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

If a rancher wants to dredge or fill wetlands, he must apply for a permit under the Clean Water Act and, if his action could alter the habitat enough to "take" a listed species, meaning to kill, injure, or hinder its ability to breed, feed, or find shelter, an Incidental Take Permit is required under the Endangered Species Act.

"Taking" a species without a permit can lead to fines, arrests, seizure of land or equipment, or costly remedies. In Okeechobee County, ranchers' efforts to block water from washing over their properties disrupted historic water flows on the National Audubon Society's neighboring Ordway-Whittell Kissimmee Prairie Sanctuary. Flooding contributed to a drop in the sanctuary's population of the highly endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow -- a ground-nesting songbird named for the insectlike tone of its tune -- from sixteen breeding pairs in 1993 to only one today. Last summer a U.S. District Court ordered the 101 Ranch and the Tiger Cattle Company to install culverts to channel water away from the nesting sites.

Though such court battles are rare, legends loom large. Perception swamps case history: Landowners' fears of persecution and conservationists' suspicion of agricultural destruction may be exaggerated, but they have widened the divide between the two camps. The image of the rancher as the "black hat" -- the villain in an old Western -- persists in some environmentalist circles, says Hammond. Yet he and other biologists have noticed wildlife flocking to private ranchlands over public preserves.

"There's no question in my mind that I would rather have to show people endangered species on private lands. Because on private lands, I know we could find them," Hammond avows. "And on public lands, I'm not so sure."

Government does not invest enough in land management, federal and state wildlife biologists admit. Prescribed burning is an essential business practice for ranchers, who need it to regenerate the plants and nutrients in their pastures, making the grass healthier and more palatable to cattle and wildlife. By diminishing the natural tinder of dry and overgrown vegetation, controlled burning helps prevent wildfires, which can raze entire hammocks that provide shade and shelter for wildlife. But it is costly and can be unpopular with citizens who complain about the smoke and the potential spread of flames.

Many cattlemen call themselves "America's first environmentalists," saying they have taken care of the land for generations, managing it not just for their cattle but also for the wildlife and plant life some conservationists have only recently learned exists on private lands. Yet ranchers have had trouble making the case that they are sensitive environmentalists. The ranching community is now realizing it needs partnerships with conservationists doing scientific research like that at Buck Island Ranch to help them bolster their claims of responsible stewardship.

Archbold recently launched a long-range experiment at Buck Island Ranch that could have major consequences for the environment and ranching. The study is designed to measure the effects of various stocking rates (number of cows per acre) and pasture systems (some are "improved" with exotic grasses and fertilized often, while others remain closer to their native state) upon wildlife, cattle production, and surface water quality. When cattle excrete waste, they release phosphorus and nitrogen, which subsequently leach from the soil into the watershed, traveling through an extensive network of canals and levees to Lake Okeechobee, a critical Florida water source.

Concentrations of phosphorus in the lake water have doubled since the '70s, spawning noxious aquatic weeds. Opportunistic cattails grow so densely that they shut out the light needed for periphyton, a beneficial alga at the base of the food-chain ladder. This disruption climbs the rungs, from aquatic insects and bugs that graze on the periphyton, to fish like bass and speckled perch that eat the aquatic insects, and ultimately to a more noticeable reduction in wading birds such as wood storks and ibis.

The phosphorus loads entering Lake Okeechobee are 140 tons above target levels, although they have lessened since 1987 legislation that capped the concentration in the water coming off ranches at 35 milligrams of phosphorus per liter of water. But water management officials are hoping to meet their goals with incentives rather than more regulations. The South Florida Water Management District is beginning a new program with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pay private landowners to restore wetlands on their property and use them to retain water. Thirty ranches and farms have already volunteered, but the agencies probably only have the funding to start with ten and are still drafting the plans. The Water Management District's latest slogan is "We can't manage without you."

In 1994 the South Florida Water Management District formed a cooperative group with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center. The three organizations outlined a series of projects at Buck Island Ranch to explore the relationships between management practices, environmental issues, and the economics of beef cattle operations in Central Florida. Two years later the partnership expanded to include the Florida Cattlemen's Association. Representatives from the four organizations share research decisions and data, then disseminate the findings. Determining the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen coming from ranches and developing economical ways to lower those rates could encourage more collaboration between cattlemen and conservationists to improve the region's water resources.

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