Habitats provide the food, water, shelter and space animals need to thrive and reproduce. Watermelon Pond lies at the northern end of the Brooksville Ridge, an ancient, linear dune line that extends to southern Hernando County and is characterized by high-quality tracts of longleaf pine sandhills.
Aerial photographs from 1937 show that the plant communities on the WEA were primarily sandhill, with small areas of xeric hammock, depression marsh and basin marsh. Several small sinkholes occur here. Though the sandhill habitat was disturbed when the area was managed for cattle, timber production and agricultural crops, this plant community continues to dominate the uplands.
The WEA is part of a network of public and private lands that helps protect the regional groundwater supply, as well as native plants and wildlife associated with longleaf pine sandhills, upland sandhill lakes and marshes in southwestern Alachua County. The area was established as a gopher tortoise mitigation preserve through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Mitigation Park Program.
The WEA was established through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's (FWC) Mitigation Park Program. FWC biologists tailor habitat management to benefit protected species such as the gopher tortoise, fox squirrel and other upland wildlife.
Watermelon Pond is a case study in restoration. Before it was purchased by the state, the tract was used for cattle grazing, row crops and timber production. To accommodate these industries, much of the WEA was stripped of most or all native vegetation and replanted with pasture grasses, agricultural crops and fast-growing slash pines. Fires were suppressed in the sandhills, allowing oaks to flourish and ultimately shade out low-growing grasses and pine seedlings. Without an open tree canopy and a diverse groundcover of grasses, herbs, flowers and fruit, the population of gopher tortoises declined.
Restoring these natural communities is a high priority for land managers. Some of the oaks in the sandhills are removed. Land managers are planting longleaf pine and wiregrass and managing the newly restored areas with prescribed fire. Bermuda grass and bahiagrass pastures are treated with herbicides, followed by reseeding with native groundcover. Regular controlled burns help the groundcover flourish. Longleaf pine seedlings are planted once the groundcover has become established. Regular burning is used to rejuvenate basin marshes and invasive nonnative vegetation such as tropical soda apple, mimosa and Chinese tallow is controlled with herbicides as needed.
As the area is restored, conditions will improve for many wildlife species including gopher tortoise, eastern indigo snake, southern hognose snake, Sherman’s fox squirrel, Florida mouse, southeastern American kestrel, Bachman’s sparrow and bald eagle.
In addition to the management work described here, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rely on a wide range of techniques to ensure that natural areas throughout the state stay healthy for wildlife and inviting to visitors.