Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area - Royce Unit Update

History-- The Lake Wales Ridge ecosystem is an ancient dune system that once included 600,000 acres of dry uplands. These ancient sand dunes were periodically isolated from North America by rising sea levels during recent ice ages. The plants and animals living in the harsh environment of these dunes were also isolated from their continental relatives and some developed differences that persisted when the sea receded and the Ridge was reunited with North America. Many of these dune plants and animals remained restricted to the Ridge. Thus, the Lake Wales Ridge has one of the highest concentrations in North America of endemic (locally- restricted) species. The Ridge supports 35 plant taxa (with 21 endemic to the Ridge) and 14 vertebrate taxa (with 2 endemic to the Ridge) listed (as of June 2000) as endangered, threatened, or of special concern by federal or state government, or tracked as rare by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI).

Today, more than 85% of this landscape has been converted to agriculture and residential development.

In the early 1980ís a protection strategy was developed which included preserving sites of varying sizes along the ridge. In 1985, it was determined that many of the plant species along the ridge qualified under the endangered species act. In 1993, Congress designated a portion of the Lake Wales Ridge a National Wildlife Refuge, the first designed to protect rare plants. To date the Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Areas consists of 15 separate tracts totally 15,000 acres scattered over 75 miles.

In the late 1980ís the Nature Conservancy purchased approximately 300 acres of scrub on the Royce/Silver Harbor Ranch. In December 2001, the state purchased the remaining 2347 acres of the ranch and this piece of property was added to the Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area. (Note that this took approx. 2700 acres including 4 miles of lakefront out of future development). Two-hundred and thirty five acres are in citrus and with the exception of 50 acres, this has been leased to the University of Florida as an experimental grove.

In late 2003 Mike McMillian became the lead biologist for the Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife Environmental Areaís, which include the Royce Unit. Kevin Main the former lead biologist is now the district biologist for FWC.

Plans for Royce Unit-- One of the state mandates is to provide public access to these properties. In keeping with this mandate the Royce unit has initiated several public use activities:

Hunting-- Wildlife technicians have planted four dove fields supporting eight hunting opportunities (last dove hunt is Jan 10). Four small game hunts run from early December through late January (next two are Jan 16-18 and Jan 23-25). Small game hunts include game animals up to feral hog size. In 2003 the Royce Unit sponsored its first white-tailed deer hunt and in 2004 will provide two spring turkey hunts.

According to Mike, "We have had 7 dove hunts with over 30 hunters each. We had 10 hunters for our deer hunt (all that were allowed). We have had just over 80 hunters on our small game hunts. We will have 10 hunters for our turkey hunts (all that is allowed). Some results: deer hunters took 5 bucks (50% success rate); dove hunters were taking around 90-150 birds per hunt until the cows destroyed all four dove fields (now they get about 10-15 doves); the small game hunters have taken 75-100 gray squirrels and approx. 10 hogs (two weighed over 300 pounds); other animals have included cottontail rabbit (very few), common snipe (very few) and one armadillo; turkey hunting hasnít happened yet. As for trail users there is no way to know. We donít keep any records but use is fairly low I would say. I donít think enough people know about the place. I donít think there have been any horseback riders yet again because they probably donít know itís available."

Hikingó The Royce unit has a small parking area at the trail head, which leads either north to Lake Istokpoga or south to our southern boundary. The current trail takes hikers through pine flatwoods, various grassland types, bayhead, oak hammock, and lake shoreline. In 2004 we hope to expand the trail to include cutthroat grass seeps and scrub. "We are going to extend the trail this year and install a bluebird trail in late February."

Horseback Ridingó The same trails used by hikers can be used as horseback riding trails.

Other plans for the Royce Unit include habitat restoration and exotic plant removal: The Royce Unit had been ranched for approximately 70 years. During this period the property was drained and many areas were converted to bahai grass pasture for grazing. We will be attempting to restore the hydrology of the Royce Unit, pre-1940, to restore bahai grass pastures, cutthroat seeps, and scrub. These restoration projects are long-term projects designed to return the landscape to an early 1900ís look based on historic photographs. Several restoration projects will use controlled burning. Once we have conducted detailed impact studies, hydrology will be restored by filling in ditches. Bahai grass removal will involve burning, plowing, and the use of herbicides followed by native vegetation plantings. Cutthroat seeps (cutthroat is listed grass species) will be restored using controlled burning and timber harvesting. Scrub restoration will be accomplished using controlled burning and plantings.

Although Mike McMillian has left his position with Archbold Biological Station, he will continue his long-term research project on Lake Istokpoga Osprey (15 years and counting). This work will not be part of his FWC duties but will continue to be on his time. The Osprey has long been used as a biological indicator species for the health of an ecosystem, in this case, Lake Istokpoga. Mike also works on Lake Arbuckle in Polk County and will expand his research to include Blue Cypress Lake (Brevard County) in 2004.