Cubie, Longleaf Pine - 38| Foand only in the Deep South,...

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Unformatted text preview: 38| Foand only in the Deep South, longleafpz’ne woodlands lzaz/e dwindled to about 3 percent of their former range, but new efiforts are under way to restore them BY DOREEN CUBIE Th6 beauty and the blOleCfSlty of the longleaf pine forest are well—kept secrets, even in its native South. Yet it is among the rich— est ecosystems in North America, rivaling tallgrass prairies and the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest in the number of species it shelters. And like those two other disappearing wildlife habitats, longleaf is also critically endangered. Longleaf pines grow to a height of 100 to 130 feet, with needles up to 18 inches long, and can live for 300 to 400 years. They start life looking like a clump of grass. Initially slow—growing above ground as they establish a vigorous taproot, they later enter a “rocket” stage, shooting up as much as 4 feet per year before leveling off to a more sedate rate of growth. In longleaf pine forests, trees grow widely scattered, creating an open, parklike envi— ronment, more like a savanna than a forest. “Long— leaf is really more of a grassland,” says Mike Con— ner, lead wildlife biologist at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at lchuway in south— western Georgia. “The trees are not so dense as to block the sun.” This openness creates a forest floor that is among the most diverse in the world, where plants such as many—flowered grass pinks, trumpet pitcher plants, Venus flytraps, lavender ladies and pineland bogbuttons grow. As many as 50 differ— ent species of wildflowers, shrubs, grasses and ferns have been cataloged in just a single square NATIONAL WILDLIFE THE SHERMAN'S FOX squirrel, found only in southern Georgia and northern Florida, is a denizen of longleaf pine forests. A lonqleaf forest in Georgia (right) shows the open understory typical of this rare habitat. meter. At the Jones Center, an oasis of longleaf in a desert of peanut and cotton fields, more than 1,100 plant species thrive on 29,000 acres. Wildlife species living in longleaf forests include northern bobwhite quail, red—cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tor— toises, striped newts, southeastern pocket gophers, pinewoods treefrogs, mimic glass lizards, pine and prairie warblers, eastern indigo snakes, Bach— man’s sparrows and many more. Dur— ing his 10 years at the Jones Center, Conner has studied everything from bobcats to bats. One of his favorite research subjects is Sherman’s fox squir- rel, a subspecies of the eastern fox squir— rel found only in southern Georgia and northern Florida. The squirrels come in two color phases—gray or tan—but all sport a black head with striking White nose and ears. “They’re the biggest tree squirrel in North America,” Conner says, “and they’re tightly linked to lon— gleaf.” Sherman’s fox squirrel numbers have dropped by 85 percent since Euro- l 40 | NATIONAL WILDLIFE pean settlement, closely mirroring the disappearance of their longleaf home. Many other species show similar declines. The Louisiana pine snake, which lives only in the piney woods of western Louisiana and eastern Texas, is now one of the rarest snakes in the coun— try. The flatwoods salamander, a strik— ingly patterned amphibian restricted to pinelands, has been federally listed as threatened. DWINDLING HABITAT Once, nearly 92 million acres of longleaf forest flourished from Virginia to Texas, the only place in the world where it is found. By the turn of the let century, however, virtually all of it had been logged, paved or farmed into oblivion. Only about 3 percent of the original range still supports longleaf forest, and only about 10,000 acres of that is uncut old—growth—the rest is forest that has regrown after cutting. An estimated 100,000 of those acres are still vanishing every year. However, a quiet movement ONE 29.000-ACRE langieaf forest in Georgia is home to 61 fish, 53 reptile, 31 amphibian. l9lbird and 41 mammal species. Inhabitants of longleaf forest include the pine warbler (opposite page) and (clockwise from top left) the eastern indigo snake, endangered red- cockaded woodpecker, southeastern pocket gopher and pinewoods treefrog. Longleaf pine forest once extended across most of the Southeast, from Virginia to Texas, covering some 92 million acres. Only about 10,000 acres of virgin longleaf remains. PLASTIC BALLS filled with incendiary chemicals (right) are dropped from a helicopter over Florida's quin Air Force Base to burn oaks and shrubs that choke out fire-resistant longleaf pine