Meet the Cattle Ranchers Working to Preserve Southwest Florida's Wild Side

As the population of southwestern Florida rises at an unsustainable rate, nearby cattle ranchers are among those fighting to protect the biodiversity of the historic Myakka River Valley.

Cowhands on Blackbeard's Ranch in Florida
Rain or shine, herding cattle on horseback is a typical early-morning job for the cowhands on Blackbeard’s Ranch. Photo: Brown W. Cannon III

It's a cool and breezy morning on Blackbeard's Ranch in Florida's Myakka River Valley. Clouds conceal the early hints of sun and allow the dew to nestle a bit longer on the grass. It's quiet, barring the rustle of droopy palm fronds in the wind and the distant lowing of grazing cows. You'd never guess that the powdery beaches and bright blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico are less than an hour's drive to the west. This land is lush, green, and untamed.

Jim Strickland sits under a traditional Native American chikee hut, an open-sided structure with a thatch roof, once favored by the Seminole people of Florida. It overlooks open fields of grassy prairie. He's wearing an old cowboy hat that looks like it's seen many early mornings like this. When he starts to talk, he's immediately interrupted by the loud honking of a sandhill crane congregating with two feathered pals about 10 yards away, followed by a chorus of drawn out moos from a herd of russet-red cows relaxing behind him. He laughs, unfazed by the chatty hecklers. "Some of those cattle—I knew their mothers," he says. "Heck, I knew their grandmothers, their great-grandmothers, and even their great-great-grandmothers." A young calf gallops playfully across the field—a mark of springtime.

Jim Strickland of Blackbeard's Ranch in Florida
Jim Strickland, managing partner of Blackbeard’s Ranch, supervises over 4,500 acres. Brown W. Cannon III

Strickland has been a cattle rancher in the Myakka region of southwestern Florida practically all of his life, taking over the family business (now called Strickland Ranch) before he turned 20. He has six decades of this work under his belt. His relatives have been ranchers in the area since the early 1860s. To him, that's not such a long time. He's quick to point out, proudly, that Florida is actually the oldest cattle state in the country, contrary to what many might think. "When you're wearing a cowboy hat and traveling around the world, the first question you always get is, 'Are you from Texas?' " Strickland says with an exaggerated eye roll.

He humbly swears he's just a cowboy, but over four hours, he regales us with stories that seem wilder than the land we're sitting on. He once exported cattle across the globe in Boeing 747 jets, ferrying them to nations like Panama and Russia. During the pandemic, he filmed an online cooking show with renowned chef Hugh Acheson. He also cofounded an environment-focused nonprofit and received Audubon Florida's Sustainable Rancher of the Year award in 2019. Just a cowboy...not quite.

Cattle at Blackbeard's Ranch in Florida
The cattle move between fields to graze. Brown W. Cannon III

Most importantly, Strickland has made it his life's mission to champion the conservation of the Myakka River Valley and its ranchlands, waterways, and wildlife corridors. His rallying cry: The land isn't just historically significant—it's vital, both to the biodiversity of the state and as a provider of clean water to nearby communities, especially considering the population growth southwestern Florida seems to be drowning in.

Standing on this wide-open ranch on any peaceful morning, you could be blissfully unaware of the crowds and concrete creeping toward you from not many miles down the road, but that's the opposite of what Strickland wants. "This is the story of Florida," he urges. "This is the story that can save it."

A Buried Past

A sign at the entrance of Myakka River State Park states bluntly, "Welcome to the Real Florida." This area is largely uninhabited, with the exception of cranes, alligators, gopher tortoises, the elusive Florida panther, and hundreds of other species, many of which are threatened or endangered. It's the oldest state park in Florida and also quite the ecological stronghold, containing a 12-mile stretch of untouchable protected Myakka River. Blackbeard's Ranch, owned by Mike Galinski with Strickland as the managing partner, is located within a short 15-minute drive of the state park's northern access point.

Hikers dip into shady trails lined with thick brush, a favorite path being the Myakka Canopy Walkway, which offers a rare peek into the ecosystems—both minuscule and massive—within the swampy marshland. People take to this route like adventurers heading into a tropical jungle as bikers make their way over bridges flanked by views of Lake Myakka. On a lucky day, you might see a sleepy alligator sunbathing or a long-beaked limpkin looking for snails in the water. It's tranquil and undisturbed, with only five historic cabins made from locally harvested palm logs and a handful of campsites offered as overnight-stay options. Once, when Native Americans and pirates were the only residents, the entire southwestern part of the state looked like this: the real Florida.

