A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

DEP Misrepresents Existing Cattle Situation in State Parks

 A recent guest column supplied by DEP argues "Cattle grazing also currently occurs in eight state parks and has for some time, without any complaints from visitors or damage to natural resources, while providing effective vegetation management."

The implication, of course, is that these parks are in some way comparable to what is being proposed for Myakka River State Park. It is impossible to know if DEP isn't aware of the facts or simply thinks no one will bother to find out.

There are two major problems with the DEP statement: the first is that the other state parks with cattle are somehow similar to Myakka and the second is that cattle don't damage natural resources.


To begin with, the statement makes it seem as though all the cattle in state parks are part of commercial cattle operations that are providing effective vegetation management. That's not so.

Cattle Parks 1 through 3. 

The cattle in three of the parks are a relict breed of scrub or cracker cattle that are in the park as part of interpretation efforts to help visitors understand Florida history. If you want to see them, head to Dudley Farm, Paynes Prairie or Lake Kissimmee State Parks. 

Or you can see examples of these scrub cattle at Crowley Museum and Nature Center just north of Myakka Park. If DEP was proposing a few cracker cows as part of a historical exhibit in Myakka River State Park I doubt if there would be many objections. But a few scrub cows are not what is being proposed in Myakka.

Scrub cow and calf at Dudley Farm State Park
That leaves five other parks with cows. These parks have contemporary commercial cattle breeds. In order to understand if what it happening at these parks is comparable to what is being proposed at Myakka, you need to know less than 5% of area in Myakka identified for the cattle lease is former pasture. That is, less than 5% of the proposed lease area was ever cleared of native vegetation and planted in pasture grass -- the rest of the site is native habitat, which ranchers call native range. So the proposed Myakka cattle lease site is more than 95% native habitat. 

4. At Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park 6,000 acres that were converted to improved pasture prior to purchase are still grazed by cattle. That’s 6,000 out of 54,000 acres. 6,000 acres of improved pasture -- a big hunk of pasture, not the meager 300 acres being discussed at Myakka.

5. Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park has cattle grazing and “contains no intact natural communities and the entire park is classified as ruderal and developed land.” This park was acquired for historic reasons, not its natural systems.  

At Alafia River, and Catfish Creek, grazing occurs on existing pastures that were acquired as part of  larger parcels.  

6. Go to DEP's Alafia River State Park webpage. You'll find this quote: "Located on what was once a phosphate mining site, the unique topography of the reclaimed land offers some of Florida's most radical elevation changes." Enough said.

7. Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park contains 2,786 acres of ruderal land. There is a relatively small portion of flatwoods in the Rolling Meadows addition that were not altered by agricultural impacts. The unit management plan (page 20) contains the following text: "The park has a short-term cattle lease on a portion of the Rolling Meadows addition of the preserve. This was amended to a cattle lease on the adjacent Lake Kissimmee State Park cattle lease site. The area that this incorporates was formerly cattle pasture prior to the DEP acquiring it. The cattle grazing is only an interim management tool that is being used until a longer term restoration plan for the area is carried out. The long-term goal would be to restore the area to the extent possible to the original natural community(s)."

 8. I am still looking for the eighth state park with cattle. It may be Colt Creek State Park, but I don't know if the managers moved forward on this item in the unit management plan"A cattle lease may be needed as an interim management practice to control the vegetation height within selected improved pastures. The park will evaluate the feasibility of a cattle lease at Colt Creek State Park."

But when I find it, that eighth cow park, I am very optimistic it will be a situation comparable to the four previously described parks that sensibly pursued cattle leases on disturbed (ruderal) land and/or significant chunks of former pasture.  


It should be obvious that cattle have tremendous potential to damage natural resources. If you drive by a neglected pasture, it is not uncommon to see a proliferation of thistles, pawpaws, dog fennel, tropical soda apple, and shrubs, as well as saw palmettos and small cabbage palms.