woods (below) and promote wildfires. Biologists burn about 60,000 acres of longleaf forest yearly across the Southeast. A snakelike, leqless eastern glass lizard nuzzles a pine cone in the Florida Everglades. to reverse this trend is rippling across the region. Governments, private organizations (including NWF) and individual conservationists are looking for ways to protect and preserve the remaining longleaf and to plant new forests for future generations. Figuring out how to bring back the piney woods also will allow biologists to help the plants and animals that depend on this habitat. Nearly two—thirds of the declin— ing, threatened or endangered species in the southeastern United States are asso— ciated with longleaf. The outright destruction of longleaf is only part of their story, says Mark Dana— her, the biologist for South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest. He says the demise of these animals and plants also is tied to a lack of fire, which once swept through the southern forests on a regular basis. “Fire is absolutely critical for this ecosystem and for the species that depend on it,” says Danaher, who over— sees the wildlife on the national forest’s 35,000 acres of pure longleaf. In the case of the flatwoods salamander, fire opens up a path so these 4—inch-long amphib— ians can reach the small seasonal wet— lands where they lay their eggs. “With— out fire, the gallberry and titi and other bushes get so thick, the salamanders can’t get through,” Danaher says. Name just about any species that occurs in longleaf and you can find a connection to fire. Bachman’s sparrow is a secretive bird with a beautiful song that echoes across the longleaf flat- woods. It tucks its nest on the ground beneath clumps of wiregrass and little bluestem in the open understory. But once fire has been absent for several years, and a tangle of shrubs starts to grow, the sparrows disappear. Gopher tortoises, the only native land tortoises I 42 I NATIONAL WILDLIFE CLOCKWISE FROM TOP, RAVMOND GEHMAN (COREIS), JOE MCDONALD (ANIMALS ANIMALS), RAVMOND GEHMAN (CORBIS) east of the Mississippi, are also abundant in longleaf. A keystone species for these forests, its burrows provide homes and safety to more than 300 species of verte— brates and invertebrates ranging from eastern diamondback rattlesnakes to gopher frogs. If fire is suppressed, how— ever, the tortoises are choked out. “If we lose fire,” says Bob Mitchell, an ecologist at the Jones Center, “we lose wildlife.” Without fire, we also lose longleaf. Fire knocks back the oaks and other hardwoods that can grow up to over- whelm longleaf forests. “They are fire forests,” Mitchell says. “They evolved in the lightning capital of the eastern United States.” And it wasn’t only lightning strikes that set the forest aflame. “Native Americans also lit fires to keep the forest open,” Mitchell says. “So did the early pioneers. They helped create the longleaf pine forests that we know today.” Fire also changes how nutrients flow throughout longleaf ecosystems, in ways we are just beginning to under— stand. For example, researchers have discovered that frequent fires provide extra calcium, which is critical for egg production, to endangered red—cock- aded woodpeckers. Frances Iames, a retired avian ecologist from Florida State University, has studied these small black—and—white birds for more than two decades in Florida’s sprawling Apalachicola National Forest. When she realized female woodpeckers laid larger clutches in the first breeding sea— son after their territories were burned. she and her colleagues went searching for answers. “We learned calcium is stashed away in woody shrubs when the forest is not burned,” Iames says. “But when there is a fire, a pulse of cal— cium moves down into the soil and up into the longleaf.” Eventually, this cal— cium makes its way up the food chain to a tree—dwelling species of ant, which is the red—cockaded’s favorite food. The result: more calcium for the birds, which leads to more eggs, more young and more woodpeckers. Today, fire is used as a vital manage— ment tool for preserving both longleaf and its wildlife. Most of these fires are prescribed burns, deliberately set with a APRIL/MAY 2008 I WWW.NWF.ORG I 43 I ...
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This note was uploaded on 03/11/2010 for the course PS 225 taught by Professor Pahre,r during the Fall '08 term at University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign.

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Cubie, Longleaf Pine - 38| Foand only in the Deep South,...

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