Slash pine forms an open canopy in the flatwoods
Habitats provide the food, water, shelter and space animals need to thrive and reproduce. Historically, the natural communities at Spirit-of-the-Wild were dominated by mesic flatwoods and wetlands associated with sloughs connecting the Caloosahatchee River to the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and the Big Cypress National Preserve to the south. To satisfy the demand for flood protection and dry ranchlands, ditching and canal construction began in the region in the late 19th century, thereby diverting surface water north into the Caloosahatchee River.
Pine flatwoods and other uplands were logged and converted to open pasture for cattle ranching. The disruption of natural fire cycles and planting of cattle forage and vegetable crops further altered plant communities. Despite these changes, the existing slough, pastures, pine flatwoods and freshwater wetlands offer excellent wildlife viewing and other recreational opportunities. As restoration proceeds, these opportunities will increase in scope and variety.
Prescribed fire is used to control vegetation
Spirit-of-the-Wild is managed to protect the habitat important to the Florida panther and other listed species and to restore and preserve the hydrological connection with adjacent protected lands. More than half of the property has been modified by past human activities including ditching and draining, fire exclusion and conversion of native habitats to improved pasture and vegetable production.
In 2007, natural water regimes were reestablished on approximately 40% of the WMA's modified habitats. Miles of ditches were filled and ditch plugs were installed on remaining ditches allowing more water to stay on the site for longer periods of time, a condition that more closely resembles historic water regimes.
Prescribed fire is the primary tool for managing vegetation on pastures and flatwoods communities. Invasive exotic vegetation such as Brazilian pepper, hydrilla, tropical soda apple, cogongrass, torpedo grass and smutgrass is removed by mechanical or chemical means.
Other management work includes restoring native groundcover in pastures and planting “tree islands” in open areas to create wildlife corridors that connect isolated hammocks, wetlands and pine flatwoods.
The population of feral hogs is controlled through hunting. Though this nonnative species causes great harm to vegetation when it uproots plants in search of food, it is a preferred prey of the Florida panther. The level of hog removal is set in consideration of the needs of the panther while providing hunting opportunities.
In addition to the management work described here, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rely on a wide range of techniques to ensure that natural areas throughout the state stay healthy for wildlife and inviting to visitors.