Upland Habitat Celebrates 20-Year Anniversary

By Kent Williges

It’s hard to believe, but 2018 will mark the 20th year of existence for the Upland Habitat Research & Monitoring Program! Quite a few evolutionary changes have occurred over the span of 2 decades.

The program had its origins back in 1998 as the brainchild of Nick Wiley, former executive director of FWC, and was funded by the Conservation and Recreation Lands (CARL) trust fund, the precursor of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF). Prior to agency reorganization, the program at the time was housed in the old Bureau of Wildlife Management, the predecessor of the Wildlife Habitat Management Section (WHM), and was created specifically to use applied research to address management issues within the agency’s Wildlife Management Area (WMA) system.

Over the years, the program has been known by a few different names including the Adaptive Management Section, and the Plant Monitoring Section before the current title was acquired after the agency reorganized in 2004. However, Upland Habitat continues to be closely allied with WHM, and conducts research within the WMA system to develop best management practices for upland plant communities that can be used by land managers across the state. The advantage of working on specific WMAs is that the manager can often see the experimental results immediately, and has a pretty good idea of what is working without having to wait to read about it later in a report. Past research has included monitoring the effects of grazing on upland plant communities, evaluating mechanical vegetation control methods for managing scrub and flatwoods, and helping to develop the agency’s Objective’s Based Vegetation Monitoring (OBVM) program, an adaptive management program that is ongoing to this day.

In 2004, Upland Habitat was moved to the FWRI during the agency-wide reorganization . Itwas placed within the Ecosystem Assessment and Research Section, first under the direction of Jennifer Wheaton and currently led by Dr. Amber Whittle, where it continues to grow and expand. The program was relatively small back in 1998 consisting of only three biologists– Kent Williges, current program leader, is the only original employee remaining. The program continues to grow post-merger, and currently consists of nine full time biologists headquartered at the Wildlife Research Laboratory in Gainesville.

Upland Habitat continues to focus research on all things related to botany. In that way,  they have been able to establish a niche within the agency. Staff handle many requests for plant identification throughout the year from both WMA staff and the general public. They often determine the seed viability of native seed mixes for planting on WHM ground cover restoration projects. Current research for WHM funded by the LATF includes investigating methods for control of cabbage palm in wet flatwoods, comparing chemical control methods for hardwood reduction in upland plant communities, and monitoring the effects of mechanical control methods on ephemeral ponds associated with the flatwoods salamander. In addition, Upland Habitat has evaluated and provided management recommendations for WHM ground cover restoration projects for the past 13 years.

The classic skull and crossed ‘Liatris’ logo of the Upland Habitat Research & Monitoring Program will sport a new bandana throughout 2018, commemorating the 20-year anniversary.

Quantifying habitat characteristics has also become the Upland Habitat program’s specialty. Scientists are currently measuring structural attribute characteristics of wildlife habitat, and monitoring their response to management treatments for 2 endangered species including the Sanibel Island Rice Rat, and the flatwoods salamander.  These projects are funded by the Aquatic Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Section, and a Cooperative State Wildlife Grant, respectively. They are also investigating pollinators in both native, and restored plant communities as part of a cooperative project with the University of Florida.

The next 20 years will undoubtedly present many new challenges for Florida’s land managers as the population continues to increase with seemingly no end in sight. Upland Habitat will continue to utilize applied research to address upland plant community (and some wetlands) management issues within an ever-expanding urban landscape for the benefit of all of Florida’s habitat, wildlife and people.