A glimpse into the Everglades Headwaters area reveals vast tracts of uninterrupted land, rich with living legacies of American pioneer ranching families, many of whom have been living off the land since before the Civil War.

Florida cowboys have long shared their space with irreplaceable wetlands, black bears, Florida panthers and other endangered species such as the Florida grasshopper sparrow.

These private landowners have taken it upon themselves to preserve five centuries of rich culture and tradition on the landscape, many of them by voluntarily applying for fee-title acquisition or conservation easements in the Everglades Headwaters area.

One such landowner is David “Lefty” Durando. Erin Myers, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist with the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in south Florida, has been working with Durando and his family to restore native dry-prairie habitat for the Florida grasshopper sparrow on their Okeechobee Ranch.

Each year, more than 200,000 acres of habitat in the Everglades are lost to development. Native dry-prairie habitat, necessary for the Florida grasshopper sparrow, has been reduced to less than 15 percent within its historical range – and 75 percent of the remaining habitat is on private land. The bird is critically imperiled, with only two small viable populations known to exist. Restoring the quality of dry-prairie habitat on public lands and adjacent private lands occupied by the Florida grasshopper sparrow is considered the best strategy to increase the endangered bird’s viability.

Protecting and connecting this important landscape requires new thinking. In 2012, the Service established the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, which today encompasses about 450 acres but whose acquisition boundary is 150,000 acres.

“Purchasing conservation easements on ranching and agricultural lands is the main focus of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area initiative,” says deputy refuge manager Christine Trammell. “Easements will protect species such as the Florida grasshopper sparrow and will keep those lands in the hands of the owners into perpetuity, under specified conditions preventing future development and destruction of habitat.”

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida is on board, too.

“Here’s a unique situation where we can have it both ways,” Nelson says. “You don’t have to spend all the taxpayer money in order to acquire the title to the land, but you can sure acquire a portion of the land – its development rights – and still let the ranching families continue in their way of life that they have enjoyed for generations.”

Through a Service project funded by the 2014 Cooperative Recovery Initiative, Myers is working with rancher Durando to restore and enhance Florida grasshopper sparrow habitat on his 12,000-acre ranch’s pastureland.

Vegetation management techniques – such as roller chopping and tree cutting – are reducing the height and density of invasive Brazilian pepper trees, native saw palmetto and native cabbage palm trees, which provide habitat for Florida grasshopper sparrow predators. Landowners might not normally remove trees from pastureland because it is expensive and trees provide shade in Florida’s hot and humid summers.

However, Myers educates landowners about Florida grasshopper sparrow habitat needs. She shows landowners the difference between intact tree hammocks on pasture edges – vital for shading cattle – and individual trees dispersed on the native prairie, which were not present historically and have little grazing value but whose removal helps the Florida grasshopper sparrow.

“By working with these landowners who have shown an interest in the refuge and conservation area initiative, when funding for conservation easements becomes available, we’ve already started the restoration,” says Myers.

Joe Milmoe is a wildlife biologist in the Refuge System Branch of Habitat Restoration.