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From preserving the ecosystem to studying bats, CREW biologist Kathleen Smith is always up for a challenge
Water continues to be a hot topic in Southwest Florida. And Kathleen Smith knows that’s an important part of her work at the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed Wildlife and Environmental Area (CREW WEA), because CREW is the largest intact watershed in the region. “It’s such an important place for maintaining our quality of water,” she explains.
For the past seven years, Smith has worked at the CREW WEA as a fisheries and wildlife biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Using data gleaned from surveys and other research, she makes wildlife management decisions at the 28,000-acre site that’s part of the 60,000-acre watershed straddling Lee and Collier counties. She also helps out with prescribed burns, hurricane cleanup and any other tasks needed to take care of the area, which is managed in cooperation with the South Florida Water Management District.
Smith’s willingness to pick up a chainsaw or take a closer look at creatures big and small contributed to her being named the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s 2018 “Resource Manager of the Year.” Her supervisor, Dan Mitchell, nominated her for the award.
“I’ve worked with many different biologists throughout the state and at different agencies, and she just ranks among the best of them,” says Mitchell, district biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “She’s just incredibly dedicated and hardworking and really has a passion for the area on which she works. And beyond being a solid field biologist and somebody you would want to be stranded in the field with, she’s just a genuinely goodhearted person. Everybody really enjoys working with her.”
Colorado native Smith, 39, first came to Florida after getting her master’s degree in wildlife biology and ecology from Oklahoma State University. She spent two years in a research fellowship at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, then started working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2007. She did stints at the Big Cypress Wildlife Management Area and Picayune Strand State Forest before landing at the CREW WEA.
Smith has worked on a variety of projects there, including a years-long study of bonneted bats that continued work she started while at Picayune Strand State Forest. Over the years, she and other local scientists have done acoustical surveys, mist netting, tagging and other research work with the bonneted bat populations at both the CREW WEA and Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area. Their findings have helped shed light on things such as colony dynamics and travel patterns.
“I didn’t know anything about them before I started, and learning something completely different is something I’m always interested in,” notes Smith. “I think it’s fascinating to study something that we don’t really come in contact with on a regular basis. Every year, we learn so much new information about them—which certainly keeps my juices flowing and keeps the fire going.”
“She’s kind of a resident expert down here,” adds Mitchell. “If anybody has any questions or things they need to figure out with bonneted bats, Kathleen’s the ‘go-to person.’ ”
For the past six years, Smith has also been involved in survey flights to monitor the nesting habits of great egrets, wood storks and other wading birds. She also conducts bird surveys each spring and has surveyed the popula-
One of her major goals? Helping the general public understand the importance of the place where she works and other natural areas like it.
tions of animals such as fox squirrels, frogs and gopher tortoises, often to ensure that hydrological restoration efforts don’t have a negative impact on the creatures who live at the CREW WEA. “I’ve got a full plate, for sure,” she says.
Mitchell states, “What really shines through is that she genuinely cares about her work and what she’s doing for conservation throughout Southwest Florida. She cares about the wildlife, the land and the people using it.”
And Smith maintained that focus over the course of a tough year during which Hurricane Irma damaged her employee housing. Mold issues required her to move out and work remotely for a period of time, and she was without stable electricity at her housing for months after the storm. “It did not slow her down one bit,” says Mitchell.
Smith enjoys being part of a bigger team that includes the water management district and CREW Land & Water Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization that works with both government entities. One of her major goals? Helping the general public understand the importance of the place where she works and other natural areas like it.
“Getting children and adults to really value what we value is a difficult part of our society today,” she says. “It’s become harder for children to connect with wildlife and natural areas. CREW is such an important place ecologically for our region.
“I hope the award brings more notoriety to CREW, and to all the efforts made not only by us but at all the natural places in Florida and throughout the United States. It’s nice to highlight some of the resource management that we do, because a lot of times it’s overlooked.”
Named 2018 Resource Manager of the Year, fisheries and wildlife biologist Kathleen Smith is handson in the field at the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem W atershed Wildlife and Environmental Area.
Smith (center) and her colleagues have used bat-sniffing dogs to help study the local population of bonneted bats.