NORTH KEY LARGO -- It has been a year since the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Key Largo had a manager.
But National Wildlife Refuge System officials believe they've finally found someone to replace former manager Steve Klett, though that person isn't likely to arrive in Key Largo until late winter or early spring.
"It's gone to the regional office for approval," said Sylvia Pelizza, the area supervisor for the wildlife refuges in Palm Beach County and the Florida Keys. She added that the refuge service won't reveal the potential hire's name until those regional officers in Atlanta sign off on it.
"There's always a bit of a concern when you don't have anybody in a position," Pelizza said. "It does have an impact, so when the new person comes, they'll have to regress a little bit."
Klett, who oversaw the refuge for 14 years, focused much of his energies on habitat restoration, bulding nesting grounds for American crocodiles and working to preserve the endangered Key Largo woodrat.
In his absence, volunteers who have long dedicated their time to the 6,700-acre refuge have had to fend for themselves, with just occasional assistance from refuge administrators who travel up from the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key.
That means woodrat work this winter will fall into the hands of volunteers like Clay DeGayner, who with brother Ralph worked closely with Klett on the endangered rodent.
DeGayner said that nest-building projects are on hold for now.
"We're just waiting for some leadership," he said. But he added that he doesn't expect any significant problems in the absence of a manager, especially with doctoral students expected in January to begin new studies on the woodrat.
"We worked under Steve for 10 years, nothing's changed," DeGayner said.
Crocodile Lake isn't the only Keys wildlife refuge that is going through a staffing transition.
The Key Deer Refuge, which is the administrative headquarters for the four Keys wildlife refuges -- Crocodile Lake, Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge and Key West National Wildlife Refuge -- also remains without manager following the departure of Anne Morkill at the start of October.
In addition, Key Deer Deputy Manager Karen Hillier transferred to Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge south of Kissimmee last week.
Pelizza said the National Refuge System is in the process of interviewing for Morkill's position, which it hopes to have filled in February or March. In the meantime, temporary managers are rotating through the Key Deer Refuge each month.
"It's harder, because you don't have somebody who has been there for a long period of time," Pelizza said. "But you still have the staff. You still have the people who have all the data and the scientific information. So all their management activities and so forth are still ongoing."