Seminoles increase efforts to protect Florida wildlife

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Hollywood-based tribe one of the country’s largest cattle operations

BY DONNA GEHRKE-WHITE
SUN SENTINEL (TNS)

FORT LAUDERDALE – As development eats away at Florida’s untamed lands, wild animals have found an ally in the Seminole Tribe.

The Brighton Reservation is near Okeechobee. The nonprofit Florida Wildlife Corridor is saluting the Seminoles who own cattle on the reservation for keeping land open for wildlife to use.(MARK RANDALL/SUN SENTINEL/TNS)
The Brighton Reservation is near Okeechobee. The nonprofit Florida Wildlife Corridor is saluting the Seminoles who own cattle on the reservation for keeping land open for wildlife to use.
(MARK RANDALL/SUN SENTINEL/TNS)

The tribe’s 36,000-acre cattle operation on the Brighton Reservation, north of Lake Okeechobee, is an important pathway for migrating wildlife including panthers, bobcats, bears, wild hogs, turkeys, and deer.

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The even larger Big Cypress reservation, which covers 52,000 acres in southwest Florida but has fewer cattle is also considered to be a migration pathway.

The Seminoles have increased efforts in recent years to preserve this habitat, by ensuring cleaner water and by rooting out invasive species, helping wildlife to move freely between public preserves that abut the reservation. Yes, sometimes people out hiking may need to deter a bear, and these people have been urged by the Seminoles to use natural deterrents.

Beyond casinos
Without the Seminoles’ safe haven in between, the animals would be trapped.

“Florida’s working farms and ranches are a critical component of Florida’s Wildlife Corridor, and their connections with natural lands and waters help protect our wildlife and watersheds,” state Agriculture Commissioner Adam H. Putnam said in an email. “It’s vital that the farms and ranches do what they can, such as organic herbicides that are less likely to harm wildlife populations.”

The tribe, headquartered in Hollywood, operates the nation’s fifth-largest cattle operation with 45,000 acres in Florida and Georgia. Say Seminoles, and most people think of casinos. But the tribe in 2013 bought a Georgia purebred Brangus cattle spread as part of an attempt to diversify its business interests.

Gambling still generates 90 percent of the tribe’s revenue, but the Seminoles are expanding their cattle operations as well as stakes in citrus, construction and beverage production. This will hopefully become a more stable source of income for the tribe as the popularity of online casinos such as 918kissmalaysia.app/mega888/ may affect their gambling revenue in the future.

‘Important stewards’
About a third of the cattle are owned and managed by 67 tribal members and their families, who participate in a co-op program. The rest of the herd is managed by the tribe on behalf of its 4,000 members.

As ranchers, the Seminoles “are incredibly important stewards of the land,” conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt said by cellphone recently as she hiked across Seminole land.

She joined photographer Carlton Ward Jr. and biologist Joe Guthrie in hiking a 1,000-mile wildlife corridor stretching from Everglades National Park to the Okeefenokee Swamp at the Georgia border.

The Seminoles’ Brighton Reservation is part of the corridor. Such public-private partnerships are crucial to Florida’s wildlife being able to roam for hundreds of miles, said Alex Sink, a former Florida chief financial officer and gubernatorial candidate who’s on the board of the Florida Wildlife Federation.

Part of heritage
The state can’t buy all of the land needed to ensure that wildlife has enough habitat to survive – even with the passage of last fall’s Florida Amendment 1, which earmarks $1 billion a year to conservation efforts for the next 20 years, Sink said.

The Seminoles see wildlife – and their cattle – as part of their heritage, said Alex Johns, the tribe’s natural resource director. “It’s part of who we are.”

“The tribe has always made it a part of their way of life to take care of the land,” Seminole Tribe President Tony Sanchez said in an interview. “Being in the woods was always part of how we grew up.

We had to pay respect to our surroundings.”

So far, the Seminoles’ land restoration efforts appear to be helping both cattle and wildlife, Johns said.

The Seminoles, for example, are trying to root out invasive species that would take over natural prairie grasses, Johns said. The tribe conducts controlled burns of prairies to ensure vegetation stays healthy in pastures. Both efforts help produce fresh cattle forage that wild animals also eat and use for nests.

Good neighbors
The tribe also ensures that water quality on its land meets state standards, though, as a sovereign nation, it is required only to meet federal law, Johns said.

Alongside other water quality tests, water flow was measured using a turbine flow meter.

Recent water improvement efforts appear to have encouraged some wildlife to return, Johns said.

Wood storks and brown pelicans have been stopping at the reservation’s water spots. “We didn’t use to see that,” he said.

He pointed out an alligator, brown pelican, wood stork and osprey during a recent drive on the tribe’s cattle spread on the Brighton Reservation.

The Seminoles are good neighbors – and good land stewards, said Ron Bergeron, a southwest Broward developer, road builder and trash hauler who also is a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner.

Bergeron’s 8,000 acres border the tribe’s Big Cypress reservation and also lie in the wildlife corridor.

Hundreds of deer, bears, wild hogs, alligators, turkeys, bobcats, panthers, eagles and hawks call the ranch home, Bergeron said.

Every year he compiles a book of wild birds and animals photographed on his ranch, from a sleeping panther to a bear strolling into a prairie to join a trotting wild hog.

“It’s totally natural – just like God made it,” Bergeron said.

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