The high-quality habitats found within Florida’s wildlife management area system ensure abundant wildlife, help protect water sources that supply drinking water for the state’s growing population and create outstanding places to enjoy outdoor recreation. These areas are managed by teams of biologists and technicians with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission using some of the techniques described here.
A biologist starts a slow-moving prescribed burn along a freshly plowed fire line.
Fire is so important to the long-term health of many of Florida’s ecosystems that it is prescribed by biologists, just as a medical doctor prescribes medications to treat or ward off illness. Before the benefits of fire were clearly understood, many wildfires, often started by lightning, were quickly extinguished. Today, highly skilled management teams deliberately set and carefully manage prescribed fires (sometimes called controlled burns), knowing that burning releases nutrients into the soil, stimulates seeds to sprout and helps control invasive plants and woody undergrowth that shade out native wildflowers and grasses valuable to wildlife. The result is better foraging, cover and breeding opportunities for a wide variety of wildlife. Regular burning also helps prevent destructive wildfires that can spread onto private property. The burning schedule is set to closely mimic natural fire cycles typical of the plant community being burned. Pine forests, sandhills, scrub and marshes are some of Florida’s habitats that depend on regular burns to stay healthy. Before a burn, the team divides large land areas into smaller units and defines each one by mowing, plowing or disking a line around it, creating firebreaks. Roads and natural features such as streams, wetlands and lakes may also serve as natural fire barriers. The team takes every safety precaution necessary to protect wildlife and the surrounding community. Learn how prescribed fire benefits wildlife and people.
Roller chopping and mowing
Roller chopping improves habitat by removing dense undergrowth.
When fire has been absent for an extended period of time, an undesirable, dense growth of shrubs and trees can quickly overtake a natural area, making it less attractive to wildlife and more prone to wildfires that are difficult to control. Roller chopping or mowing this growth before burning allows for safer, more effective fires. Roller chopping is also sometimes done after burning to prepare for planting in areas being restored. In habitats such as scrub, roller chopping is also used to create open areas attractive to scrub-jays, sand skinks, scrub lizards and gopher tortoises.
Thinning dense stands of pines promotes more diverse groundcover.
During thinning, some trees in a forest are removed, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and promoting a greater variety of plant growth to attract wildlife. This practice is common in areas with dense stands of planted pines. The management team often burns an area after thinning it.
Creating healthy wildlife management areas sometimes involves replanting the vegetation that originally grew in the area (groundcover restoration) or restoring natural water flow (hydrological restoration). For example, restoration is typically required after previous landowners have logged out native pine and cypress trees, or planted pasture grasses for cattle or rows of pine and citrus for commercial production. Many times, they also constructed ditches or earthen dams to drain wetlands and dry out the land.
To restore natural water flow, the management team may fill ditches and remove berms, and construct low-water crossings – hardened road surfaces built at elevations that permit natural water flow while also providing stable surfaces for vehicle travel.
Water can flow freely across a low water crossing.
Groundcover restoration varies from site to site but usually involves removing pasture grasses and commercial stands of citrus and pine before native seeds or seedlings are planted.
Longleaf pine seedlings are planted to restore a former pasture.
Controlling nonnative invasive species
Invasive, nonnative Brazilian pepper is removed from a tree island in the Everglades.
The rapid growth and spread of invasive, nonnative plants and animals pose major threats to Florida’s natural areas and wildlife, causing economic and environmental damage, and potentially harming human health. From the fire ant and Burmese python to Brazilian pepper and Japanese climbing fern, invasive, nonnative animals and plants create expensive and time-consuming problems for the management team. They fight back by removing invasive plants or treating them with environmentally safe chemicals; problem wildlife are removed or controlled through hunting.
A banded red-cockaded woodpecker is easily tracked by biologists
The team monitors fish and wildlife populations in order to determine population trends and evaluate the effectiveness of management techniques. This includes tasks as varied as mapping the locations and abundance of threatened wildlife and their critical habitats, to conducting deer spotlight counts and quail call counts. Improving wildlife populations often involves erecting nest boxes for wood ducks, bats, blue birds and kestrels; creating dove fields and planting high-quality forage in food plots and wildlife openings; or relocating wildlife, such as the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, to wildlife management areas where they once occurred.
Visitors can enjoy scenic views from platforms and towers on many management areas.
Because management teams work to create and maintain outstanding habitat for fish and wildlife, wildlife management areas are popular destinations for activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, bicycling and wildlife viewing. To create enjoyable experiences for visitors, the team maintains roads, trails, fence lines, parking areas, fishing docks, campgrounds, restrooms and other amenities. They manage public access to avoid disturbing wildlife, and to protect archaeological and historical resources. They also run check stations during seasonal hunts in order to monitor the overall health of harvested species populations.