The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is the lead manager of more than 1.4 million acres within Florida’s Wildlife Management Area System, which includes Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), Wildlife and Environmental Areas (WEA), Public Waterfowl Areas, Public small Game Areas, and Public Use Areas. While FWC emphasizes natural community management on the lands it manages, there are significant acres in the WMA system that previous landowners altered prior to State acquisition and may require significant restoration. There are three primary aspects to habitat restoration on FWC managed lands: hydrologic restoration, natural community restoration, and invasive plant species control.
Conservation lands purchased by the State of Florida were frequently altered by previous landowners. Landowners often created ditches or canals in efforts to control water resources and increase the suitability of the property for timber management or agriculture. These actions had a considerable influence on the historic natural communities. To improve conditions for some wildlife species, FWC land managers often need to reverse the effects of previous alterations, requiring hydrologic restoration. Hydrologic restoration begins with an assessment of the property to determine where past alterations occurred and to study how water should naturally flow across the property. After the assessment, staff begin work to either install or remove water control structures, levees, canals, and culverts, as needed. All restoration work is followed by monitoring the hydrology to ensure that the improvements are working properly. Hydrologic restoration goals are modified as needed to reduce or eliminate negative influences on neighboring property owners that could be affected by restoration work.
Natural Community Restoration
Natural community restoration focuses on those portions of a property that fire exclusion, hydrological alterations, or land conversion have altered. Fire exclusion allows a natural community to succeed to a functionally different natural community that may be more hammock-like in character, with denser hardwood cover, more shading, and suppressed ground cover. Natural community succession from fire exclusion is not inherently good or bad. Staff evaluate these fire excluded areas in the context of its historic and current wildlife value to determine if fire-excluded areas need restoration. Staff can reverse successional processes by applying mechanical treatments to remove excess hardwood canopy, and the reintroduction of prescribed fire, but the desired results may take a decade or more to realize.
Land conversion is the conversion of natural communities to other purposes. Within the WMA system, prior to State acquisition, many acres of land were altered by conversion to commercial pine plantations, crop fields, or pasture. While some pine plantations retain components of the original natural community, crop land and pasture have completely altered the native community with none of the native community’s components remaining. Restoration of these completely altered lands is lengthy and expensive. Restoration work typically involves extensive mechanical (in the case of pine plantations) and chemical treatments to gain control of weeds and introduced species, followed by plantings to restore the native ground cover and finishes with the planting of appropriate shrub and canopy species. Chemical control of weeds may be required for several years and canopy species will require decades to grow to a size where they restore the natural community’s function.
The extent of natural community damage from past alterations or fire suppression is variable. Areas that have many components of the botanical community remaining (i.e. grasses, herbs, shrubs and trees) may only need enhancement activities. Where desired vegetation occurs, staff remove excess biomass and return regular prescribed fire to the area. Areas that have had lengthy fire exclusion and some first rotation pine plantations, where seedling bedding did not occur, are all candidates for enhancement treatments. Where the loss of all components of the native plant community have occurred, such as old crop fields or pastures, staff will need to conduct full natural community restoration. Restoration projects will begin with a site assessment, to be followed by staff developing a written restoration plan prior to implementation. Staff monitor the recovery of natural communities and apply adaptive management as necessary.
Invasive Plant Species Control
Various invasive plants species continue to establish footholds within FWC managed lands. These invasive plants frequently out-complete native plant communities, harming natural communities, the wildlife dependent on the natural community, and reducing the public’s recreational experience. Invasive species control is an ongoing effort for FWC staff, especially for those areas with neighboring urban and suburban developments and large roadways. Approaches to controlling invasive species are typically similar, even though each WMA may have its own suite of problem species. Control begins with a site assessment to determine what invasive plants are present, where they occur, and at what densities. After the assessment, staff (frequently working cooperatively with the Invasive Plant Management Section) implement invasive control projects, including post-treatment monitoring to ensure the treatment’s objectives are achieved. As long as invasive plants occur on the landscape, control of invasive plants will be an ongoing action. Seeds and spores of these invasive plants are continuously entering public lands, either carried by wind, wildlife, or on vehicles and equipment. As such, control requires vigilant persistence, but aggressive treatments of new infestations, while small, will minimize cost and impacts to the native plant community.