Outta The Woods: What’s at stake for Florida’s wildlife

January 6, 2009

What does the future hold for Florida’s hunters?

tonyyoungTo start the new year off, I’d like to tell you about a recent Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) report titled “Wildlife 2060: What’s at stake for Florida?” The report is based on a study by 1000 Friends of Florida – a nonprofit organization that monitors our state’s growth, and it contains some pretty alarming things we hunters need to be aware of.

Florida has the fourth-highest population in the country at 18 million, and this report predicts that by the year 2060, it will double to 36 million. Consequently, estimates are that 7 million of the state’s 34 million total acres will be converted from natural and rural lands to urban uses during the next 50 years. Seven million acres is equivalent to the entire state of Vermont.

Black bear and wild turkey habitats may decrease by 2 million acres by 2060.  And for Florida’s more than 200,000 deer hunters, this estimated loss of 2.7 million acres of native habitat could result in 62,790 fewer deer in Florida. On top of that, as much as 25 percent of the private lands that provide most of the hunting leases could disappear by 2060 due to development.

Click here for Wildlife report. Photo courtesy FWC
Click here for Wildlife report. Photo courtesy FWC

Leasing private land for hunting costs a statewide average of around $15 an acre today. That figure could soar to about $300 an acre by 2060!

Florida boasts one of the largest wildlife management area systems in the country at almost 6 million acres, but what’s going to happen to it in 50 years?  It will undoubtedly shrink from the pressures put on it by encroaching development. Many of Florida’s 50,000 public-land hunters already feel the squeeze and complain of areas being overcrowded.  How crowded are they going to be when our population doubles?

So what can we do about it?  This state simply can’t afford to buy all  the land that needs protecting, but it can assist property owners who own “key” wildlife habitats by helping them manage these lands and by creating financial incentives to help protect and keep these native lands wild.

One thing residents already are doing is creating new taxes to preserve important local ecosystems. Since 1972, 30 Florida counties have voted to tax themselves in the form of real estate “doc stamps,” and that has generated more than $2 billion to purchase nearly 375,000 acres of conservation lands.

And it’s important which tracts of land are priorities to buy and put into conservation. We need communities separated by green spaces in the form of woods, swamps and farmlands that will support wildlife.

We must minimize the effects of habitat fragmentation by making sure large areas of conservation lands and wetlands stay connected to other natural landscapes.  The report estimates that 2 million of the 7 million acres projected to be lost to development by 2060 lie within a mile of existing public conservation lands.  If this happens, it will create “islands” of natural habitat that will isolate wildlife populations from each other. This will really have a negative impact on species that require vast tracts of undisturbed land to survive.

Fragmentation also will make prescribed burning, a management technique essential for maintaining quality wildlife habitat, even more difficult.
But by using smart-growth initiatives and planning, we can encourage development that is environmentally sensitive, instead of allowing haphazard urban sprawl to occur.

Proactive strategies are best adopted at the local level and include acquiring and protecting large parcels of conservation lands, promoting compatible agriculture, like cattle ranches and timber farms (because they provide wildlife habitat), developing conservation easements, creating tax incentives and managing the growing development with large-scale, land-use planning in mind.

You can get involved in advocating for wise land-use decisions in your community to minimize negative impacts to wildlife. You can ask whether your city or county has a local land-acquisition program.  Are the roads there being designed and situated to accommodate wildlife? Does your community view conserving its green infrastructure and wetlands with the same importance as maintaining its roads, buildings and bridges?  And are you, yourself, conserving wildlife habitat on your own property?

To view “Wildlife 2060: What’s at stake for Florida?” go to MyFWC.com/wildlife2060. Another site you can log onto and get involved with is “Teaming with Wildlife” at www.teaming.com.

We might not be able to slow down growth in our state, but I encourage you to join the FWC and other organizations working together to find solutions to make a brighter future for our wildlife – and the future of hunting here.

Tony Young is the media relations coordinator for the FWC’s Division of Hunting and Game Management.  You can reach him with questions about hunting at Tony.Young@MyFWC.com.