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A bird with white breast and blue feathers on its back and wings perched on a wooden pallet
Information icon Florida scrub jay. Photo by Joseph Sage, FWC.

Partners for Fish and Wildlife plan helps both cattle rancher and Florida scrub jay

Palmer Simmons has been cattle ranching near Sebring, Florida, since 1990. His property, almost 1,000 acres, consists of scrub and sandhill habitats that contain many rare native species, most notably the Florida scrub jay, listed as threatened in 1987 under the Endangered Species Act.

This unique ecosystem is a relic of ancient sand islands, and it now is home to one of the highest concentrations of imperiled species in the United States, including 29 classified as endangered or threatened. While public and private institutions have worked to protect the remaining undeveloped areas, more than 85 percent of the property on the ridge is residential neighborhoods, citrus groves, pastures, and other altered habitats.

Simmons is a steward of the land who wants to maintain as much high quality wildlife habitat as possible within the constraints of a working cattle operation. So he contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program for assistance in keeping his land working for both his business and the wildlife that lives there.

A man in blue jeans and a shade hat holding a drip torch next to a prescribed fire
Palmer Simmons with a drip torch. Photo by Joseph Sage, FWC.

The property is especially important because it provides a link between conservation lands to the west with Lake June-in-Winter Scrub State Park to the east.

If natural fires do not occur periodically in this habitat, it can become overgrown with hardwoods. That in turn reduces the sandy areas that animals like the Florida scrub jays and sand skinks need to survive. Simmons recognized the need to reduce the hardwood mechanically in order to allow fire back into the system.

The earth is scortched black after a prescribed burn leaves only tall pine trees in its wake
The result of the prescribed fire. Photo by Joseph Sage, FWC.

Wildlife biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Partners for Fish and Wildlife collaborated on a plan to reduce the amount of hardwood choking out the open sand and native ground cover. In order to avoid soil disturbance that might harm the very animals everyone was trying to protect, Partners for Fish and Wildlife hired an experienced contractor with a low ground pressure mulcher to reduce brush on almost 100 acres. After curing the mulch for several weeks, Mr. Simmons was able to successfully burn the entire area with carefully managed prescribed fire.

While still a work in progress, one of the neighborhood scrub jays is already eyeing the freshly opened habitat from across the fence.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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