MANATEE -- Manatee County harbors a wealth of rare and endangered plants and animals, some of which can be found nowhere else in the world.
Spread across thousands of acres of protected, publicly-owned land are such exotic beauties as the endangered Florida scrub jay, the state's only endemic bird species; and the scrub morning glory, which was thought to be nearly extinct until it was re-discovered in the 1990s.
More than a decade ago, county officials predicted if things didn't change for the better, the scrub jay had a 93 percent chance of dying out.
Now, the little bird is still endan
gered, but is making a comeback in Manatee County.
More than 29 groups of scrub jays, comprising about 90 individuals, live on land in East Manatee owned by the phosphate producer Mosaic Co., and on the nearby 24,000-acre county-owned Duette Preserve, according to Todd Mecklenborg, lead Florida scrub jay recovery biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
"People from all over the world are coming to Manatee County, and one draw is these really precious natural resources you have," said Chris Becker, who manages 35 parks for the Florida State Park system.
Eco-tourists contributed $139.1 million to the area's economy last year, according to a tourism expert. And work on county preserves also aids local businesses, since county officials calculated they spend $1.6 million annually on habitat restoration services and preserve land management.
Other rare flora and fauna growing here include:
* The Manasota paw-paw, a new species to science, believed to live only in Manatee and Sarasota counties; it is extremely rare because its habitat is almost gone.
* An endangered orchid native to Florida is the delicate "manyflowered grasspink," which grows n natural areas of East Manatee County but is choosy about its habitat and needs fire to produce blooms.
* The Eastern indigo snake, considered by federal and state officials to be a threatened species in Florida and Georgia, is the longest snake native to the U.S.
* In 2007, the gopher tortoise was up-listed to a threatened species by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is among the oldest species on earth but has been declining, most recently due to habitat loss.
* The Florida mouse, also known as the gopher mouse, is considered a species of special concern by the state because of destruction of its habitat. The Florida mouse is among many species that depend on gopher tortoise burrows for shelter.
* The Florida golden aster, a federal- and state-listed endangered species with a central disk and rays of bright golden yellow, is found only in Manatee, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Hardee counties.
* The endangered pine lily treats viewers to brilliant orange blooms in mid-summer to fall, but only when the habitat it prefers undergoes its natural cycle of fire and moisture.
Visitors can see many rare species at Lake Manatee State Park and Duette Preserve, both in East Manatee.
By protecting the habitat of the endangered Florida scrub-jay, officials can also protect other species that rely on the same type of wild environment, such as the indigo snake, the gopher tortoise, the Florida mouse and the Florida golden aster and the scrub morning glory, said David Gordon, senior ecologist at Quest Ecology, who works with Manatee County on properties its manages.
"The scrub jay is a target species, indicators that help monitor whether your management practices are in good condition," he said, referring to programs designed to restore and maintain their native habitat.
Gordon helps Manatee County to monitor its scrub jay population by using fake traps that aid him in putting identifying leg bands on the birds.
A county program called "Jay Watch" uses volunteers to help monitor and track scrub jays, too, said Melissa Nell, manager, education and volunteer division, for the Manatee County Natural Resources Department.
"It's been very exciting and gratifying for us, because we're able to help the public understand" how complex land management practices can benefit a variety of endangered species, she said.
Paid work on the preserves also benefits the county in a different way, by creating jobs for local businesses, said Charlie Hunsicker, the county director of natural resources.
"As we work to preserve our environment, we're also an economic player in Manatee County," he said.
The county spends $1.6 million annually each year on habitat restoration services and preserve land management, said Hunsicker.
"Our point in bringing this to the attention of commissioners," Hunsicker said, referring to a recent presentation, "was to demonstrate that the land management efforts they support in our approved budget also provide real dollar value out in our local community in the form of direct employment (jobs) in the private sector, and expenditures for services and supplies, which multiply as additional investments back in our local economy."
With 15 existing preserves, and four new ones under development -- altogether, almost 30,000 acres -- Manatee County is among the most progressive counties for land acquisition and endangered species and habitat management, said Chad Allison, representing the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"Quite simply, we're just trying to protect what's left of Florida," he said.
The popular preserves have helped fuel an eco-tourism industry with an economic impact of $139.1 million a year, according to statistics provided by Walter J. Klages, president and chief executive officer of Research Data Services of Tampa, which compiles tourism information for the county.
"Eco tourism is an important part of what we have -- there's no question about it," he said.
In 2012, among commercial lodging visitors only, 128,600 were attracted by the area's natural pleasures, said Klages, citing surveys of visitors. That number does not include day trippers or those who stayed with friends and family.
"Nature and environment is part of what attracted them," explained Klages. "These people may also have golfed and gone to the beach, but nature and the environment was an important part of their trip experience."
Visitors put a tremendous value on seeing places teeming with unusual plants and animals, said Hunsicker.
"Birders are paying high dollars to come here," he said. "There is a value that you can actually place on these animals--there's certainly value there."
In addition to birdwatchers, there are kayakers, canoeists, hikers, backpackers, and scientists specializing in plants and animals who enjoy seeing Manatee's wild spaces.
"We get a wide variety of people coming out," said Manny Perez, park ranger at the 549-acre Lake Manatee State Park.
"I've had birders come out, and people coming to look at plants," he said. "We have guided walks from December to April, to discuss what's on that trail, what's in bloom. Guided walks give people an appreciation for what we have out here on our property."
One eco tourist is Kathleen Dodge, 71, of Palmetto, who enjoys wagon trips into the scrub at Duette Preserve, offered free through the Manatee Fish and Game Association.
Originally from Vermont, Dodge said she was unfamiliar with the state's ecology and welcomed the informational, fun trips with a guide and 19 others. The tractor-drawn wagon makes regular trips into the vastness of the preserve.
"It's just wonderful," said Dodge, a retired family therapist. "It's just a new life, really.
"For one thing, I've been in Florida 20 years, but it was a total mystery as far as the landscape," she said. "I didn't know the significance of the water, of the places like Duette Preserve -- it's a totally foreign environment to me from being in the north."
Guided trips through the preserve taught her much about the state's history, and what needs to be done to conserve its native habitat, and the plants and animals that depend upon it.
"It was real exciting. finding out about the Florida (scrub) jay, and how they're being revived again," she added. "I was just very curious."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.