Rangeland Wildlife and Ecosystems Program
Florida ranches are commonly a mixture of improved pasture, semi-native pastures and native rangelands including pockets of woodlands/hammocks and numerous seasonal wetlands. Threats to Florida rangelands are many, including; conversion to other uses (intensive agricultural practices, urbanization); reduced connectivity through fragmentation of the landscape; intrusion, establishment and persistence of invasive species (animals and plants); altered disturbances, especially fire upon and drainage upon the land leading to alternative communities and succession to more woody habitats. As human pressure for space and food continues conversion of rangeland to other uses increases, and how rangelands are managed influenced.
The sustainable rangeland ecosystem program asks “What are the best ways to integrate grazing habitat management in rangelands so that ecosystem services are maintained indefinitely and ecosystem “stressors” are minimized?” These services include forage for cattle, habitat for wildlife and game, balanced soil nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration for global climate mitigation, maintenance of cultural heritage, and water capture, storage and aquifer recharge.
The program specifically conducts directed research and extension into rangeland habitat management techniques, wildlife demography and disease, cattle health and resource availability on rangelands, historic and current status of rangelands in Florida, their connectivity and restoration. The core focus of the program is promoting the conservation, maintenance and improvement of rangelands for diverse ecosystem functions, with special attention to wildlife.
Research Focus (40%)
Grasslands worldwide have been declining for a variety of reasons, but two important factors that have influenced the decline in rangelands in Florida have likely been hydrological changes through drainage and reduction in fire.
- Using aerial imagery since the 1940’s we are investigating the increase in canopy encroachment into Florida rangelands. Has the amount of oak forest increased? Is their more palmetto than there used to be? If yes, what can be done to shift this 100 year legacy effect back to a rangeland mosaic?
- At the RCREC we are implementing a research and demonstration project of high frequency growing season burns compared to winter burns to understand if this change in management can promote gap establishment and increased forage abundance, reduce woody species/palmetto and improve habitat for rangeland wildlife?
Improved management of range and pasture may also be assisted by the use of remote sensing tools for increased temporal and spatial monitoring. Satellite and aerial derived imagery can assist in understanding habitat health, weed occurrence, seasonal primary productivity and growth curves, and with ground-truthing estimates of forage biomass calculated.
- Since the year 2000 the NASA EOS TERRA satellite has collected global reflectance imagery at a resolution of every 250 meters, every 16 days. In combination with ground-truthing we are using this data to calculate yearly biomass growth curves and show the loss of forage due to early growing season freezes and droughts. This data for example can then be used to;
- Calculating the number of forage days lost due to inclement weather and comparing what the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program and the Livestock Forage Disaster Program actually paid out for.
- Understanding overall environmental conditions and what drives good and bad forage years in Florida, and how cattle production relates.
- The advancement of Unmanned Aviation Vehicles (UAVs) or drones coupled with imagery capture and software has allowed rapid repeatable flyovers of landscapes. Using this technology we will;
- Monitor and measure gaps necessary for increased forage grasses that are produced by fire treatments in rangeland treatment plots
- Monitor the size and repeat visitation of feral swine rooting that impacts forage type and quantity
Invasive Species Impacts
Feral Swine are common and plentiful across much of the peninsular of Florida and their impacts upon the environment and economy of ranches many. Ongoing projects have been established to quantify the impacts feral swine have on ranchers and rangelands, and to develop the economic costs of feral swine to the ranching community. Some of the questions we are asking include;
- What are the movement patterns and habitat preference of feral swine?
- What is the consumption of cattle supplemental feed by feral swine?
- What impact does feral swine rooting have on forage production?
- What diseases are shared among feral swine, wildlife and livestock? What is the risk of disease transmission by feral swine?
- How persistent are plant community shifts caused by feral swine in wet prairies, in particular an overwhelming shift to dominance by Carolina red root (Lachnanthes caroliana).
- How often do feral swine depredate ground nesting birds, especially Turkey, Bob-white Quail and Sand-hill Cranes?
- Does wildlife prefer areas where feral swine have been controlled and excluded compared to absence of control?
Over the last 30 years coyotes have expanded their range into peninsular Florida and more recently the population seems to have increased. Coyotes can be defined as an apex predator (top of the food chain) and play important roles in shaping wildlife populations, both positive and negative. Unfortunately, they are also a species that can interfere with livestock production. In this developing study we want to answer the following question
- How often do coyote interact with cattle and cause calf loss?
- How does coyote behavior change during calving season?
- What is the occurrence of calf loss across Florida?
- What has been the coyote population increase?
Extension Focus (60%)
Promote environmental stewardship
- Develop a Sustainable Rangeland Stewardship Certificate which would provide an educational resource for stewards of rangeland to have an extensive background and exposure to best practices to sustain a diverse array of ecosystem services.
Educate ranchers and state land owners about the importance of their lands and landscape connectivity to the persistence of wildlife.
Supply information on how best to encourage wildlife and promote conservation efforts on Florida ranches. For example;
- Developing habitat mosaics for wildlife
- Enhancing habitat for game species
- Identification of Threatened, Endangered or Species of concern on ranches and why ranchers themselves are of special importance in these species continued survival
- Examples: Crested Caracara, Snail Kite, Gopher Tortoise, Florida Scrub-Jay, Eastern Indigo Snake, Roseate Spoonbills, Woodstork, Sandhill Cranes
- Offer planning for endangered and wildlife species management
- Develop Best Management Practices for wildlife on ranches
- Provide expertise in recovery planning of endangered species
- Provide expertise and analyses for Habitat Conservation Planning process ongoing in multiple counties