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Recreation and land

Public lands help protect threatened, endangered plants and animals

The St. Johns River Water Management District’s primary goal in purchasing and managing land is to protect water resources. While doing this, the district also actively manages the properties to protect native plants and animals.

For more than 30 years, district staff have undertaken projects to protect wildlife on district lands. The following is an overview of some of those projects.

Gopher tortoise
Gopher tortoise

Gopher tortoises live in elaborate tunnels — known as burrows — dug deep in sandy soils. In 2014, gopher tortoises that had made their homes in the flood control levees in the Upper St. Johns River Basin (Orange, Indian River and Brevard counties) needed to be moved to ensure structural integrity of the levees. Prior to the relocation of several dozen tortoises, district staff located and mapped burrow entrances to determine the approximate number of tortoises living in the area. They also arranged to move the tortoises to a site approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Such sites can be public or private property with habitat suitable for tortoises. Each relocated tortoise was examined, documented and marked for future monitoring.

Snail kite
Snail kite

The snail kite is considered a barometer of the success of freshwater wetland restoration in central and south Florida. The snail kite needs an open clear-water habitat interspersed with patches of emergent vegetation. This habitat supports the kite’s visual hunting style (hunting by hovering over the water or viewing the water from a perch) and nesting needs. In the Upper St. Johns River Basin (Indian River and Brevard counties), the district manages the hydrology on thousands of acres of public land for flood protection and environmental conservation. By balancing water levels to meet these two needs, the district creates and maintains the habitat preferred by the snail kite and its primary food source, the apple snail.

Florida black bear
Florida black bear

Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and
Wildlife Conservation Commission

District staff have assisted the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and FWC in projects where bridges have been built over major highways or underpasses constructed beneath roadways to provide safe passage for bears and other wildlife. The bridges and underpasses often connect public conservation areas and are constructed and landscaped to encourage bears to use them and avoid deadly encounters with vehicles on roadways. One such underpass is near Palatka (Putnam County) under State Road 20 between two sections of the district’s Rice Creek Conservation Area.

Red-cockaded woodpecker
Red-cockaded woodpecker

Since the early 2000s, the district has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage red-cockaded woodpecker habitat at Hal Scott Regional Preserve and Park in east Orange County. Birds from Apalachicola National Forest in Florida’s panhandle — where the birds are more abundant — have been relocated to Hal Scott Preserve and other suitable areas to help propagate the species. Prior to moving the birds, district staff build artificial cavities of hollowed-out wood, which are then inserted into holes in trees. After installation, small holes are poked in the tree above and below the cavity to allow the sap to flow, making it difficult for snakes and other predators to climb the tree — a natural defense system that biologists learned from the woodpeckers. Relocated birds are tagged with leg bands and released near the newly created tree cavities.

Florida Scrub-jay
Florida Scrub-jay

The district has participated in several Florida Scrub-jay relocation projects; the most recent in 2014. The cooperative project with the Brevard Zoo relocated two families of birds from a parcel of land under development in Brevard County to the district’s Buck Lake Conservation Area (Brevard and Volusia counties). Like previous bird moves, staff gained the trust of the birds over several weeks and were able to lure them into humane traps. Zoo staff conducted a health exam on each bird, then district staff attached identifying leg bands. After being acclimated to the conservation property in large cages over a few days, the birds were released and continue to be monitored.

Rare plants

Among the rare Florida plants protected on district land are Bartram’s ixia and Rugel’s false pawpaw.

    Bartram’s ixia
  • At the Bayard Conservation Area (Clay County), just a handful of Bartram’s ixia existed two decades ago. The district has conducted prescribed fires on the property to manage undergrowth that could fuel hotter-burning wild fires. In doing so, the right conditions have been created for the Bartram’s ixia to flourish. Visitors have a small window of opportunity to see the delicate plants in bloom — early in the morning between mid-April and mid-June when individual plants bloom just once and close by mid-morning.
  • Rugel’s false pawpaw
  • Another rare, endangered plant — Rugel’s false pawpaw — has been successfully transplanted twice at Lake Monroe Conservation Area (Volusia County). In the early 1990s about 15 Rugel’s false pawpaws were moved from a Volusia County road project area that would impact the plants and transplanted along the eastern boundary of the conservation area near State Road 415. In summer 2012, district staff worked with FDOT and contractors to locate suitable habitat to transplant pawpaws as part of an Interstate 4 widening project.
Other projects

Other projects to protect threatened and endangered species have included:

Bald eagle
  • Construction and installation of artificial burrows to provide habitat and protection for burrowing owls
  • Harvest of seeds from native grasses that have been transplanted to appropriate conservation areas
  • Management of certain marsh properties to provide habitat for whooping cranes — a species near the brink of extinction in 1941 with only 15 birds; a population that has increased to 135 in captivity and roughly 340 in the wild
  • Identification of bald eagle nests, wading bird rookeries and other sensitive areas to avoid conducting land management activities during the breeding season and sensitive times of the year

Endangered species fast facts


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St. Johns River Water Management District
4049 Reid Street, Palatka, FL 32177
(800) 725-5922