April 28, 2016
By Katie Young
Florida ranchers and farmers have growing resources to help manage game and native habitat for the betterment of future generations.
As we exited the bustling Turnpike on a sunny March Friday afternoon after a six-hour drive south from Tallahassee, we noticed the weekend traffic picking up, boats being trailered to the water, tops down on convertibles and Jeeps—spring had arrived in the Sunshine State. Winding back on a county road to a series of dirt roads in western Martin County, my husband Tony and I made our way to a gate where cattle skulls welcomed us from each side of tall fence posts made of railroad ties. As we eased through the entrance, throngs of cattle were grazing as far as the eye could see, a sprawling pasture scene dotted by oak hammocks.
“Welcome to South Florida, Doc,” said Tony's old college friend, Matt, who greeted him with a strong hug and by his old nickname.
Matt had been saying for years that we needed to visit the Bar-B Ranch, and the timing had finally been right. We also hoped the weekend would result in the harvest of our first swamp bird— the elusive Osceola turkey. A deer hunter at heart, I had been fortunate to bag my first Eastern turkey, and Tony certainly has harvested his fair share of Easterns; but the Osceola is a unique draw to the Sunshine State, as the peninsula (within or south of the counties of Dixie, Gilchrist, Alachua, Union, Bradford, Clay and Duval) is the only place in the world a hunter can harvest this fine bird. Although arguably quite similar to the Eastern subspecies, the Osceola tends to be a bit smaller, a little darker, and the wing feathers have less white barring. But the true distinction for turkey hunters is that we must absolutely pursue this exclusive bird at some point in our days hunting.
Tony and I had arrived with plenty of time to settle in at Lance Troup's ranch house and sip on a glass of tea while we enjoyed the warm afternoon breeze.
After changing into our camouflage, we rode out for our first hunt on the nearly 2,000-acre ranch, noticing the intricate canal system and buffers along the way. Matt explained the history of this land, and how the pines had all been cut down for the railroads, the fat lighter of the stumps ground to use as dynamite, and that Lance's father had dug these canals for water management back in the 1950s, with the dredged soil forming buffers. Arriving to the southwest corner of the property, we trekked through the smut grass tufts for our first sit.
A natural blind made from cut palmetto fronds was already in place by a live oak tree. We added our camouflage fencing and fresh palm fronds before easing back in our gobbler loungers. As the afternoon sun recessed in the sky, and as the fragrance of orange blossoms and Thermacells tickled our noses, I envisioned this picturesque backdrop being the scene to harvest our first Osceolas.
With the development of so much of Florida over the last five decades, visitors and even many residents might find it somewhat surprising that places like this still exist. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2010 that more than 18 million people resided in Florida, up from just five million 50 years earlier, and predicted that the increase will continue. With tourism being the leading industry, Visit Florida, the state's official tourism marketing corporation, estimates that 94.3 million visitors are also drawn to the Sunshine State each year.
Besides entertainment venues and favorable climate, Florida also has the draw of its natural resources. Forestry, hunting, fishing and boating industries are all generously impacted by the appeal of Florida's natural resources. A 2011 report from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed 242,000 hunters in Florida. Their spending, according to the most recent data from Southwick Associates, resulted in an annual economic impact of $700 million.
It can seem like two extremes. As sportsmen, we want to preserve old Florida and maintain the appeal of the state's raw beauty and resources; we want places to hike, boat, fish, hunt, explore; we want our herds to have sprawling places to graze, and our wildlife plenty of places to roam. And, we also want our state's economy to be strong. Tourism and population growth contribute to the economy and more development, but that can also cause habitat loss and fragmentation. It is a delicate balance.
Conservation advocacy projects like the Florida Wildlife Corridor (FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org) have been formed in recent years by persons hoping to connect, protect and restore conservation lands and waters to help Florida's wildlife survive. As well, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's (FWC) Wildlife Legacy Initiative has assisted in designating specific goals in five year terms to meet conservation needs, through a combination of the State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive approach for conserving wildlife and essential natural areas for both public and private lands, and the State Wildlife Grants Program, which provides financial support for projects that address conservation needs.
Florida maintains nearly 5.8 million acres of public hunting lands, spanning 166 wildlife management areas statewide, including three recreational use properties privately held by timber companies. All told, this is one of the largest wildlife management area systems in the nation.