In 1521, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León arrived ashore near Charlotte Harbor, less than 50 miles from where the state park and Myakka River Valley ranchlands are now. After encountering resistance from the area's indigenous people, he fled by ship, leaving cattle and pigs behind. Descendants of those Spanish cattle became the Florida Cracker cows, a hardy breed able to withstand the region's volatile weather, from heat to hurricanes. "That's a walking piece of history," Strickland says. "They're little, scrubby, ugly cows, but they are tough as nails." In 2021, Florida recognized the 500-year anniversary of the beginning of the cattle industry in the state.

As for the Myakka River Valley, much of its history is shrouded in legend, from the remains of a Native American village to the pirate loot once rumored to have been hidden in the vicinity. In tribute to these ties to the past, Blackbeard's Ranch is named after Capt. Edward Teach, who bore that notorious nickname, though no buried treasure has ever been found on the land.

The story of this valley, wild and free, began long ago, but now open space is shrinking, native species are decreasing, clean water is becoming more scarce, and red tides are threatening the coast. Generations of ranchers are getting pressured to sell out and relinquish the land that their cattle operations organically safeguard. Like the chikee hut that Strickland sits under, parts of Florida's history are being forgotten. This is how it's happening.

It All Goes Downhill

Charlotte Harbor, an arm of the Gulf of Mexico, is both a world-class fishing destination and a tourism hub, making it a big piece in the economic engine of southwestern Florida. It's the second-largest estuary in the state (behind Tampa Bay), and over 100 miles of shoreline are currently protected within Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park, which contains natural mangrove forests and marshes as well as species like manatees and wading birds. Charlotte Harbor's waters hail largely from the Myakka River Watershed, tying together these two vital and unique features.

Blackbeard's Ranch in Florida
Moss-draped trees offer shade. Brown W. Cannon III

The Myakka River Watershed is essentially a drainage system of rivers, streams, lakes, and canals that starts near the Hardee-Manatee County line and flows through Manatee, Sarasota, and Charlotte Counties downhill to Charlotte Harbor. If the water upstream were to stop flowing (or if it were to become overly contaminated), the result could potentially be very detrimental to Charlotte Harbor, the fauna it supports, and its booming industry.

Within Myakka River State Park and the handful of ranches that are inside and edging the watershed system (including Blackbeard's Ranch, Strickland Ranch, and other family-owned farms and cattle operations), water can flow freely through primarily natural land and work its way down to the harbor and Gulf of Mexico. If a condo building or big-box store is suddenly plopped down, the rhythm of the entire system is jeopardized. Water doesn't flow quite as nicely through concrete, a fact that influences not only Charlotte Harbor but also the water supply of people living in parts of southwestern Florida.

"These ranches contain the headwaters that end up supplying drinking water to neighboring towns and metro areas," says Julie Morris, the Florida and Gulf Programs Manager for the National Wildlife Refuge Association and cofounder of The Florida Conservation Group. "They manage the land, not just for the cows but for the wildlife and water quality of the state," she adds.

Nonprofits such as The Florida Conservation Group are working to help prove the importance of these particular ranchlands in maintaining the area's incredible biodiversity using evidence gathered in a unified effort by ranchers and biologists. The goal is to secure funding for conservation easements for the cattle ranches in the Myakka region. In turn, government incentives can help ensure that the land is preserved for generations to come.

It's a plea chorused by many others in the Florida ranching community, like David "Lefty" Durando, a multidecade rancher who helped establish Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge in 2012, and Elizabeth Moore of Triangle Ranch. In 2016, Moore, an environmental philanthropist, acquired the legacy ranch along with its 3-mile stretch of the Myakka River from the Carlton family.

"If these ranchers are providing a habitat that enables the Florida panther, the Florida grasshopper sparrow, the Florida black bear, and countless more animals to survive, what's that worth to us as a society?" Morris asks. "What's clean air worth to us? How about clean water?"

Currently, nearly 1,000 new people are moving to the state every day. In 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the population of Florida had grown to 21.5 million. By 2025, it could exceed 23 million. In contrast, species like the Florida manatee and the loggerhead sea turtle are declining. "We know that a lot of animals travel through these private ranchlands and desperately need the space to have viable populations," Morris says. "It's as simple as that."

Ten-year-old Cooper Jones shows off her best roping skills.
Brown W. Cannon III

The Path Forward

Just before Strickland gets the call telling him that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has appointed a new Florida commissioner—exciting news that sets his eyes ablaze with ideas—he looks out over thousands of unspoiled acres, enjoying the same open view as the sandhill cranes and the cows nearby. The dew's gone from the grass, and the mild spring heat is finally starting to stew. "You know, I've been in these woods for 60 years, and I've never seen a Florida panther," Strickland says, shaking his head. "Very few ranchers that I know have, even though we see signs that they're around. It's like my Moby Dick—but on friendly terms, of course." The wind kicks up, and he adjusts his weathered cowboy hat. "But I don't need to see them to want to protect them," he says.

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