Florida's Wildlife Management Areas Turn 75

State wildlife officers work hard to balance needs of wildlife, growing population

April 4, 2017

Florida has almost 6 million acres designated as wildlife management areas, tracts created in 1941 when the state legislature bought 19,200 acres of land 16 miles north of Fort Myers.

Today, that tract, the Fred C. Babcock/Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area, encompasses more than 65,000 acres. On it, hunters may take deer, gray squirrel, rabbit, quail, bobcat, otter and migratory birds, and there's no limit on wild hog, racoon, opossum, armadillo, beaver, coyote, skunk and nutria. 

Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the WMA system in Florida, Tony Young of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said those millions of acres play a critical role in helping the agency accomplish its mission of managing the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

"Carrying out this mission requires forward thinking, expertise, creativity and balancing needs, as about 1,000 people move into Florida each and every day with the current population topping 20 million residents," he wrote. "As Florida’s human population grows, so do the pressures put on our native wildlife and remaining natural resources. These areas conserve the natural ecosystems that support our game animals and imperiled species.

"The FWC works diligently to balance the needs of Florida’s wildlife with the state’s growing population."

The FWC is the lead manager or landowner of about 1.4 million acres of public lands in Florida, and the 4.5 million remaining acres of the Florida WMA system are open for public hunting.

Young highlighted the agency's wildlife management techniques that include prescribed burning, timber thinning, roler chopping and restoration.

"The quality habitat that is found on these WMAs doesn’t just happen on its own," he said. "It takes scientific know-how and never-ending, labor-intensive work by teams of biologists and technicians employing a variety of proven wildlife management strategies to manipulate and best manage these lands for native species."

From Young's latest "Outta the Woods" column for FWC:

Fire is important to the long-term health of many of Florida’s forest ecosystems, so periodic controlled burns are done that release nutrients into the soil, stimulate seeds to sprout and help control invasive plants and hardwood undergrowth. By doing this, native wildflowers and grasses can grow, which provide food, cover and better breeding habitat for a wide variety of species.

Timber thinning is another management practice that is used. It does not benefit wildlife to have rows of planted pines placed so closely together that the canopy becomes completely closed off. By removing some trees and allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor, native grasses are able to grow, which provide food and cover for wildlife.

Roller chopping is used to remove dense palmetto thickets that cover so much of the Florida landscape. A roller chopper is a machine with a large steel cylindrical drum and blades pulled by a bulldozer or tractor. This management practice also is used when prescribed fire hasn’t been done in a while, and a dense undergrowth of shrubs and smaller trees has choked out the natural habitat, making it less usable for wildlife.

Restoration sometimes is required in order to convert areas from their previous land uses back to their natural ecosystems. And in some cases, restoring means removing or treating with environmentally-safe chemicals invasive nonnative plant species, such as Brazilian pepper and Japanese climbing fern. After unwanted vegetation is removed from an area, the groundcover can be restored to its original ecosystem by planting native seeds and seedlings, such as longleaf pine and cypress trees.

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