Lake Okeechobee is listed as “Critical Habitat” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the federally endangered Everglade Snail Kite. With more than 200 square miles of wetland marshes, the lake’s habitat is second in size to only the Everglades themselves.
This critical habitat is challenged by water management problems that lead to harmfully high levels and high-volume discharges to the estuaries during wet periods, and harmfully low levels and water rationing during dry periods.
Snail Kites have not nested on the Lake since 2018.
In 2019 and 2020, Lake Okeechobee water levels dropped to about 11 feet of elevation during the nesting season, drying out so much of the marsh that kites simply did not attempt nesting. The low levels were caused primarily by dry conditions, but in 2019 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) deliberately allowed lake levels to recede to 11 feet.
It’s true that Audubon and lake stakeholders recommended the levels be lowered to help vegetation grow back after the ravages of Hurricane Irma. Kites are long-lived birds and we considered restoring the marsh a worthwhile trade-off for a year of no nesting. Unfortunately, in 2020 persisting dry conditions kept the lake low and meant a second year of no nesting. Lake Okeechobee is above 16 feet this fall, and we expect a return to a normal nesting season in 2021.
Audubon’s Paul Gray, Ph.D., is a co-chair of the Snail Kite Coordinating Committee, a group of professionals who work on kite-related issues. The Committee’s fall meeting took place virtually in October, during which Rob Fletcher, Ph.D., University of Florida, reported on calculations his lab has made on the importance of Lake Okeechobee to the overall kite population. In a nutshell, if the lake produced no young kites for the next ten years, the statewide population could drop by half or more.
The Corps is working on a new water level management plan for Lake Okeechobee. As the leading advocate for Lake Okeechobee, Audubon will ensure the Corps uses science to evaluate alternatives that will ensure optimal Everglade Snail Kite nesting conditions.