New Refuge Protects Threatened Atlantic Flyway Bird Life

North of Lake Okeechobee, the Kissimmee River winds through one of eastern North America’s last great grassland and savanna landscapes. The new Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area will provide critical habitat in Florida for threatened and endangered birds, including Florida Grasshopper Sparrows, Wood Storks, and Roseate Spoonbills.

The refuge is another jewel in our decades-long effort to protect the entire Everglades ecosystem and the stunning variety of birds and other wildlife that call it home.

For the past 4 years, Audubon has worked on efforts to collaborate with ranchers to encourage innovative conservation concepts in the headwaters of the Kissimmee River, the main tributary to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. In 2010, Audubon contacted every major landowner in the watershed informing them about the potential benefits of collaboration on innovative projects that preserve land, manage water, reduce the flow of polluting nutrients to Lake Okeechobee, all while keeping the ranch industry in good economic health. 

Our staff have had dozens of meetings with landowners, and have met with the South Florida Water Management District, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to help encourage program development.

The elements of the programs Audubon encourages are:

  • Sale of perpetual conservation easements that provide funds to ranchers while assuring the land will always be available for ranching and not taken over by urban development.
  • Programs that compensate ranchland owners to restore wetlands, store water, and reduce the amount of runoff from their tracts of land.

[img:16256|align:left|caption:Northern Everglades Ranchland] Audubon worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the design of their proposed Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge. We provided the USFWS with specific input on important tracts of land with high ecological and water management value. Audubon also participated in the extensive public hearing process where the newly proposed Refuge was subject to comment and criticism by some opponents. 

Audubon marshaled its chapters and activists to attend the hearings and provided thousands of written comments to the USFWS during their public hearing process and our roots in the effort to work with ranchers in the Northern Everglades are deep and longstanding.

Fifty years ago, in 1962, the Florida Audubon Society pioneered an effort to work with ranchers in the Kissimmee watershed to establish voluntary “Cooperative Bald Eagle Sanctuaries”.  

Meeting with ranchers, Audubon obtained pledges by landowners to protect Bald Eagles and their nests on ranch properties. At least 59 of the largest ranches participated, comprising over 500,000 acres of private land voluntarily protected for the Bald Eagle.

The boundary of the newly proposed Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge is strikingly similar to the lands in Audubon’s Cooperative Sanctuary program 50 years ago. The Headwaters Refuge offers both ranchers and the public the opportunity to make permanent the protections which have long benefitted the Bald Eagle and other key species that are characteristic of the high value habitat in the Kissimmee River floodplain and headwaters. 

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