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

Buck Island Ranch, a hybrid of conservation and agriculture, laboratory and business, serves as an incubator for the fledgling partnership. A commercial cattle ranch for more than 100 years, Buck Island was purchased by John D. MacArthur in 1968. The financier and Palm Beach developer spent weekends on the ranch and insisted that the cattle management not harm the environment. So it seems fitting that ten years ago, the philanthropic John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, formed after his death, leased the ranch to Archbold Biological Station, an independent research facility eight miles away, for 30 years at $1 per year.

Like most Florida ranches, Buck Island is a cow-calf operation, raising calves that are shipped out west to be fattened for slaughter on the corn this sandy soil can't support. The ranch has 2600 mother cows, 460 yearling or replacement cows (heifers), and about 150 bulls. The ranch manager and three full-time cowboys, with the help of temporary day-riders and two maintenance men, are currently tending 2000 calves that will be sold in August.

Bumping along a dirt road in a pickup truck, past cowboys driving cattle, research assistant Mike McMillian, one of three staff researchers at the ranch, recalls the laughter that greeted the announcement that Archbold would be taking over a cattle ranch and forming an agricultural division, MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center. Archbold's scientific staff members, who had been studying plants and animals on the 5000-acre natural preserve nearby, at first couldn't fathom what they would do with a working ranch.

Conservationists assumed that Archbold would remove the cattle and return the land to its native condition. Buck Island ranch hands were suspicious of the Archbold invaders' intentions, fearing radical changes.

Yet the new landlord was more interested in studying the effects of ranch management on the ecology of the area than in immediately altering it, with one major exception. To minimize flooding of the wetlands on which cattle graze, the ranch had been spraying its drainage ditches with a herbicide that decreased the amount of floating vegetation such as algae and water lettuce, which can clog up the culverts and hinder drainage. Archbold replaced the aerial spraying with a mechanical hoe that pulls out the plant growth, a process that is more environmentally sensitive but also more time-consuming and expensive.

The ditches support a variety of wildlife, particularly wading birds. When Archbold staff began exploring the ranch, McMillian was surprised at the diversity of the animals he observed during monthly surveys. To date, research assistants have recorded 156 species of birds, including the endangered wood stork, the threatened bald eagle, and the white ibis and snowy egret, both designated species of special concern by Florida Game and Fish because of their vulnerability to habitat modification or human disturbances. The less-comprehensive count of mammals ranges from opossum and armadillo to skunk and feral hog, with the occasional black bear and an unconfirmed Florida panther sighting.

In the afternoon shade of the oak arbor, McMillian rounds his mouth and sounds a startlingly owlish, gender-specific hoot. A male barred owl responds almost immediately, spreading its mottled feathers as it swoops down to snatch a squirming mouse from McMillian's palm, then caches it in a tree for later consumption. Treats aside, researchers have found that barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, and crested caracaras fare well on Buck Island and other ranches where they can nest in the hammocks and forage in the pastures and wetlands.

McMillian is also monitoring two roosts of adolescent caracaras, who have left the nest but have not paired off or established their own territories yet. He and other researchers hypothesize that the young birds may congregate as a sort of cooperative system in which they help each other find food. He counted 45 juvenile caracaras at one site in December, and another researcher has found adult caracara pairs breeding twice in one year, indicators of not just the success of the species but the health of their habitat.

Caracaras and other "listed" species -- those classified as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- are invaluable links in the food chain. Every species has its function, though it is not always clear how the disappearance of one species would affect the larger ecosystem. But conservationists say society should cherish each species for its intrinsic value and not wait until it has vanished to discover its importance. A healthy ecosystem is a diverse ecosystem, with a mosaic of habitats and a range of inhabitants, as at Buck Island Ranch.

The dangers of broken links in the environmental food chain were unveiled in Rachel Carson's groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring. Her requiem for American songbirds poisoned by pesticides galvanized the emerging environmentalist movement.

Four years later Congress passed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, followed in 1973 by the Endangered Species Act, a lightning rod for private landowners who claim it has limited their freedom to run their property as they see fit. The law regulates activities affecting listed plants and animals, of which Florida has more than any other state except Hawaii and California.

"It was in vogue to get the government to pass laws to protect things that man would otherwise destroy," remembers Duke Hammond, a wildlife biologist with Florida Game and Fish for 30 years. "And we developed laws with a passion."

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