Monday, August 30, 2010

States Make Headway Conserving Sandhills

In June 2009, Georgia and three neighboring states received a $1 million federal grant to increase the quality, quantity and connectivity of prime sandhill habitat. The three-year project was aimed at benefiting gopher tortoises and as many as 54 other sandhill species that need significant conservation measures.

Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and groups such as Project Orianne, The Nature Conservancy and the Gopher Tortoise Council provided $1.66 million in matching money and work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant, part of the State Wildlife Grants Competitive Program.

Plans called for increasing prescribed fire, removing non-native sand pines and overgrown hardwoods, and thinning pine plantations. These efforts are critical to the open canopy and diverse herbaceous groundcover typical of healthy longleaf pine, turkey oak-dominated sandhills.

The overriding goal: Restore nearly 40,000 acres of priority public and private sandhill sites, rebuilding habitat for the tortoise and other priority species. The project could help keep gopher tortoises off federal endangered or threatened species lists and set the stage for long-term conservation of sandhills species, from hognose snakes to Bachman’s sparrows.

One year in, the states and partners have made excellent progress.

Teaming with The Nature Conservancy of Georgia, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources conducted prescribed fires on 4,700 acres at high-priority sandhills sites across the Coastal Plain, including Yuchi Wildlife Management Area, Ohoopee Dunes Natural Area, Fall Line Sandhills Natural Area, and private lands in Marion, Taylor, Talbot and Bryan counties. Also, non-native sand pines have been removed or sold for cutting on nearly 1,000 acres of state and private lands.

At Ohoopee Dunes in Emanuel County, prescribed fire was conducted on more than 1,000 acres. Many of the areas had not seen fire in many years, leading to buildups of woody underbrush and suppression of grassy groundcover. Shan Cammack with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section planned and led the prescribed fires.

“Careful planning and execution produced successful entry burns at Ohoopee Dunes this year,” Cammack said. “With strategic ignition, drier sparse areas were burned hotter while sensitive areas with heavy fuel loads and duff were burned cooler.”

In Florida, the Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership, a land management public-private cooperative, did prescribed burning on more than 8,400 acres of state lands. Sand pine and hardwoods on another 265 acres were cleared.

In Alabama, The Nature Conservancy of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ State Lands Division burned about 2,500 acres of sandhills on state lands, planted 186 acres of longleaf pine, thinned pine plantations on 122 acres and removed hardwoods on 76 acres.

During the project’s first year, ecological restoration was initiated on more than 15,000 acres in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

The grant also included monitoring to track progress. This component involved baseline gopher tortoise surveys on a subset of properties, plus vegetation sampling and breeding bird surveys.

All pre-treatment vegetation, bird monitoring and tortoise surveys are either completed or in progress. The work has provided some interesting stories.

Florida is surveying gopher tortoises on the Hutton Unit of the Blackwater Wildlife Management Area in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties. Burrow densities have been low, about 0.1 burrows per acre surveyed. Comparatively, densities on the sand ridges of Townsend WMA in Georgia are about one per acre. At Ohoopee Dunes, they are about 0.7 per acre. In sandier soils on some more-regularly burned longleaf-wiregrass ecosystems in southwest Georgia, densities may reach two to three burrows an acre.

The low densities at the Hutton Unit may be attributed to several factors, including human predation, which was historically higher in northwestern Florida than other parts of the tortoise’s range, and fire suppression before the state acquired the property in 1998.

Yet, despite fewer burrows, the search at Hutton is anything but boring.

According to Barbara Almario with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “Florida’s tortoise survey crew encounters snakes on an almost daily basis. One of the tortoise survey technicians accidentally stepped on an eastern diamondback rattlesnake one day.

“Fortunately, the snake was a little slow that morning and (the technician) escaped without injury.”

For the coming year, Georgia DNR is developing restoration plans for several private sites. Federal funding for longleaf planting on state lands has freed some sandhills grant funds. DNR is also considering burning even more acres at Ohoopee Dunes and Townsend, Yuchi and Penholoway WMAs. The hope at Ohoopee is to collaborate with adjacent private landowners on restoring sandhills.

Sandhills conservation is a priority in the Georgia Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy that guides DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity. For more, go to www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/wildlife-action-plan.

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