That's because from a cow's perspective all plant species can be placed into one of two groups: increasers and decreasers. Increasers are plants that increase when subjected to the selective grazing pressure exerted by cattle. Those are the ones that taste bad or are thorny or tough or out of reach -- the thistles, etc. In seasonal wetlands, cows avoid pickerelweed, another increaser. 

On the other hand, there are plants cows love to eat: these are called decreasers because they tend to decrease in the presence of cattle because the cattle eat them. Favored grasses such as maidencane and Lopsided Indian Grass are decreasers and cattle will go after them preferentially. 

You can see where this is headed. Left to their own devices cows will eat most of the desirable plants and leave the undesirable ones. The result is a shift in plant species composition as the increasers increase and the decreasers decrease. Unless ranchers attack the thistles and shrubs, the ultimate result will be a degraded pasture.  

One approach to minimizing these problems is rapid rotation – sequencing cows through different pastures before the desirable palatable plants are too heavily grazed. But that requires a lot more fencing and more cowboy time spent moving cattle. The fencing is not only a significant cost, but also consumes habitat and creates breaks in habitat continuity. The elaborate conditions placed in the draft lease agreement are ample testimony to the destructive potential of cattle.

Managers at Myakka have spent decades in an effort to reduce shrubs and other increasers while trying to restore grasses and wildflowers that are commonly decreasers.

Elsewhere in the opinion piece the claim is made that "Visitors will most likely have to seek out the cattle to enjoy a scene from Old Florida." As noted above, the "Old Florida" effect is produced by cracker cows, not modern breeds. 

DEP has attempted to reassure the public that the proposed cattle lease in Myakka River State Park is the type of operation that has proven to be acceptable in eight other state parks and that the situations in those eight parks are comparable to what is being proposed for Myakka. That's not the case and DEP should concede that fact.


Here's the deal. I live in Sarasota County. I have the greatest respect for the local cattleman (including dairymen) I've have known. They include Mabry, Lat, Dallas, Buster, Lewis, Chuck, Allan, and Cy. I wish there more like them. They owned/managed most of the land now protected for its environmental value. Today, Sarasota County owns conservation easements on 17,045 acres of privately owned cattle ranch land. That's testimony to rancher stewardship.

In addition the conservation easements, there are 2,878 acres of cattle leases on publicly-owned lands in Sarasota County. I support those leases just as I support the leases on the existing state parks. Cattle leases can provide either income or management services on sites with extensive pasture. (Or, in the case of scrub cattle, they can be educational.) 

I personally believe that a mix of core parkland where the habitat is managed without cows surrounded by ranchland with cows provides maximum diversity for wildlife and helps protect the park from more intensive adjoining uses. Its probably true that the neighboring ranches lack some of decreaser species found in the park, but there is some great prairie and pineland on nearby ranches. I wouldn't want all one or the other. And ranchers and park managers learn from each other about management issues. 

Whenever the public acquires lands with significant pasture, (either in terms of total pasture acreage or high percentage of pasture or ruderal land) cattle grazing should be considered. 

If Myakka Park fit either of these criteria, this blog would be quite different, or wouldn't exist.  But the former pasture or ruderal acreage in MRSP is minimal, whether measured by acreage or percentage (less than 5% of the park). 

For some unknown reason, DEP got it into its figurative head that cattle grazing makes sense in Myakka. It does not. It didn't make sense in 2004 when the unit management plan was last updated and it makes even less sense now.


DEP lists three environmental priorities on the front page of the agency's website. Ironically, the  third priority is Increasing the access to our award-winning state parks. How is adding commercial cattle to Myakka River State Park's minimal former pastureland going to advance that goal?

Bottom line: Grazing revenue statewide averages about $7.42 per acre.  Revenue from outdoor recreation averages $74 per acre, if you spread user fee revenues across the acreage of the entire park system.  And Myakka River State Park is the second most popular inland state park in Florida and one that pays its own way. 

Adding cattle to Myakka River State Park is not comparable to existing cattle operations on other parks and it is not moving in the right direction. 

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