Just northwest of Lake Okeechobee, atop the southern end of the Lake Wales Ridge, sits a landscape unaltered by humans, except to claim it for conservation. The actions of just one man have kept this unique mosaic of scrub, seasonal wetlands, sandy dunes, and open grasslands largely in their original state. Richard Archbold, famed explorer and aviator, founded Archbold Biological Station in 1941 with the original 1,080 acres. After decades of careful acquisitions, the station now has 8,840 acres as well as 55 employees and interns responsible for its care.
“The Florida Ridge that runs through Archbold is the only part of Florida that has never been submerged in ocean water, so it has had millions of years to evolve naturally,” says Reed Bowman, director of avian ecology at Archbold Biological Station. “There are species of plants and animals here found nowhere else on earth.”
The ridge is the central spine of the state, home to the highest elevations in peninsular Florida. The highest point on the station’s property stands 222 feet above sea level. As we exit the research vehicle, the rise is easily visible. Bowman points out the distinct changes in color of the topography—reddish yellow on the ridge as compared to white, powdery sand elsewhere. “Florida was once an archipelago of islands before the water receded,” he says.
In our tropical environment, it may be surprising to learn that grasslands and grazing have gone hand in hand since the Pleistocene period. Mastodons, giant ground sloths, and glyptodons (armored relatives of the armadillo that were the size of a Volkswagen Beetle) dined on native plants and grasses here until their extinction approximately 12,000 years ago. Cattle, which now dominate as grazing animals, have thrived here for
Until automobiles became common and fences were built, open rangeland with its frequent fire cycles benefited bears, panthers, and deer along with a host of birds and small mammals that needed open space. These ranges still provide valuable habitat for hundreds of species. At Archbold Biological Station, the relationship between cattle and the environment is being studied with an unprecedented level of detail.
Buck Island Ranch is a 10,500-acre working cattle ranch just east of Archbold and the ridge, on part of the old Indian prairie. The ranch was leased by the station in 1988 and purchased in 2018 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to study sustainable practices while maintaining revenue streams. “We seek to understand the ranch as a working ecosystem,” says Hilary Swain, director of the station. “Our mission is not to turn the clock back to the early 1900s but to put science into conservation action. The ranch is a rare opportunity for us.”
Cattle have been blamed for emitting greenhouse gases, but the hundreds of pieces of water- and air-sampling equipment on the ranch are revealing some surprises. “Our measurements show that cattle grazing can have a cooling effect on the atmosphere,” says Swain. “They eat the leaf litter that would normally build up, decompose, and release gases. Grazed lands actually uptake more CO2 because grazing stimulates new growth and photosynthesis,” she explains.
“They also eat some of the exotic grasses and plants and help disperse seeds,” she adds. “These lands are relatively low-fertility, low-production lands with sandy, acidic soils where fire and flood and drought are normal—well suited for grazing.” Many dozens of sensors and gauges measure soil moisture, soil temperature, water, and wind as well as CO2 and methane output, generating mountains of data and millions of records. Add to this information a network of more than 40 wildlife cameras, now with audio capabilities, that document wildlife populations on the ranch. “We will be able to hear the grunts, squeaks, and calls of animals from frogs to panthers to bears that make the ranch their home,” says Swain.
Gene Lollis, manager of Buck Island Ranch, began his cowboy career as a teenager working at ranches near Kissimmee and riding bulls. “I don’t know how much I rode them,” he laughs, “but I did get on.” He notes that ranchers and government agencies have been butting heads for decades. “Our work here has built trust among ranchers, so we can advocate for sitting down and coming to a consensus.”
Enter the Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Project (FRESP), a pilot program that set up a framework for ranchers to be compensated for upgrading their water management practices. It encouraged ranchers to surpass regulatory requirements for the quantity of water retained and the quality of water running off their land. FRESP paved the way for the North Everglades Payment for Environmental Services program (NE-PES), which has resulted in the completion of numerous projects, including wetlands restoration, which are beneficial to the area’s ecosystem.
Many decades of draining and ditching have altered the landscape in undesirable ways. There are 500 miles of ditches on Buck Island Ranch alone, which take on excess water sheeting off the pastures during heavy rains. That water then races down to Lake Okeechobee and its estuaries, carrying one particularly undesirable hitchhiker: phosphorus, which was used widely in farming in the 1960s and ’70s and leads to toxic algae blooms and lower oxygen levels.
One low-tech approach spearheaded by researchers at Archbold and Buck Island Ranch introduces riser boards to partially block culverts and create temporary wetlands. The more time water spends in place, the more it percolates into the ground or is taken up by plants. Lollis is confident that more ranchers will opt into these programs that offer payment for taking part. “We started with eight ranches and now have 16,” he says. “The only limiting factor is funding.”
Cattle ranching has been blamed for water pollution, but phosphorus is not produced by cattle. Betsey Boughton, who holds a PhD in conservation biology, is the program director of agroecology at Archbold Biological Station. The ranch is her laboratory. “Phosphorus will be in our soil for at least another 100 years, and that stays whether this land is a subdivision or cattle ranch,” she says. “Through our hydrology programs, we have been able to reduce the amounts.” Soil and water sampling helps identify areas where the land holds more phosphorus, so Boughton’s team can work to mitigate water flow from those areas. “We are planting various kinds of grasses, including along ditches, to uptake nutrients, and we are starting to grow our own feed,” she explains. “Hay uptakes quite a bit of phosphorus.”
On the ranch, semi-native pastures coexist with improved, or planted, pastures with non-native grasses. “The improved pastures have five- to seven-times the amount of phosphorus that semi-native pastures do, because native plants uptake and hold the phosphorus much better,” Boughton says. Cows ate native plants long before pastures were fenced and planted, and it seems they have preferences. “They like the maiden cane, a wetland-loving native, and bluestem, along with muhly grass and panicum.”
Controlled burns are utilized to keep woody shrubs and non-native invasives from taking over. “Native grasses are adapted to fire and will resprout just one or two days after fire,” Boughton explains. “Grasses contain more protein after a fire. If cows have the choice, they will go to grasses that have been burned over those that have not, and will keep going back to those spots for up to a year.”
The research conducted at Archbold Biological Station and Buck Island Ranch is inspiring other ranchers to take up some of these environmental practices. To have a sustainable, revenue-producing ranch while improving water quality is proving to be possible through careful management.
Lollis appreciates riding out in the open space surrounded by nature. “We see birds and animals that thrive in this open environment, like the burrowing owl, crested caracara, Eastern meadowlark, fox, deer, and the Florida black bear,” he says, pointing out a family of sandhill cranes calling to one another at the edge of a pasture. Lollis knows this land would be quite different without the synergistic effects of fire and water. “It would turn into a fairly wooded thicket where water won’t stand. Because we have wetlands in open areas, we’ll have water further into the dry season.”
Buck Island Ranch is producing cattle and data, which Lollis sees as equally important. “Ranching has been here 500 years, and we’d like to be here for 500 more,” he says. “For society in general, not just for wildlife but for food security. Whether you eat beef or not, agriculture and ecology are all tied together.”