2006: Kiawah Island biologist balances needs of golf and government with wildlife

As the first rays of morning sun illuminate Kiawah, there is a flurry of activity by the native inhabitants to stake claims to prime areas along the fringes of the barrier island’s seven luxury golf courses.

On the second hole of the famed Ocean Course, a 6-foot alligator has begun a deliberate trek across the fairway to an inviting marsh.

Loggerhead turtles nest on the beach, while foxes engage in early wind sprints, darting in and out of the bordering brush.

On the 17th hole at Osprey Point, a bobcat is concealed among moss-draped oaks watching a group of whitetail deer feasting on a breakfast of acorns.

Teeming with wildlife, the 10-mile-long island located 20 miles southeast of Charleston would appear to be a contradiction in terms. In addition to Kiawah Island’s world-class golf courses, there are approximately 3,200 villas, condominiums and multimillion-dollar homes. About 400,000 people visit the island annually.

Kiawah also is home to 18 species of mammals, more than 30 reptiles and amphibians, and approximately 190 varieties of birds.

At Kiawah Island, animals play host to golfers.

Monitoring the delicate balance between nature and the encroachment of civilization is the job of Jim Jordan, who holds one of the rarest city government titles in the United States – he is the wildlife biologist for the town of Kiawah Island.

“Certainly Jim’s role for the island is an extension of the commitment to an ecological balance of what is here and accommodating the people who live and visit here while serving the golf courses and hotels,” said Roger Warren, president of both the Kiawah Island Golf Resort and PGA of America. “Jim does a great job monitoring how we protect those natural assets.”

Jordan’s primary focus is the environmental health of the island and how the golf courses, development and tourists are impacting Kiawah’s fragile ecosystem.

The golf courses on Kiawah provide an important open space for wildlife, acting as freeways for the animals to access all parts of the island. On Kiawah, the animals always have the right of way.

“Animals need four things to survive: food, water, cover and space. Golf is definitely a big component of Kiawah Island and no less so for the animals that are very active in the early mornings and late afternoons,” Jordan said. “All of the wildlife on Kiawah utilize the golf courses in some way, shape or form.”

Jordan views his town biologist position as a partnership with island superintendents.

“We all have the same goal of maintaining and protecting nature,” Jordan said. “I’m here as a resource for the courses, and conversely the superintendents have been very responsive in helping me.”

Warren maintains that the mindset of managers for the courses is that sound environmental practices must be employed at all times.

“We view the preservation of Kiawah Island as part of our professional responsibility,” Warren said. “I think we’ve demonstrated that golf courses are in fact good for the environment when you employ controlled application processes that are in tune with the ecological sensitivity of the habitat. There is a high level of commitment by our people to help Jim succeed so that we don’t lose the beauty of this island.”

The 200 birdhouses scattered on the Osprey Point, Cougar Point, Turtle Point and River courses are a good example of that commitment.

This “nature first” mindset on Kiawah Island has earned the property’s owners, Kiawah Development Partners, honors for environmental stewardship from the Urban Land Institute, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.

“Even though parts of the island are developed, they’ve been able to preserve the maritime forest, and that is why the wildlife is so plentiful,” said Melissa Bimbi, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Most people treasure living on Kiawah Island and seeing a bobcat, blue heron or bald eagle. Jim is very open and honest with the town about the needs and impacts on the wildlife.”

One part of Jordan’s annual regimen is testing the island’s numerous waterways for fertilizer or pesticides runoff from the courses. So far, Jordan said, the water has remained virtually pristine.

The addition of Jordan six years ago as Kiawah’s first wildlife biologist is the town’s most recent example of its devotion to preserving wildlife habitat.

Jordan is a South Carolina native who forged an affinity for nature early on.

“My dad, grandfather and uncles were an outdoors family,” Jordan said. “I grew up doing a lot of hunting and fishing with them. What I learned was an appreciation of the wildlife and nature. Over the years, it became my calling.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Furman University and a master’s degree from the University of Georgia.

