North Florida Ecological Services Office
Southeast Region

Partners for Fish and Wildlife
Florida Terrestrial Focus Areas

Longleaf and Upland Pine and associated Forested and Herbaceous Wetlands

Photo of Long leaf pine habitat

Longleaf pine habitat. (USFWS Photo, Florida Partners Program

The longleaf pine ecosystem once covered as much as 92 million acres. Now, about 3.4 million acres remain in a fragmented distribution across North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, southern Mississippi and Louisiana, making this an endangered ecosystem (>85 percent decline in historic habitat type; Noss et al. 1995). These forests represented an extraordinary diversity of cultural, ecological, and socio-economic values, making them one of the great coniferous forests of the world.

Characteristic of longleaf pine habitats is an open canopy consisting of predominantly longleaf pine with a sparse or nonexistent midstory and shrub layer. A ground cover of native species is essential to maintaining the longleaf pine ecosystem, and the use of periodic fire is also essential to promoting the survival of native ground cover and preventing the invasion of undesirable plant species (Browning et al. 2004, Franklin 2008).

Other important habitats occur within longleaf, including ephemeral wetlands, pitcher plant bogs, springs, streams, and riparian habitats. Many of our priority species depend not only on longleaf habitat, but on these smaller habitats occurring within. Understanding where these habitats occur and how to manage them in the context of a longleaf restoration project is critical to conserving species that depend on them.

Within the various longleaf pine communities (e.g., sandhills, flatwoods and savanna, rolling hills, and mountain) 27 federally listed species and more than 100 at-risk species occur. About 40 percent of the 1,600+ plant species in the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains are restricted to longleaf landscapes.

Much of this ecosystem has been converted to other types of pine plantations, pasture, agricultural uses and urban and industrial development. Because of its decline, wide-ranging occurrence, connection with private landowners, and occurrence of declining species, PFW has put more of its effort into longleaf restoration than any other habitat type.

These efforts, combined with the work of many partners, have led to an increase in longleaf acreage over the past 20 years after many decades of decline. By continuing this work, PFW will be contributing to species recovery and at-risk species conservation, including the black pinesnake, Florida pinesnake, Louisiana pinesnake, RCW, striped newt, southern hognose snake, gopher frog and many others. We will focus on habitat improvements that expand existing core habitat and reduce fragmentation by connecting significant or important landscapes.

Our strategies for habitat improvement include longleaf planting, prescribed burning, woody vegetation removal (midstory management), invasive species control, herbaceous understory planting, and various site preparation techniques. Where possible, a high priority is put on improving existing stands versus establishing new stands because desired habitat for our focal species is available within a year or two, versus decades for newly established longleaf stands. Several resources exist to inform the specific characteristics we hope to see in longleaf pine projects. One of these is the Desired Forest Conditions document produced by the Eastern Gulf Coastal Plain Joint Venture.

Notable partnerships/initiatives

America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative

The Service participates in a Regional Working Group that prepared a range-wide conservation plan for longleaf pine (Range-wide Conservation Plan for Longleaf Pine 2009) to develop a shared vision for the many partners working on longleaf pine restoration. The 15-year goal for ALRI is to continue the increase of longleaf pine from 3.4 to 8.0 million acres, with most of this increase targeted within “Significant Geographic Areas” as identified in the plan. These areas were chosen as a way to focus partners’ efforts on the most valuable places in the longleaf range. They are based on occurrences of intact longleaf pine habitat, protected areas, restoration potential, and imperiled species.

Partners working together to implement the Range-wide Longleaf Plan are establishing conservation delivery networks and Local Implementation Teams at the regional, state, and local levels to pool and leverage resources, and these networks have been a great way to leverage PFW resources.

Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW)

Another ongoing initiative within the longleaf pine range is Working Lands for Wildlife, implemented by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) with cooperation of the Service. This initiative focuses Farm Bill programs such as Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) on working lands that can play a role in conserving seven priority at-risk species. In the southeast, this program has been primarily focused on gopher tortoise conservation. In fall 2016, NRCS released a new Fy17-18 Implementation Strategy for Working Lands for Wildlife-Gopher Tortoise. The PFW Program will play a significant role in this effort by reaching out to landowners with NRCS and educating them about gopher tortoise habitat and regulatory predictability. Several PFW projects will also be done in conjunction with WLFW. Combined, the PFW Program will influence thousands of acres and hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Service is due to make a decision on listing for the gopher tortoise by 2023, so the five years that this plan covers are critical as we work with partners to encourage voluntary conservation that may preclude the need to list the species.

Sentinel Landscapes

Announced in 2013, the Sentinel Landscapes Partnership is a partnership between the Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Department of Interior. These landscapes are identified as working lands that are essential to the Nation’s defense mission, including lands on military installations as well as associated private lands. Protecting resources, including forests, rural landscapes, and threatened and endangered species, protects vital test and training missions conducted on the military installations that anchor these landscapes. Thus far, two of these landscapes have been identified in the Southeast: eastern North Carolina and Avon Park Air Force Range. Although other habitats are important, longleaf is the primary habitat occurring in these two landscapes that supports species of interest to the Department of Defense. Outside of officially-designated Sentinel Landscapes, we have many other strong partnerships with military bases, such as the Bluegrass Army Depot in Kentucky.

