Frequently Asked Questions about the CWA initiative

Group Of Pelicans
Q: What is a CWA?
A: CWA stands for Critical Wildlife Area. CWAs are established by the FWC under the Florida Administrative Code to protect important wildlife concentrations from human disturbance during critical periods of their life cycles, such as nesting or migration. The landowner must support the CWA designation before a site can be considered for establishment.


Q: Why did the FWC propose new CWAs?
A: The FWC proposed new CWAs in order to benefit wildlife in areas where they are concentrated in significant numbers and subject to human disturbance. CWAs are designed to provide needed conservation for Florida’s most vulnerable wildlife.


Q: Are wading birds and shore bird populations in trouble?
A: Yes. In 2010, the FWC reviewed the status of all state-listed shorebirds, seabirds and wading birds. Biological review groups including FWC scientist and other experts found that the little blue heron, tricolored heron, reddish egret, roseate spoonbill, American oystercatcher, black skimmer, least tern and snowy plover all met the criteria for listing as state threatened species. This was based on data showing decline in populations for each of these species. In addition, the piping plover, red knot, roseate tern, and wood stork are Federally-listed under the Endangered Species Act.


Q: I heard that there are no scientific studies to show that people approaching
closely impacts nesting birds. Is that true?
A: No, quite the opposite. There are a number of peer reviewed scientific studies that conclude that people closely approaching these areas disturb and negatively impact a variety of bird species.


Q: Do scientific studies indicate how far people should stay from nesting birds?
A: Yes, there are a number of studies related to bird disturbance. A study by Rodgers and Smith published in Conservation Biology in 1995 recommended a setback distance of 100 Meters (approximately 328 feet) for wading bird colonies.


Q: Why are the CWA buffers that the FWC uses sometimes less than the buffers
recommended in the scientific literature?
A: When establishing a CWA, the FWC considers a number of factors and develops regulations that are both balanced and effective. For example, it is important that the buffers do not impede on navigation channels or the channel right of way. In addition the FWC works to minimize the impacts on people enjoying Florida’s waterways while still providing conservation benefits for species in need.


Q: Do CWAs cover all the shorebird nesting areas?
A: No. There are many sites that have some level of bird nesting that the FWC does not include in CWA establishments. The FWC focuses on the top sites in terms of bird use.


Q: With CWAs around the state, are there still areas that I can visit on my boat?
A: Absolutely. There are thousands of mangrove, spoil and shoal islands throughout Florida, and CWAs are small sites in a handful of areas. For example, there are about 51 mangrove islands in Lee County’s Pine Island Sound, but the FWC only has CWA protections for three islands.


Q: How does the FWC decide which islands to propose for CWA designation?
A: The birds’ behavior helps us make the decision. Birds tend to gather in large numbers on specific islands. The FWC only proposes CWA designation on islands that have the most abundant bird rookeries, and where we also have documentation on human disturbance.


Q: How long do CWA closures last?
A: CWA closures vary depending on the individual CWA and the species that are there. Some CWAs have seasonal closures primarily for nesting, feeding and migration, while other CWAs may warrant a year-round closure depending on wildlife usage and need. If a CWA is no longer used by congregating wildlife then posting can be removed or it can be disestablished.


Q: Are CWAs only for birds?
A: No, they can provide protection for any significant concentration of wildlife. For example, the FWC established a new CWA in the Withlacoochee State Forest that consists of 6 caves for the protection of bats.


Q: How does the FWC monitor the success of CWAs?
A: Monitoring of bird numbers and nesting is done in partnership with other agencies and volunteer groups. Monitoring will continue and should provide long term data regarding changes over time in bird numbers and nesting success. Bats are monitored during hibernation and maternity seasons.


Q: Will CWAs be reassessed on a regular basis to determine if area closures
are still necessary or is CWA designation permanent?
A: Monitoring data is used to determine if the area is still important to maintain as a CWA. For example, cave bat surveys in 2005-2006 and in 2011 led to the disestablishment of Jennings Cave, a site no longer suitable for bat use.


Q: How will CWA closures be enforced and what are the penalties for
disregarding closures?
A: Any law enforcement can enforce the posted boundaries of a CWA. Law enforcement officers often take the opportunity to educate people violating the CWA boundaries before they issue citations. If a citation is issued, it is a 2nd degree misdemeanor with up to a $500 fine or a maximum of 60 days in jail.


Q: Can CWAs be removed?
A: Yes, the authority to “disestablish” CWAs has been delegated to Executive Director. In the past, the FWC has disestablished the following CWAs: Red Lake CWA in Sarasota Co., McGill Island CWA in Manatee Co., Jennings Cave CWA in Marion Co., and Anclote Islands CWA in Pasco and Pinellas counties. In addition, there are currently CWAs that are not posted, and therefore there are no restrictions to the public.  These areas are not posted because erosion has reduced their use by wildlife. They are under review for possible disestablishment and FWC staff are monitoring these islands.


Q: Are CWAs only for threatened or imperiled species? 
A: No. CWAs are an effective conservation tool for the protection of all wildlife.  All the bird species that are found on CWAs are protected under the federal migratory bird treaty act. However, many are not listed as threatened or imperiled. The CWA process was developed prior to Florida having its current imperiled species listing rule.  Taking steps to protect important nesting and roosting sites will not only help recover those species that are listed, but just as importantly, they will help ensure that other species will not decline to a point where they must be listed.

FWC Facts:
Approximately 1.7 million acres of Florida's remaining natural areas have been invaded by nonindigenous plant species, which have degraded and diminished our ecosystem.

Learn More at AskFWC