Thursday, March 19, 2009

Prescribed Fire Will Mean New Life for Rare Mountain Bog

Trekking uphill and through charred underbrush, most of it still smoking, four Nomex-clad workers push their way into one of North Georgia’s last remaining mountain bogs. Time is short and the crew works quickly. Soon, flames are shooting upward as drip torches leave bright orange trails of fire around thick piles of rhododendron.

At long last, fire has come to this bog.

During the prescribed burn late last month, Thomas Floyd, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section, explained that in and around the bog there had been “an absence of disturbance … for years.”

“At one time, fire probably came through here on occasion, creeping over the bog and helping to open up the area for sunlight,” Floyd said.

Mike Brod of the U.S. Forest Service agreed that burning the bog was important to continue its restoration. “Fire is important because it kills back the encroaching vegetation around the periphery of the bog … allowing the nourishing sunlight into the bog, thus enhancing the bog plants,” said Brod, who has been instrumental in the project.

Restoration of the bog began in the early 1990s. It was small then, no larger than the average dining room table. But although small, the remote place had something that made it unique: the last known native population of mountain purple pitcherplants in Georgia.

Floyd said the pitcherplant species is tolerant of and even adapted to occasional low-intensity fires, which work to promote open, sunlit bog habitats. “We anxiously await the coming growing season when the effects of the prescribed fire can be examined,” he said.

Mountain bogs are one of the most endangered habitats of the southern Appalachians. Typically small, between a half-acre and five acres, bogs are associated with seeps, springs or small creeks and provide critical habitat for the federally threatened bog turtle and swamp pink, two of Georgia’s most rare species.

Bog restoration involves not only clearing sites but also finding and taking careful inventory of potential bogs, safeguarding seeds from rare plants and monitoring restored sites for rare species such as the pitcherplant. Mountain bog restoration is listed as a high-priority conservation action in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy that guides Wildlife Resources and Georgia Department of Natural Resources efforts to conserve biological diversity.

“Fire is an important management tool for restoration, which is what we were doing,” Floyd said. “It allowed for the removal of piles of woody debris that had been previously cleared by hand. The intensity of the fire also killed back much of the rhododendron that was encroaching upon the bog.”

Pitcherplants can live for more than 100 years. Although old, the original surviving pitcherplants in this bog had not flowered, lying dormant in the shade with little if any natural light due to the continued encroachment of hardwoods and rhododendron. But in 1998, after much hard work by conservationists, the pitcherplants in one area of the bog flowered again. And in 2002, restoration workers found the first seedlings, a hallmark of success in habitat restoration.

“The hope is that with continued management the eco-tone between the bog and the uplands will be restored to historic conditions – more of a grassy woodland that would allow for fire to creep in naturally,” Floyd said.

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