It was his master’s thesis – field work on the populations of deer, foxes and bobcats on Kiawah Island – that eventually led to his hiring by the town in September 2000.

Jordan was instrumental in helping Gary Player-designed Cougar Point, which features play across a wide expanse of tidal marsh, achieve certification last year in the Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary for Golf Courses program. (The Ocean Course has been certified since 1995.) Working with Cougar Point assistant superintendent Andy Steele, Jordan provided detailed statistics on the number of bird species, their populations and breeding tendencies.

“It was work that I had been documenting over the years,” Jordan said. “What we found was that the breeding routes for the birds were all at points very close to the golf course. We found more than 100-plus species at Cougar Point.”

Jordan also headed a 2005 comprehensive aerial photo survey and three-dimensional mapping project of the island. The project is so detailed, he boasts, that every green on the island can be viewed from any angle.

Because many of the island’s bobcats have been fitted with transmitters, their movement can be tracked. By incorporating the aerial maps with tracking information, the bobcats’ habitat can be determined and their transportation corridors revealed.

The aerial photography also plays an instrumental role in a current study by the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Sciences into the effects of golf course runoff into the island’s estuaries and retention ponds. The NCCOS is part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association, and its goal in this study is to determine if nutrients found in the water systems are from golf course effluent or animal fecal matter.

“Thus far, most of the findings are pointing to the animals, especially the bird population,” Jordan said.

The town’s foresight in creating the wildlife biologist position paid huge dividends after a series of storms in 2005 wiped out the beaches and dunes adjacent to The Ocean Course. At one point, a 400-foot sand buffer between the 18th green and the Atlantic Ocean had been reduced to a mere 24 feet, and the course’s 16th hole and practice range were devastated.

The town hired a consultant earlier this year to design a new buffer, but the project faced a considerable hurdle. Part of the affected area is the winter home of an endangered shore bird called the piping plover. As the proposed project was revealed, environmental groups, including the South Carolina Audubon Society, campaigned against any dredging or scraping of sand to restore the buffer zones.

To make matters worse, The Ocean Course was in a battle against time. The project had a small window of opportunity for construction while the plovers were summering on the shores of Lake Michigan, not to mention the pressing deadline of next May’s Senior PGA Championship.

Jordan found himself in a pressure cooker representing the interests of the town and golf course while trying to broker an agreement with a host of governmental agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

“It was a tough time for Jim because he had never undergone the permitting process with government agencies,” said Bimbi, who handled negotiations of the beach renourishment project for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “I have to admit, it got ugly there for a while.”

But what brought the two sides together during the talks was that government biologist Bimbi was dealing with town biologist Jordan.

“That made all the difference in the world because the bottom line was, ‘How are we going to protect the habitat of this endangered bird?’ ” Bimbi said. “As a biologist, Jim understood that need, and he had the ability to go back to the town council and golf course management and explain why preserving the habitat was so important. He had the credibility with them. I’m not so sure they would have believed us and accepted our position as quickly as they did

with Jim.”

The original plan to move 1.2 million cubic yards of sand was reduced to 550,000 cubic yards and got approval. But before the work was completed successfully in late July, the Audubon Society took the matter to court, filing a lawsuit to have the project stopped.

Jordan proved to be the key witness during the hearing to determine the validity of the Audubon’s claim that the project would harm the piping plover habitat.

“I was excited to testify,” Jordan said. “I felt we were blindsided by the lawsuit and Audubon didn’t really understand the project. They had their facts all wrong.”

State Administrative Law Court judge John Geathers agreed with Kiawah Island, and the project continued.

“Jim’s expertise and testimony were instrumental in getting the injunction dropped and the project completed,” Warren said.

Although the beach work is completed, Jordan is responsible for monitoring the piping plover population and the health of its habitat for the next five years. He counts the birds every 10 days.

“We’ve counted 20 piping plovers, which means most of them have returned,” Jordan said.

“This has been a real win-win for everyone.”

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