Since the FWC also strongly recognizes the value landowners play in being good stewards of the land, the agency has recently been working on rule changes to create wildlife best management practices (BMPs) for agriculture. BMPs are voluntary efforts by private landowners to ensure that agriculture activities do not cause negative impacts to wildlife. Such proactive management may reduce future land use restrictions. At the Bar-B Ranch, for instance, the canal system and subsequent buffers are good for the cattle and wildlife, as well as the water quality throughout the property. The mowing and prescribed grazing and burning done at Bar-B are also excellent management practices. Nutrient management, alternative cattle water sources, crop rotation, proper fire lines—these and many other practices can yield significant benefits for the property and wildlife.
The FWC's Landowner Assistance Program (LAP) was conceived as the companion for implementation of BMPs. The program provides the opportunity for cooperative working partnerships with the FWC. Helping farmers, ranchers, foresters, hunters, conservationists and business people will help wildlife; LAP asks what they want with and from their land, and the FWC then provides the expertise, assessment and tools to help meet those goals. Through LAP, an application and notice of intent are filed wherein the landowner agrees to proactively implement BMPs, which may include things like maintaining a certain buffer of trees around a stream or avoiding mowing over known gopher tortoise holes. Each year, a certain percentage of landowners are contacted, and the FWC and the Florida Department of Agriculture schedule appointments to check on and document their practices.
Another good source for landowners is FLSteward.org, an independent website with specifics on LAP, as well as information from many government entities, which make land stewardship as straightforward as possible. It provides details for Florida's landowners to know how to be, or become, good land stewards for long-term benefits to the environment, native wildlife, economy and society.
While many landowners and lessees alreadyready manage for deer, another program available to landowners with 5,000 contiguous acres or more is the FWC's Private Lands Deer Management Permit Program (MyFWC.com/Deer). Implemented in April of 2013, this voluntary program strives to meet the needs and requests of private landowners and leaseholders by providing greater flexibility in deer hunting seasons and harvest opportunities within sustainable herd management goals. Participation in this program allows hunters on that property to use any legal method of take during the entire deer season, and designates 128 hunting days, which is consistent with the respective zone. Current land management methods are required, as well as a written wildlife management plan to benefit wildlife and hunting heritage efforts, developed through LAP or by a certified wildlife biologist. According to the FWC's State Deer Biologist Cory Morea, “The program has been successful in promoting habitat conservation on private lands as well as deer management on permitted properties. All Floridians benefit from good management of our natural resources.”
While the Bar-B Ranch is not enrolled in this program, as the property does not meet the minimum acreage requirement, other nearby properties do participate. Statewide, 10 Private Lands Deer Management permits for seven landowners were issued in the inaugural 2013-2014 season, covering just over a half-million acres of land. This season, 11 permits for eight landowners have been approved, again covering just over 500,000 acres.
One permit holder in his first year of the Private Lands Deer Management Program feels it is a win-win for both land management and for hunting. Under the FWC's direction, he has found it easy to follow the suggested BMPs of mowing, roller chopping and doing controlled burns on his property, and from a hunting standpoint, appreciates designating his own 128-day-season without needing to take the usual month-long break in South Florida's Zone A. The public also benefits from this program with better wildlife habitat management, more data on deer populations and harvests, and more opportunities to get youth involved in hunting and other outdoor related programs.
Thanks to our friends back at Bar-B and their management practices, we had success on our third day at the ranch. We set up two natural blinds on the southwest corner of the ranch Saturday afternoon before the storm had rolled in. With the guys both being great callers, we split up Sunday morning with Tony in one blind and Matt and me in the other. As daylight broke, we watched a gobbler 100 yards out cross the field toward Tony's blind. But Tony had even more company; two longbeards also came in from his other side. There was a sudden blast with feathers flying— got him! The other two toms scurried away before I had a shot. Tony had his very first swamp bird, and it happened to qualify for the Florida Wild Turkey Registry, with an 11.25-inch beard and spurs of 1.5 and 1.25 inches. We were thrilled with the results of the hunt, and pleased to have had the opportunity to visit one of Florida's well-managed pieces of private land. FS
First published Florida Sportsman January 2015