Table listing Longleaf pine habitat Focal Species for Florida Partners Program
Focal Species Scientific Name Applicable Plan Status* Conservation Plans
Gopher tortoise Gopherus polyphemus Range-Wide Conservation Strategy for the Gopher Tortoise (2013); Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) Recovery Plan (1990); BO/CO for PFW T/ARS Prescribed fire (preferred in growing season), midstory management, longleaf pine planting, invasive species control, plant native grasses
Red-cockaded Woodpecker Picoides borealis Red-cockaded Woodpecker Recovery Plan (2003) E
Northern bobwhite Colinus virginianus Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative: A Range-Wide Plan for Recovering Bobwhites (2011)  
Florida pinesnake Pituophis melanoleucas mugitus   ARS
Bachman sparrow Peucaea aestivalis PIF Landbird Conservation Plan  
Henslow’s sparrow Ammodramus henslowii Status Assessment and Conservation Plan for the Henslow’s Sparrow (2012)  
Eastern indigo snake Drymarchon couperi Recovery Plan (1982) T
Southern hognose Heterodon simus   ARS
Frosted flatwoods salamander Ambystoma cingulatum 5-year status review of 27 southeastern species (2014) T Restore hydrology to isolated wetlands, put fire through wetland-upland ecotones, protect wetland-upland ecotones, reduce erosion from nearby roads into isolated wetlands
Reticulated flatwoods salamander

Ambystoma bishopi

5-year status review of 27 southeastern species (2014) E
Gopher frog Lithobates capito   ARS

Florida Scrub

Scrub habitat is restricted to peninsular Florida and has been a significant focus for PFW in the southeast. It is characterized by deep, well-drained infertile sandy soils dominated by evergreen oaks, Florida rosemary, and patches of bare ground. It occurs patchily in coastal and inland dune ridges. The largest and most significant patches occur along the central ridge of the peninsula, known as the Lake Wales Ridge. Due to development, conversion to agriculture, invasives, and fire suppression, this habitat has declined from about 7,000 square miles to less than 600. Much of the remaining habitat is fragmented and in various states of degradation.

It is a priority for PFW due to its nexus with private lands and the occurrence of many listed and endemic species that are habitat-limited and respond positively to habitat restoration. The focal species is the federally threatened Florida scrub jay, which is the only bird species unique to Florida. It requires shrubby oaks, open sand, and few tall trees, habitat which is maintained by periodic fire. In addition, several other priority species benefit from restoration and enhancement aimed at Florida scrub jays, including the eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise, sand skink, bluetail mole skink, and more than 30 listed and endemic plants.

PFW will continue working with landowners, local NGOs, and FWC to restore Florida scrub. Strategies for restoration and enhancement include burning, woody vegetation removal, and invasive species control.

Table listing Florida Scrub habitat Focal Species for Florida Partners Program
Focal Species Scientific Name Applicable Plan Status* Conservation Plans
Florida scrub jay Aphelocoma coerulescens Recovery Plan (1990); 5-Year Review (2006) T Burn on 10-20-year cycle, mechanically remove woody vegetation, encourage large blocks of habitat

Florida Dry Prairie and South Florida Slash Pine Flatwoods

These two habitats are endemic to peninsular Florida, restricted geographically, and are priorities due to the rare wildlife species that depend on them. Both contain diverse ground cover with interspersed shallow wetlands and are fire-dependent.

Florida dry prairie at one time covered about 1.2 million acres, less than 15% of which remains. Despite its small occurrence, this area is critical to the restoration efforts of the Everglades. Much of this area is within the proposed Everglades Headwaters NWR and Conservation Area, which relies heavily on work with private landowners. This area also provides the only habitat for the Florida grasshopper sparrow, one of the most endangered birds on the continent. Habitat restoration on private lands, most of which are cattle ranches, is considered one of the most effective strategies to increase sparrow viability.

PFW in South Florida is working with Federal, State, and private landowners to manage and monitor prescribed grazing and prescribed burning on some of these ranches to determine how cattle and grasshopper sparrows can be compatible. With this information, the PFW Program can promote establishment of grasshopper sparrow habitat parameters on currently unoccupied dry prairie sites. Other species to benefit from this work are eastern indigo snake, wood stork, gopher tortoise, and burrowing owl.

South of the dry prairie focus area lies PFW’s South Florida Slash Pine Flatwoods focus area, which features a canopy of slash pine in addition to a diverse ground cover and shallow wetlands and swamps. The focus of PFW’s work here is the Florida panther, which relies on private lands in 70% of its range. Florida’s ranching community plays a significant role in this focus area and provides a great opportunity for PFW work. Much of our work occurs near the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, where we can expand core habitat onto private lands. Preliminary observations suggest that PFW work is increasing deer populations on private lands, which provide the prey base for Florida panthers.

Invasive species control is the biggest strategy for panther recovery. Other species to benefit include Florida bonneted bat, crested caracara, wood stork, and swallow-tailed kite.

Table listing Florida Dry Prairie and South Florida Slash Pine Flatwoods Focal Species for Florida Partners Program
Focal Species Scientific Name Applicable Plan Status* Conservation Plans
Florida grasshopper sparrow Ammodramus savannarum floridanus Recovery Plan (1999); 5-Year Review (2008) E Remove woody vegetation (oaks, cabbage palm) via grazing, burning, roller chopping
Florida panther Puma concolor coryi  Recovery Plan (2008) E Remove invasive species

* Status Key

  • E - Endangered
  • T - Threatened
  • ARS - AT-Risk Species (not currently federally listed)

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Last updated: November 20, 2019