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Three biologists try to life a huge, prehistoric looking fish over the side of a small boat.
Information icon Gulf sturgeon being released into the wild. Photo by USFWS.

Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Florida’s Big Bend

Landscape at a Glance

A map showing the Florida's Big Bend focal area.
Map of Florida’ Big Bend focal area by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

The Big Bend Focal Area in the northeastern Gulf extends generally from the eastern boundary of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Watershed to the southern boundary of the Chassahowitzka NWR in Citrus County. This area is the largest remaining stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental United States and includes a myriad of conservation lands managed by private landowners and public agencies, including the Service, the Department’s Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The ecosystem is primarily defined by water, consisting of surface water, groundwater, springs and several large rivers. Many of the focal area’s rivers, such as the Ochlockonee, Wakulla, St. Marks, Aucilla and Suwannee, transition into estuaries and eventually into the Gulf. Notably, the Suwannee River Estuary System has been designated an Outstanding Florida Water and a State Seagrass Aquatic Preserve and contains a National Wildlife Refuge.

A gnarled tree bends over a river covered in vines and spanish moss.
Oaks along the Suwanee River. Photo by Stewart Tomlinson, US Geological Survey.

The distinctive karstic geology within the Big Bend connects the Floridan aquifer and surface waters via a dense collection of sinks (i.e., diffuse depressions in the ground that connect below the surface), swallets (i.e., natural depressions that serve as conduits for surface water to become ground water) and the densest collection of springs in the world. As such, this is an area of high groundwater recharge and the Floridan Aquifer provides the primary source of drinking water in much of the watershed. The mixture of warm temperate forests, wetlands and swamps, springs, tidal and black water rivers, and productive estuarine habitats in this focal area support a diverse assemblage of fish, wildlife and plant communities, including several protected species such as the red cockaded woodpecker, swallowtail kite, frosted flatwoods salamander, Florida salt marsh vole, piping plover, Gulf sturgeon and West Indian manatee. Other estuarine-dependent bird species in this focal area include the American oystercatcher, reddish egret (and other wading birds), and wood stork. In addition, the Suwannee River spring system contains the greatest diversity of exclusively cave-dwelling fauna in the world.

Many of the resource issues within this focal area relate to water quantity and quality, including flooding and drought situations, as well as to habitat alteration and degradation that have cumulative impacts on the overall landscape. Perhaps the greatest conservation challenge to the Big Bend’s economy and rural culture is continued landscape conversion from forests and other low-intensity uses to more water-intensive land uses. These uses rely on greater groundwater withdrawals which not only mean less water is available within the system, but the potential for cascading effects such as diminished water quality (e.g., nitrogen loading that causes eutrophication problems within springs and rivers) and, subsequently, habitat alterations in the surrounding aquatic ecosystems.

Improving water quality and quantity is essential to restoring and protecting the area’s natural resources such as oyster bars and seagrass meadows, recreational and commercial fisheries, and numerous habitats for wetland-dependent species. Using tools such as conservation easements and payments for ecosystem services with willing private landowners to build connections to important large forested tracts and/or link to existing conservation lands are a priority for this area. Protected lands could also serve as important coastal-to-inland corridors for wildlife impacted by sea level rise. The Service is pleased to see momentum is building around the need to develop integrated water resource management within the Big Bend landscape to promote sustainable solutions in a holistic manner, focusing on environmental protection, economic development and social well-being. We support conservation partners who are beginning to act (e.g., the Suwannee River Water Management District is in the process of updating their Surface Water Improvement and Management plan) and encourage others to do the same.

Target Species

Working with both public and private landowners to restore or maintain water quality and quantity and hydrologic connectivity across the Big Bend Focal Area will move us closer to achieving our recovery goals and meeting our population objectives for two federally listed species, the West Indian manatee (recently proposed for reclassification to threatened) and the Gulf sturgeon. Population objectives for the threatened Gulf sturgeon are a catch-per-unit-effort during monitoring, with a short-term target of no decline from the baseline level over a three-to-five-year period; and a long-term target of having efforts underway to restore lost or degraded habitat and the population is demonstrated to be self-sustaining.

A tiny tortoise standing on sandy soil.
Juvenile gopher tortoise. Photo by Randy Browning, USFWS.

Further developing a coordinated and comprehensive approach to watershed management will inform restoration planning efforts to directly and indirectly benefit the flatwoods salamander, shore and wading birds and the numerous freshwater mussels and cave fauna endemic to the region. As well, such planning efforts could potentially prevent the listing of animals such as the Gulf Coast salt marsh mink, Suwannee River alligator snapping turtle, and gopher tortoise.

The primary focus of work in this geography revolves around the immediate needs related to sustaining natural resources and ecosystem services that support local economies of the area (i.e., coastal and hardwood hammock forests for timber and aquatic resources for shellfish production). The Service recognizes the important contributions of habitats that also address our population sustainability goals for non-breeding habitat of the federally listed piping plover (3,000 individuals), the red knot (20,000 individuals) and whimbrel (18,810 individuals)(Note: these objectives are for a broader geography, including the Southeast Coastal Plain, Peninsular Florida, and the Caribbean). Population objectives also exist for open pine species like the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

In addition, the Service sees this focal area as a potential contributor to the recovery of species identified as federally endangered, threatened, or at risk; or as imperiled by the state of Florida. This focal area also serves as an inland wildlife movement corridor, especially for large predators, that could mitigate some of the impacts of sea level rise in the Big Bend region. The Service will continue to work with partners to meet our shared objectives for priority species and habitats in the Big Bend.

