TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida black bear is always on the move, continually tracking foods that change with the seasons, searching for a mate or den. He roams through uninterrupted tracts of pine flatwoods, oak scrubs and hardwood hammocks of protected public lands to confront farms, ranches, forests, roads and strip malls.
The bear’s route takes him through a 100-mile-long stretch through the safety of Ocala National Forest, Camp Blanding Joint Training Center and Osceola National Forest. But in between these protected areas are 600,000 privately-owned acres at risk for development.
A local nonprofit is changing that. The North Florida Land Trust has teamed with conservation groups and government agencies to create a greenway through the Ocala to Osceola Wildlife Conservation Corridor project, or “O2O.”
The O2O connects habitat for wide-ranging animals like the Florida black bear and protects imperiled species like the red-cockaded woodpecker, eastern indigo snake and gopher tortoise. It’s within the Florida Wildlife Corridor, identified by state agencies and University of Florida researchers as the best configuration to protect ecologically and geographically connected lands. O2O aims to conserve 10,000 acres by 2020 and 150,000 acres by 2040.
This strategic landscape-scale effort is why USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service awarded the O2O project $3.56 million in 2018 through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to purchase conservation easements and create wildlife habitat on private lands within the corridor. These NRCS programs will help accomplish this:
• The Healthy Forest Reserve Program funds acquisition of conservation easements in the O2O and provides financial assistance for wildlife habitat restoration and management.
• The Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides financial and technical assistance to private landowners for conservation practices and habitat improvement.
Starting from the Ocala National Forest north of Orlando, our bear can wander 387,000 acres in the world’s largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest with four wilderness areas.
After leaving the national forest traveling north, our bear must negotiate almost 50 miles of private lands to reach a safe haven. Camp Blanding Joint Training Center is an island of pristine flatwood, sandhill and forested wetlands between the two national forests.
The Florida National Guard center near Starke, Fla. protects 73,400 acres in the heart of the O2O. The light infantry training center is home to 40 federal and state listed animal and plant species . The Camp Blanding natural resource staff has been restoring longleaf pine habitat on the installation for more than two decades, regularly setting prescribed burns and monitoring the four federally listed species found there, including the red-cockaded woodpecker and gopher tortoise. The installation’s stewardship has earned Camp Blanding the 2018 Military Conservation Partner Award given annually by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Red-cockaded woodpeckers are social, vocal and territorial,” says wildlife biologist Cynthia Balboni. As the installation’s environmental consultant, she has monitored the population during the last decade for Camp Blanding. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are the only species in North America that excavate cavities into living pine trees, and they prefer longleaf pine trees. They live in family groups of two to five adults with a single breeding female. Juvenile male birds are “helpers,” who help defend and raise the chicks.
Cynthia and her staff begin banding chicks every year in late April to determine population increases or decreases. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gets all this information. “The reason why we do such intense management and monitoring is to recover the population,” she says. Last year biologists counted 35 breeding pairs and have translocated some birds to help recover smaller populations elsewhere in the Southeastern U.S.
Good forest management that improves red-cockaded woodpecker habitat also creates an oasis for the Florida black bear. When our bear leaves Camp Blanding, he will travel almost 35 miles north to reach the Osceola National Forest. Here he can wander 200,000 acres of wet pine flatwoods, wetlands and swamps on the northern boundary. Several wilderness areas protect our bear with a wildlife corridor stretching north towards Georgia and Okeefenokee Swamp.
If you want to help make the O2O a reality, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service helps agricultural producers restore habitat for a variety of species on private land. The Longleaf Pine Initiative provides financial and technical assistance for prescribed burning, timber stand thinning, planting longleaf pine and removing invasive plants. The Working Lands for Wildlife partnership gives landowners in designated areas a higher priority for financial and technical assistance to improve habitat for gopher tortoise and northern bobwhite quail. Contact the district conservationist at your local USDA Service Center for information about how to restore wildlife habitat on your property.