Living Sanibel: Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area
Location: Tuckers Grade, I-75 Exit 158, turn east into the WMA / Phone: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: 863-648-3200 / Website: www.myfwc.com/Recreation/WMASites_BabcockWebb / E-mail: on website / 80,335 acres / Admission fee is charged but very nominal.
Symbols: birding / wildlife viewing / hiking-nature trails / bicycling / canoeing-kayaking / boat launch / canoe-kayak launch / hunting / archery / pets on leash / parking / fishing / picnicking / horseback riding / primitive camping
Visiting the Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is a change of pace from state parks, tourist attractions, or wildlife preserves. WMAs are less developed than parks or preserves and are operated and overseen by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). That being said, they still offer many recreational opportunities. Because they are designed to manage wildlife, seasonal hunting is not only allowed on most WMAs in Florida, but in some cases actively encouraged. At the Babcock/Webb WMA the hog-hunting season helps to control the feral pig population which, left unchecked, would overrun not only the WMA, but the surrounding natural areas as well.
Although the 80,335-acre Babcock/Webb WMA seems impressive in size, it ranks only seventh in acreage among all WMAs in the state. The entire system of WMAs consists of more than 4.4 million acres or 6,875 square miles — an area considerably larger than the state of Connecticut. In Southwest Florida, Hendry County has two smaller WMAs — Spirit-of-the Wild and Dinner Island Ranch — and Glades County is home to the Fisheating Creek WMA.
The Babcock/Webb WMA is located on property once owned by E.V. Babcock of Ashtola, Pennsylvania. In 1914 he purchased 156,000 acres in south central Florida for use as a hunting preserve and cattle ranch. His son, F.C. Babcock, transferred 65,000 acres of this land to the state of Florida in the 1940s. Cecil M. Webb was the commissioner of the precursor to FWC at the time of the acquisition, and the WMA was renamed to honor both men in 1995. Since that time Charlotte Harbor Flatwoods and the Yucca Pens Unit were added to the management area, increasing the property to its current size. In 1968 the state leased 1,280 acres of the Babcock/Webb WMA to the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Since then the BSA has invested $3.2 million in campground facilities located along the northeastern corner of the parcel.
The Babcock/Webb WMA is a part of the Great Florida Birding Trail and is a popular destination for spotting two of Florida’s most elusive species: Bachman’s sparrow and the red-cockaded woodpecker. As “The Living Gulf Coast” is published, there are more than 27 colonies of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker found within the WMA’s boundaries. Their cavity trees are clearly marked with a white-painted ring. The website has an extensive list of the birds that have been sighted at the Babcock/Webb. Because the terrain is mostly wet flatwoods, it is not prime habitat for wild turkeys, but it is a popular site for hunting the northern bobwhite quail.
Two other rare animals found in the Babcock/Webb WMA are the Sherman’s fox squirrel and the Florida bonneted bat, which is the largest native bat in Florida. Other mammals you are likely to see here include white-tailed deer, black bear, bobcats, coyotes, otters, armadillos, opossums, gray squirrels, and cottontail rabbits.
Because the area is so immense, biking the many elevated trails is a popular activity, especially during the drier winter months. Fishing, canoeing, boating, and kayaking are popular on the manmade 395-acre Webb Lake where anglers may catch huge freshwater snook right along with largemouth bass, and bluegills.
Visitors to Babcock/Webb may be surprised to hear the constant crack of firearms emanating from the WMA’s shooting range. Located a few miles down Tuckers Grade on the north side of the road, the range is open to the public. It offers two rifle ranges, a separate area for pistol fire, and a skeet-shooting facility for shotgun users. Wildlife officers are on hand to make certain everyone adheres to safe firearm practices, and no rapid-fire or burst firearm usage is allowed (meaning no AK-47s and the like). Within a few miles of the range, the sound of the gunshots fade away, leaving the naturalist with only the sound of the wind in the slash pines.
While many naturalists might not appreciate the role hunters play in the conservation of wildlife, it is important to note that hunters and fishermen have a vested interest in preserving and protecting wildlife and have proven time and again to be useful allies in the fight against development, mining, and other industries damaging to habitat. The federal Duck Stamp program alone, required of waterfowl hunters, is responsible for purchasing and protecting millions of acres of wetlands from being drained and turned to farmland. Although the sound of gunshots in the distance can be disconcerting, it’s important to understand that if left unchecked, wild pigs and white-tailed deer populations can skyrocket to levels that are harmful to the overall environment.
Whether viewing wildlife through a pair of binoculars or a rifle scope, we all have a vested interest in making sure there will always be places such as the Babcock/Webb WMA left untamed so that wildlife can have a place to call home.