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Golfers And Wildlife Can Share Habitat, UF Conservationists Say

Cindy Spence

Geoff Brown
David Copps (850) 487-3003

TALLAHASSEE—As wildlife habitat disappears, golf courses are becoming important conservation areas and can be landscaped to keep both wildlife and people happy, University of Florida conservationists say.

To prove that point, the conservationists and trained volunteers have embarked on a yearlong project to add wildlife habitat to the golf course at Killearn Country Club in Leon County.

Golf courses, when landscaped properly, can be ideal habitats for wildlife in an urban environment, said Project Wildlife coordinator Geoff Brown, a natural resources agent in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The project should serve as a model of how people and animals can share the same space without getting in each other’s way, he said.

“The right elements for both uses are there,” Brown said. “A pond, for instance, is a water hazard to a golfer, but a watering hole to a possum.”

So far, 13 upland areas have been landscaped and three ponds have been aquascaped. Those projects were designed to put back native plants that likely were removed years ago, when the land was farmed before the course was built. For instance, a stand of trees alongside a fairway might provide a home for birds. But add layers of vegetation — shrubs, flowering and fruiting plants, vines and flowers — and suddenly more animals can use the space.

“We wanted to provide a canopy, a subcanopy, tall shrubs, low shrubs and then wildflowers because the vertical layering is attractive to wildlife,” said David Copps, a UF environmental horticulture agent who designed much of the landscaping.

“On most golf courses, there are lots of trees along the fairways, but a lot of times mowers have kept small trees and shrubs from growing in,” Copps said. “By filling in those areas with plants that fruit and nut and provide cover, it becomes a good wildlife habitat.”

Geri Buchheit, the superintendent at Killearn, said the maintenance savings are a welcome bonus: “By taking mowers out of areas we’ve mowed every week in the past we’ll save some money.”

But her goal going into the project was certification as a wildlife sanctuary as part of a cooperative program between the USGA and Audubon International. More than 2,000 courses have applied for Audubon certification, and new courses are making habitat a part of construction, she said.

“This project is part of my responsibility in taking care of this course,” Buchheit said. “There are a lot of places where the golf course is the last green space in an urban area. I’ve seen a couple of examples of the impact of development here. When the last parcel next to the course was developed, the deer disappeared.”

Buchheit’s Audubon goal looks approachable. Already 10 purple martin complexes and 40 bluebird houses have gone up, and Copps said the bird houses were inhabited within weeks of installation.

Buchheit said the golf course residents and members are excited about the project, and Brown and Copps say they’ve enjoyed working with homeowners to make sure the landscaping suits them, too.

“Some of the people adjacent to the course had a very legitimate concern about whether the landscaping would screen their views,” Copps said. “We’ve modified our plans in some areas and let them know that, even though this is for wildlife, it’s going to be a managed system, it’s not going to be wild and out of hand. We’re not creating a jungle out there.”

Brown said residents also have volunteered to help. One resident who watched the landscaping change near his home, later offered to come out and water the plants throughout the summer.

“That’s the kind of help we really need,” Brown said.

“The interesting challenge is to be able to plant trees and shrubs so that they’re pleasing not only for the humans that are using the course and the people around the course, but also the wildlife,” Brown said. “We want to enhance that sense of mystery and surprise that’s both interesting for animals and humans.”

Project Wildlife has drawn support from many agencies, including the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission’s Environmental Education Grants Program, the Killearn Country Club, the Killearn Homes Association and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The project would not have been possible without volunteers from UF’s Master Wildlife Conservation program in Leon and Wakulla counties. The volunteers undergo 18 weeks of rigorous, specialized training to become certified to assist in extension projects on wildlife habitat. Volunteer John Wilson said he participates in Project Wildlife because he feels it is “important to build a bridge between the ecosystems we preserve in large parks and the smaller areas in our neighborhoods.”

Indeed, said Copps, that’s the whole point.

“Beyond the golf course, we will have an impact on the neighborhood,” Copps said.

“The neighborhood can look at the golf course as a good model and good example of landscaping with wildlife in mind,” Copps said. “And hopefully, they will take some of these principles that we’ve put into place right here on the golf course and do the same thing in their home landscape.”

Since Killearn was a farm before it was a golf course, habitat landscaping is the only way to get it back to a more natural state, Brown said.

“We’ve all heard the expression ‘that guy’s yard looks like a golf course.’ We want to change that so that when people say that, they mean that someone has landscaped for wildlife,” Brown said. “If we can change people’s attitudes and perceptions about our yards and about how we ‘manage’ nature, then we can make an impact.

“As the population of Florida grows and encroaches on wild areas,” Brown said, we need to be more conscientious about what we do in our own back yards.”