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Working Lands for Wildlife Initiative Helps to Improve Gulf of Mexico Too

Steve Barlow standing in the longleaf pine forest that he is restoring.

Steve Barlow standing in the longleaf pine forest that he is restoring.

Levy County, on Florida’s “Nature Coast,” is home to a variety of ecosystems, from dense hardwood forests and marsh lands to sand hills and Gulf Coast waters.

The historic Suwannee River borders the north end of the county, while the meandering Withlacoochee River winds through the southern part. Both eventually drain into the Gulf of Mexico, and runoff from agricultural land ending up in the two rivers can carry soil, pesticides and nutrients to the Gulf.

Levy County, like the rest of Florida, is also part of Working Lands for Wildlife, a partnership between USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that extends assistance to landowners who voluntarily implement specific conservation practices to benefit one or more of seven at-risk, threatened or endangered species across 37 states.

In Florida and bordering states, the gopher tortoise is targeted. The tortoise is a keystone species of the longleaf pine ecosystem, which used to cover about 90 million acres across the American South—97 percent of which has been converted to agricultural, residential or other uses over the past century.

Working Lands for Wildlife helps landowners in targeted areas create and enhance habitat for the tortoise using conservation practices approved by NRCS—practices that also help farmers and ranchers improve their operations.

One Working Lands for Wildlife Initiative participant in Levy County, Steve Barlow, owns approximately 80 acres. The property – a mixture of slash pine planted on former pasture and upland longleaf pine forest – is adjacent to Andrews Wildlife Management Area, managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The land was longleaf pine forest prior to its conversion to pasture.

Barlow’s longleaf pine forest after a prescribed burn.

Barlow’s longleaf pine forest after a prescribed burn.

Barlow is restoring the habitat by thinning or reducing the number of slash pines in the forest, establishing native groundcover vegetation and implementing prescribed burning in this fire-dependent ecosystem. These activities will greatly enhance the habitat for wildlife such as gopher tortoise, Sherman’s fox squirrel and northern bobwhite.

Gopher tortoises need relatively deep, sandy soils in which to burrow and open, sunny sites for nesting. Densely planted pine forests block sunlight from reaching the forest floor, reducing the grassy ground cover the tortoises require to survive.

This winter, Barlow will re-establish native groundcover plants such as wiregrass, silk grass and partridge pea to increase plant diversity and enhance wildlife habitat. These plants will also serve as filters for the groundwater that will eventually find its way into the local rivers and the Gulf of Mexico, helping to improve water quality in the coastal waters and estuaries of the Gulf of Mexico.

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Check out other conservation-related stories on the USDA blog.

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