Growing up in Clear Spring, biologist Kim Dryden's childhood seems almost like a Disney nature movie.
Her father and grandfather both worked for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which gave her an unusual exposure to wildlife.
"I remember one January someone showed up with a grebe," Dryden, 54, recalls during a telephone interview from her Naples, Fla., home.
A grebe is a waterfowl. They are diving birds. Or as Dryden said, "it's basically like a mean, big duck."
"I can remember it splashing around in the bathtub because that's the only place we could think of putting it," she said. "They went out for New Year's Eve and it was splashing around in the bathtub."
Stories like that were frequent in her younger days where people would show up at the home of her parents, Betty and Rodney "Cork" Shank, with animal in hand for her dad to rehabilitate before releasing it back into the wild. For instance, she remembers seagulls walking around the house.
"And we raised baby owls, and they'd fly through the house and terrorize my mother," she said.
Her grandparents actually lived in the Indian Springs Wildlife Management Area, which allowed her to use the area in the shadows of Fairview Mountain as her playground. There was a pond on the property as well as a stream that weaved through the land and plenty of trails that led around mountains.
"We'd go walk those trails and walk around the pond," Dryden said.
It was those early beginnings that laid the foundation for Dryden's chosen field as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's South Florida Ecological Services Office.
In June, Dryden was named Wildlife Conservationist of the Year by the Florida Wildlife Federation, at a special event in St. Petersburg, Fla.
According to the press release, the FWF said, "Florida is fortunate to have a biologist who is so completely dedicated to preserving the state's iconic fauna. Her commitment to the long-term success of wildlife in Florida is exemplary."
"It really did mean a lot to me," Dryden said of the award, who admittedly choked up during the ceremony.
Although biology would have been an easy transition for Dryden considering her childhood, she said she shifted to wanting to do something with marine biology and worked with whales when she was a pre-teen.
Every summer when she was young, Dryden said her mother's family, the Hawbakers, along with neighbors and extended family would take a trip to Nags Head, N.C.
"We would plan it for months," she said.
Part of that experience, she said, was going to the beach. And it was during a trip when she was 11 that she saw a beached fin whale, the second-largest species of whale in the world, had washed up on shore.
"It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen," she said.
People spent half a day trying to get it back into the water, and she recalls watching as it swam back out to sea when the tide came in.
"It was so cool," she said. "At that point, I had to be a marine biologist."
After graduating from Clear Spring High School in 1976, Dryden earned a biology degree from Shippensburg University in 1980.
She said she decided not to pursue a marine biology degree because it was too competitive, but still wanted to stay in the biology field and decided to hone her skills to be a fish and wildlife biologist.
For that first stop, she stayed relatively close to home and worked at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.
Then in 1984, Dryden made the move to Florida.
Baptism by fire
In Florida, Dryden said she worked as an environmental planner and senior environmental planner with Lee County.
"They called me a planner, but basically I was a biologist," she said.
Growing up in Maryland and studying in biology in Pennsylvania, Dryden had to not only learn the new species that are found in Florida, but get used to the subtropical weather
"We have freezes that wipe out some plants," she said.
In addition, Florida at the time was going through a development boom, which also meant that ecological issues needed to be looked at in the area.
"Southwest Florida was the fastest-growing place in the United States for 10 years running," she said. "And I was right in the middle of that. Permitting issues were a big deal, which meant endangered species. ... It was a huge battle."
She said she had "to learn the hard way" at that job, where she worked on coastal, wetland and bald eagle issues.
"I had to learn my plant species really quickly. I had to learn my wetland jurisdiction lines. I had to learn what different tortoises were and which is a gopher tortoise, which are the state-listed tortoises here."
"There wasn't a learning curve," she said with a laugh.
In 1988, Dryden joined the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (then named Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission) at Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area.
She was assigned biological review and supervisory duties for the Office of Environmental Science in 13 counties from Tampa to Naples.
"I got to do everything," she said. "It was great because it prepared me for the Fish and Wildlife Service. It really gives you the opportunity to really expand your horizons and work on the landscape scale."
Her responsibilities included providing recommendations for protection of listed species and land acquisition proposals. She worked on a regional wildlife corridor and in habitat management for the Florida panther, red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise, least tern, Audubon's caracara, piping and snowy plovers, Florida scrub jay, sea turtle and wood stork.
Life with Fish and Wildlife
Ten years later, Dryden was employed as a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's South Florida Ecosystem Office suboffice in Naples. There she has been lead biologist on several projects that impact the Florida ecosystem.
Dryden has done extensive habitat assessment on the Florida panther, a native big cat in Florida that is listed on the endangered species list.
In the 27 years she has worked in the Sunshine State, she has only seen a Florida panther twice.
"One panther I saw in the wild and I was wasn't looking for it," she said.
The second time she was driving to a project and spotted a female panther with kittens. She said she spent years working on projects to help protect panthers including habitat restoration and regulatory permits to help protect them. But driving to a work site one morning at 11 a.m., she saw the cat.
"We all screamed," Dryden said. "It was just so unexpected to see that, especially with kittens. But the panthers are just one species on a long list of animals that are specific to the area and are endangered or threatened.
Some of the threats to native species over the years came from humans as well as nonnative grasses and exotic animal species introduced to the area, such as the Burmese pythons that can reach up to 26 feet in length as well as lay a clutch between 12 and 36 eggs every spring, and are feeding on native animals. In fact, there is a whole page dedicated to nonnative species on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's website.
"It's really incredible to the variety of life that's in South Florida," Dryden said. "You have this juxtaposition of huge development interests, major money because if you try to protect something it costs somebody a lot of money, and a lot of interesting resources. It's been a very interesting experience for me. It's not like when I went to college somebody said, 'Hey, do you want to go to South Florida?'"
She said everything prepared her for working with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"The great thing with the Fish and Wildlife Service is that it prepares you to think bigger than your area, bigger than your state, you can think nationwide," she said.
Hope for the state
Since 2001, Dryden has been working on statewide issues as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, known as CERP. According to the CERP website at www.evergladesplan.org, CERP provides a framework and guide to restore, protect and preserve the water resources of central and southern Florida, including the Everglades. It oversees 16 counties and 18,000 square miles of the Everglades.
Dryden said it's a joint project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, a state agency that does most of the water management for the state. Because it is a Federal project, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other state agencies and American Indian tribes have a say in the project, she said.
"The whole intent was to undo the drainage damage that we did and Corps did in the 1940s and '50s," she said.
The drainage canals were put all over the state, she said, often used for agriculture or water supply to Miami. It covers all of South Florida. There are probably 30 or 40 huge projects, with subprojects, associated with CERP.
"It's probably one of the biggest restoration projects in the world," she said.
She said her job is challenging at times, but is quick to say she does enjoy it. "How can you not like this job? Where would you get these opportunities?"
But for Dryden, her life's work will be the wildlife and species of South Florida. And with the daunting task of hoping to one day see the Everglades return to its former glory and to protect the native species.
"I hope there's a better connection locally that (Floridians) live in this subtropical paradise beyond the condos and beaches of Naples and spend some time out here in the woods, sort of speak, and see how beautiful it is," she said.
As for nationally, Dryden's biggest wish is that "the public's hope does not fade for Everglades restoration."
But for the future of South Florida in general, Dryden wants there to be something left for the future generations.
"Someday I hope when people come to South Florida, there will be something left," she said. "That they'll really appreciate what they have and their water quality (will) be better, and their beaches will be cleaner. And they'll be able to able to see manatees and dolphins. That's my hope, that these places will always be there for people to come to and to enjoy."
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