A Natural Alliance

Buck Island Ranch is home to the threatened caracara, and it's a laboratory where ranchers and conservationists are learning to work together

A rustle in the brush and the faint flap of wings send Jeff Palmer's finger to the trigger. As his prey perches on a fallen tree trunk and begins to case the bait, Palmer fires a few shots through a gash in the green netting stretched across his camouflaged shack.

The former hunting guide grips the 300 millimeter lens that has replaced his rifle and focuses on the crested caracara, a raptor named for its black toupee and the high cackle that sounds like its Brazilian moniker. The bird cautiously steps up to the bait, which is roadkill planted the previous afternoon by Palmer, now a professional wildlife photographer. Using its talons for leverage, the caracara plucks bits of meat from the dead raccoon's ribs. With a stern gaze and imperious posture, the bird wards off the trio of black vultures lurking around its breakfast.

A wren warbles, a wild turkey chortles for a mate, bulls bellow. Cabbage palms tower over live oaks and sprout in clumps from the hammock floor. The pale glow of dawn burnishes the pastures that stream toward the horizon.

The grasslands that dominate Buck Island Ranch's 10,300 acres are crowned with tree clusters, pocked with 500 isolated wetlands, and intersected by the Harney Pond Canal and more than 400 miles of drainage ditches. White-tailed deer scamper past packs of cattle, and bobcats occasionally slink through the small citrus grove, lending a wild flavor to this ranching and agricultural landscape.

Dirt roads traverse the ranch and trail out to Route 70, where truckers hurtle across south-central Florida. The highway cuts through the heart of caracara habitat, mostly ranchlands north and west of Lake Okeechobee. The caracara's dwindling domain puts it in a precarious position, especially as cattle ranches are converted to other uses: Prairies are paved, cabbage palms -- in which caracaras craft nests from slender sticks entwined with vines -- are cut down and replaced by rows of sugar or citrus. Habitat destruction led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to classify the Florida population of the crested caracara (also found in the southwestern United States and Central America) as threatened, or at risk of becoming endangered.

Caracaras, like all animals, are part of an intricate food chain. As upper-level predators, they help control the populations of smaller species such as the frogs and turtles that thrive in wetlands and man-made drainage ditches. On ranches like Buck Island, grazing and controlled burning keep the grasses short, enabling the two-foot-tall caracaras to glimpse mice and the insects that swarm around cow patties, as well as larger live prey and carrion like this morning's meal.

As more buzzards crowd around the raccoon carcass, the caracara spreads dark wings to twice its body length and alights across the range.

Palmer shrugs and relaxes his grip on his camera. It's barely 8 a.m. when he aborts his stakeout of the skittish bird, which he has seen fly off at the merest movement in the distance or, as may be the case now, when too much competition arrives.

Palmer first came to Buck Island Ranch to film the caracara in 1995 for a still-unfinished documentary and now views photographing the bird of prey as a lifetime project. White-tailed deer and wild turkey are his staple subjects for still photographs sent to magazines like Field & Stream, yet the crested caracara represents Palmer's passion. "I feel very strongly about the caracara because it is one of the first animals that researchers have openly told the public is thriving almost entirely on private lands," explains Palmer, eyes tinted teal against his tanned face. He has worked on private lands, in public parks, and at national wildlife preserves around the state but now takes all his wildlife photographs on ranches, where he claims to find larger populations of wild species. Palmer, who is quick to proclaim his aversion to cities, hopes his images will reveal ranchers' important role in nurturing wildlife.

Palmer's childhood playground was a 6000-acre ranch behind his Sarasota home, a heritage that has helped him establish a rapport with ranchers and gain access to a landscape largely off-limits to outsiders. "The rancher has always lived in the situation where 'you leave me alone and I'll leave you alone,'" says Palmer. "But that isn't going to happen anymore."

Cavoracious appetite for Florida real estate is pushing ranchers and conservationists together in the struggle to save natural resources. Every year a quarter-million acres are converted from ranching, agriculture, and forestry into urban uses, displacing plants and animals and impeding natural water flows with concrete surfaces. The amount of land in ranching alone has been halved over the last 40 years. Alarmed at the onslaught of development, environmental groups such as the Florida Audubon Society and government agencies like the Florida Game & Fresh Water Fish Commission recognize that cattle ranches now provide much of the habitat for wildlife.

Conservation groups traditionally have viewed ranchers as the culprits in environmental degradation. But reigning in ranchers with myriad regulations hasn't stemmed the loss of habitat, and in some cases has even contributed to the problem. Fearful, frustrated, or financially strapped ranchers ignored laws or left the business, selling their land to developers or farmers. Concluding that the hostile atmosphere has been unproductive, conservationists are seeking cattlemen's input -- even offering incentives -- in order to preserve biodiversity and stabilize the state's ecosystems. While still wary, ranchers are responding to these overtures by sharing knowledge gleaned from years of working the land. Their intuitive sense of how a working landscape -- and their meager profit margins -- would respond to environmental measures serves as a reality check for conservationists. Now innovative collaboration on wildlife and water-quality issues in Florida is helping to turn some former adversaries into allies.

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