanded the menagerie with black buck, zebra and eland. The service acquired St. Vincent in 1968.
Hurricane Michael hammered the refuge, a biodiverse mix of coastal, marsh and pine habitat. A weigh station for deer and hogs, an outhouse and a floating dock were heavily damaged, though the service hopes the fall hunts will go off as planned. Dale Shiver, the refuge's maintenance man the last 28 years, estimated that three-fourths of the island was underwater. Fishermen told him that two Sambar deer and two white-tail deer washed up on the mainland.
"They were probably trying to find high ground," Shiver said while surveying the island's damage. "I've seen deer hanging in trees for a week at a time along the Apalachicola River. They'll do anything to keep their head above water."
'These coastal critters are survivors'
Fresh wolf, Sambar deer, white tail and raccoon tracks lined the muddy paths between the dunes and swales.
"I think all our game species are intact," Smith said.
It's too soon to discern mortality rates for animals on the Panhandle's barrier islands. Two days spent traipsing across the beaches, dunes, swamps and pine forests of St. Vincent and St. Marks wildlife refuges afford anecdotal evidence, at best, of the storm's harm to wildlife. But there's no denying that distinctive smell of death and decay that attracts vultures in the still-hot weather.
On St. Marks, for example, the corpses of pygmy rattlesnakes, eastern newts and sirens, large aquatic salamanders, abounded. Pickerel were found far from the gulf. Sea turtle nests were flooded. And the freshwater ponds where frosted flatwood salamanders, a threatened species, lay eggs were inundated with salt water.
"It is much saltier than we expected," said Jonathan Chandler, a biologist astride research Pond 3001 which sits a few miles from the gulf. "Frosted flatwood salamanders can't handle it."
He hiked along an old logging road and a levee to reach a well-tended forest of slash pine in search of red-cockaded woodpecker cavities. St. Marks is a woodpecker translocation site with 38 active clusters of the endangered birds. Chandler feared the four trees, marked with white paint, might have been toppled in the storm. They stood upright.
Joe Reinman, a St. Marks biologist since 1979, said Michael brought the highest storm surge since the 1920s. Some levees were gutted, but not breached. The wrack line extended miles inland. And the high water deposited boatloads of dead brim and bass across the levees and into the 1,100 acres of impounded waters.
At least six bald eagles, and countless turkey vultures, didn't mind. The marshes were freckled with gallinules, blue herons, snowy egrets and white ibises with the migratory season barely underway. The hurricane may have blown away waterfowl and shorebirds, but the oystercatchers, piping plovers, black rails, red knots and dunlins will return.
"It was a pretty rough storm," said Smith, "but these coastal critters are survivors."