Bill Bartnick, FDACS/Office of Ag Water Policy and Joe Prenger, FWC
Agricultural lands provide valuable benefits to conservation, as recognized by the state agencies charged with managing Florida’s natural resources. In particular, forestry, ranching and many other large scale agricultural operations provide significant habitat for fish and wildlife, including many of the state’s imperiled species integral to the overall ecosystem.
It is a priority for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to find better ways of working with and supporting Florida agriculture so rural lands can continue to provide valuable wildlife habitat. Therefore the FWC has incorporated new ways to address imperiled species on private lands as part of its updated Imperiled Species Management System.
This effort began with the anticipated approval of new rules and approaches for imperiled species under the FWC’s Imperiled Species Management Plan. FWC staff began working with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), agricultural landowners and other stakeholders to develop Wildlife Best Management Practices (WBMPs) for State Imperiled Species on agricultural lands in Florida.
To better understand the constraints and concerns of agricultural producers, the FWC and FDACS began by observing the various ways these operations were being conducted across the state. Staff spent roughly two and a half years visiting forestry, ranching and farming operations throughout Florida, talking with the owners and managers of these operations and developing an understanding of existing water quality BMPs.
Then in 2013, the Florida Legislature authorized the FDACS to work collaboratively with the FWC to develop and adopt WBMPs into rule as a voluntary alternative to incidental take permitting. Recognizing the success of water quality BMPs already in place that help reduce regulatory burdens, the FWC initially worked with the Florida Forest Service, and then the Office of Agricultural Water Policy to adopt rules (forestry: 5I-8; production agriculture: 5M-18, F.A.C.) to address the incidental take issue for agriculture.
The WBMPs are intended to complement the existing water quality BMP program by promoting sound practices that foster both responsible agricultural land use and natural resource conservation, while reducing the potential for incidental take of State Imperiled Species. FDACS and FWC believe these practices will enhance agriculture’s contribution to the conservation and management of freshwater aquatic life and wildlife in the state, and reflect a balance between natural resource conservation and resource utilization. Implementation of these practices will benefit a multitude of species above and beyond the 16 fish and animals currently addressed by the WBMPs.
The Wildlife BMPs are voluntary practices, applied at the discretion of the landowner or other person or entity responsible for conducting activities on a given property. Applicants enroll by submitting a Notice of Intent (NOI) indicating how they will implement WBMPs. Enrolled landowners that implement the practices are not required to obtain a permit to authorize incidental take of the indicated State Imperiled Species associated with their operations. Implementation surveys of voluntarily enrolled participants will be conducted periodically, by appointment, to document WBMP implementation. The implementation surveys will be conducted jointly by FWC and FDACS staff, with the focus being documentation of implemented practices, rather than surveying for presence of listed species. As with the water quality BMP program, documentation of some practices may require inspection of certain records, such as those used in the normal course of business.
It is the intent that wildlife BMPs will serve as a voluntary alternative to incidental take permitting for the 16 state-listed fish and wildlife species. With the recognition that forest, ranch and other agricultural lands have and will continue to contribute important habitat to fish and wildlife species, the agencies have embraced this voluntary alternative to regulation.
Mac Finlayson, a cattle rancher in Jefferson County who provided wildlife biologists an opportunity to observe his ranching operation, commented on the outreach effort, “It is invaluable for me, as a producer, to be presented with the opportunity to share my story with wildlife biologists from FWC and to be able to show them how agriculture, in general, and my operation, in particular, is a tremendous benefit to wildlife.”
Cattleman Charlie Lykes, one of Florida’s largest landowners, further observed, “Many of us view wildlife BMPs in the same way we saw wetland BMPs when they were first being discussed. Wetland BMPs allowed cattlemen and other landowners to be proactive about protecting our water before regulators got the bit in their teeth. We now have the same opportunity with wildlife.”
For more information about wildlife BMPs or how to enroll, contact Bill Bartnick at the FDACS Office of Agricultural Water Policy, Bill.Bartnick@FreshFromFlorida.com, or Joe Prenger, FWC Landowner Assistance Program, Joseph.Prenger@MyFWC.com.
For information on how FWC partners with private landowners, go to MyFWC.com/lap.