Our priority on restoring water quantity, quality and hydrology stems from our mission to recover Gulf sturgeon and West Indian manatee populations and further protect and restore other trust species such as frosted flatwoods salamander, key bird species, and salt marsh vole, and averting the listing of animals such as the Gulf Coast salt marsh mink and Suwannee River alligator snapping turtle. However, we will achieve our objective with those species by incentivizing water use practices that will more effectively recharge aquifers that supply water to local communities and maintain water levels in streams and rivers. This would lead to commercial fisheries and recreational fishing for species such as Gulf Coast striped bass, red drum, speckled trout, southern flounder, black drum, Spanish mackerel, tripletail, cobia, and tarpon also being improved. Creating oyster reefs not only improves water quality in estuaries for the Gulf sturgeon and manatees but it also provides additional angling opportunities, shellfisheries (particularly scallops) and saltwater fish habitat. Forest management would also benefit the Florida pine snake and the gopher tortoise — both State Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Florida and at-risk or candidate species in this focal area.

High Priority Actions Based on the Service’s Vision

Work closely with willing private landowners, local communities, and the State of Florida to conserve working landscapes for present and future generations to ensure economic sustainability through the protection and conservation of ecosystem services that support local economies, and cultures.

Next Steps

A bright white lighthouse surrounded by oak and palm trees on an inlet.
Lighthouse at St. Marks NWR. Photo by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS.
  • Develop a long-term regional strategy for the Big Bend landscape that includes conservation and restoration priorities, economic development and community outreach which support and encourage natural resource based economies.
  • Create and incorporate into a regional strategy an oyster restoration plan for Dixie, Levy, Taylor and Jefferson counties that can provide guidance to restoring high quality historical oyster reefs close to freshwater sources to protect and enhance estuarine salinity regimes that will also benefit trust resource species.
  • Use output from the Gulf Land Conservation Tool along with that of other strategic landscape conservation design efforts to identify priority areas (e.g., lands south of U.S. Highway 98; southeast of Panacea; south of the Ochlockonee River; and the Wacissa River drainage basin) and work with willing private landowners to support working landscapes, provide support to sustainable resource-based economic activities and improve habitat for target species. Activities may include: the development of best timber management practices; prescribed burning; marsh management; and voluntary land conservation through conservation easements or management agreements.
  • Work with willing landowners and State partners to protect important coastal to inland corridors within the approved acquisition boundary of St. Marks and Lower Suwannee NWRs, through a combination of fee acquisitions and conservation easements, which will provide benefits for wildlife and plants impacted by sea level rise.
  • Develop multi-partner approaches to conservation including exploring opportunities with the Department of Environmental Protection’s Florida Forever Program; USDA’s NRCS Agricultural Conservation Easement and Healthy Forest Reserve Programs; Florida Forest Service Rural and Family Lands Protection and Forest Legacy Programs; and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission programs such as Landowner Assistance and Aquatic Habitat Conservation and Restoration Programs.

Restore the watershed’s natural hydrologic processes by addressing withdrawals and diversions that reduce water quantity. The goal is to restore and enhance springs, rivers, wetlands and estuarine habitats; enhance marine habitats such as oyster bars and seagrass meadows, aquaculture, and recreational and other commercial fisheries; and enhance habitat for wetland dependent species.

Next Steps

  • Work through voluntary incentive programs in the Suwannee watershed, including portions of the Floridan Aquifer, to aid in sustainable water use that balances human use and the protection of ecological resources and services, particularly of freshwater mussel species. For example, utilize voluntary programs that promote practices such as tailwater recovery and irrigation improvements to conserve water.
  • Create nonstructural solutions for flood management such as the purchase of floodplain lands and hydrologic restoration of drained areas to restore aquifer recharge and reduce nutrient concentrations to meet the established numeric criteria in springs.
  • Achieve water quality improvement by reducing contamination loads entering into the system (e.g., assessed through monitoring of regional indicator species health).
  • Work in concert with State Water Management Districts who will adopt existing minimum flows and levels for rivers and springs to ensure adequate water supply to benefit target species, and improve freshwater deliveries to coastal ecosystems by ensuring adequate aquifer storage that will support critical habitat for the Gulf sturgeon and manatee, as well as estuarine feeding areas for wading birds.
  • Conduct nearshore oyster reef restoration to provide shoreline erosion protection and help improve the quality and resilience of coastal salt marsh habitat for fish and wildlife species.
  • Cooperatively work with private landowners to restore natural hydrology in areas with exacerbated flooding problems or high recharge of fresh water. This could include voluntary land conservation within the St. Marks NWR acquisition boundary to protect key estuaries.

Restore water quality within the basin by working with private landowners, local communities, and the State of Florida to implement land management practices that slow runoff, filter sediment, increase submerged aquatic vegetation, and reduce pesticides and nutrients from entering the water.

Next Steps

A fire consume low lying palms and grasses among taller pine trees.
Prescribed fire at St. Vincent NWR. Photo by Jennifer Hinckley, USFWS.
  • Increase adoption and proper implementation of agricultural best management practices within nutrient-impaired watersheds and springsheds (i.e. areas within a ground or surface water basin that contribute to the spring flow).
  • Expand incentives and work with willing landowners to implement best management practices that reduce or eliminate significant water use and nutrient runoff on priority springshed lands.
  • Implement habitat maintenance and restoration activities that promote a fire regime in fire-dominated ecosystems to facilitate healthy forests supporting aquifer recharge, plants and wildlife.
  • Continue to develop public-private partnerships to restore natural hydrology on private lands and create incentives for private landowners to practice sustainable activities to help reduce the rate of surface water runoff and reduce pollution and flooding while rehydrating wetlands and/or increasing aquifer recharge.

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