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A Natural Alliance

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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."

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.

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Margery Gordon

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