The Peninsular Florida Conservation Region (Region 24*) encompasses most of Florida south of a line extending approximately from Jacksonville to Steinhatchee on the Gulf Coast. Florida had nearly 20.4 million acres of wetlands, of which some 9.7 million acres were palustrine emergent wetlands that typically were most valuable to waterfowl. Florida has lost approximately 13 million acres of wetlands, primarily to urbanization and agriculture. Wetlands in Florida have been adversely affected by introductions of several species of invasive exotic plants (e.g., water hyacinth). Nonetheless, Florida contains some wetland areas that serve as important migration and winter habitat in the Atlantic Flyway, nearly all of which are located within the peninsula.
Importance to waterfowl
Important waterfowl habitat in peninsular Florida occurs in association with major rivers such as the St. Johns and Kissimmee, natural lakes such as Lake Okeechobee and many smaller lakes, associated with interior prairie wetlands, and in isolated coastal areas, particularly at Merritt Island NWR. Nearly all of these wetlands have been affected to some extent by urban development or agriculture.
There are about 7,800 natural lakes in Florida, some of which produce aquatic vegetation and provide good waterfowl habitat (Johnson and Montalbano 1989). The Kissimmee River and Lakes all provide significant winter habitat for lesser scaup and ring-necked ducks. The St. Johns River Valley marshes and lakes provide winter and migration habitat for an additional 15,000 ducks on average. Unfortunately, much of the best habitat in this region has been lost to channelization, flood control, development, and drainage. Degradation of interior Florida lakes and deepwater marshes, particularly due to agricultural run-off and introduced exotic vegetation, has reduced numbers of birds over-wintering there, which likely is a direct response to reduced foraging habitat (Johnson and Montalbano 1989).
Recently, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers has undertaken a large-scale project to restore the Kissimmee River to its former channel, which will result in restoration of several thousand ha of emergent wetlands of great value to migrating and wintering waterfowl and resident mottled ducks. The first phase of that large-scale restoration effort was completed in 2001, with the entire project scheduled for completion in 2010. Peninsular Florida south of Alachua County has a resident mottled duck population of approximately 25,000-50,000 birds. Mottled ducks use interior wetlands and prairies extensively in Florida, and make only limited use of coastal habitats (Johnson et al. 1984, 1991). The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) completed a mottled duck conservation plan in 2003. The goal of that plan is to "maintain the Florida mottled duck as a functional member of the South Florida ecosystem, at a population that can sustain hunting and viewing opportunities over the long term." Ducks Unlimited conservation programs in peninsular Florida should, where and when possible, contribute directly toward the overall goals and objectives of the FFWCC Mottled Duck Conservation Plan.
The other major wetland ecosystem in the peninsula is Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. With exception of Lake Okeechobee and an area referred to as the Everglades Agricultural Area located immediately south of the lake, the Everglades and associated habitats do not provide very high quality waterfowl habitat and winter relatively few birds. This system suffers from extensive alterations to hydrology for urban water supply demand, flood control, and eutrophication related to agricultural practices (Johnson and Montalbano 1989). Multiple canals and large water control structures divert much of the water for irrigation or municipal water supply to large metropolitan areas like Miami. Heavy fertilizer use on these relatively nutrient poor soils also has lead to heavy nutrient loading in the system, particularly for phosphorous. As a result, the everglades tend to be drier and water quality is poorer than in the relatively recent past, while Lake Okeechobee tends to be held at higher levels not conducive to growth of waterfowl food plants (Johnson 1987, Johnson and Montalbano 1989). A large, multi-agency effort, lead by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, is underway to restore the hydrology of this system and reduce nutrient loading. Various projects within this effort will be authorized through 2014, with subsequent completion subject to appropriation of funding. DU has not participated and has no plans to increase its direct involvement in the large-scale restoration effort in the Everglades due to the relatively low value of waterfowl habitat provided by the system.
*Region 24 - NABCI conservation Region 31