Lake Wales Ridge - Habitat and Management
Lakes Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area (WEA) features a variety of natural communities critical to wildlife including scrub, pine flatwoods, marshes and seepage slopes. The WEA is a key part of a mosaic of public lands that protect the unique ecology of the Lake Wales Ridge. These lands link to Fisheating Creek in the south and the Green Swamp in the north. The Royce Unit has one of the largest cutthroat grass (Panicum abscissum) seeps remaining on the Lake Wales Ridge.
The most distinctive natural community on the Lake Wales Ridge is scrub, home to one of the rarest collections of plants and animals in the world. Healthy scrub has the appearance of a miniature forest with trees seldom taller than 10 feet and open patches of sand. The WEA contains many of the federally listed plant species known to occur on the Lake Wales Ridge.
Many of the tracts within the WEA are platted housing developments or were used for grazing, citrus or other agricultural uses. These areas surely would have been more intensely developed if not for state purchase. Preservation of remaining natural areas on the Lake Wales Ridge is critical to the Floridan aquifer, the principal source of the state's drinking water. Rainfall percolates through the ridge’s thick, sandy soils and recharges the aquifer. The ridge is dotted with sinkhole lakes, testament to the connection between groundwater and surface water. Lake Istokpoga, a shallow 28,000-acre lake in eastern Highlands County, shares 2.7 miles of shoreline with Royce Unit.
The primary management goal for the Lake Wales Ridge WEA is to protect, restore and maintain native habitats along with the threatened and endangered plant and animal species they support. Fire suppression over many years has resulted in declines in populations of many of these species, including the Florida scrub-jay. An aggressive prescribed fire program has been instituted to benefit native habitats.
Hunting helps to control nonnative feral hogs on the Royce Unit. Patches of improved pastures, areas with altered hydrology and other heavily disturbed sites are restored and managed to create healthy, native habitats. On the Royce Unit, for example, a major hydrologic restoration effort restored the 150-acre Peace Pond from an improved pasture to a native herbaceous wetland and a bahiagrass pasture was restored to native mesic and scrubby flatwoods.
FWC staff also conduct plant and animal surveys, erect and monitor bat and kestrel houses and control the spread of nonnative, invasive plants such as cogongrass, climbing fern and Brazilian pepper. An active group of volunteers with the Lake Wales Ridge Rangers help FWC staff monitor and restore native habitat.
In addition to the management work described here, FWC biologists rely on a wide range of techniques to ensure that natural areas throughout the state stay healthy for wildlife and inviting to visitors.