Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Georgia Teams With Three States to Conserve Sandhills

Georgia and three neighboring states will use a $1 million federal grant to increase the quality, quantity and connectivity of prime sandhill habitat, benefiting gopher tortoises and possibly 54 other sandhill species in need of significant conservation measures.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced the funding as part of the agency’s State Wildlife Grants Competitive Program. Georgia is joining with Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and conservation groups in each state to provide $1.66 million in matching money and work.

The Multistate Sandhills Ecological Restoration project could help keep gopher tortoises off federal endangered or threatened species lists and provide for the long-term conservation of Southeastern sandhill species varying from southern hognose snakes to Bachman’s sparrows and striped newts.

One goal is restoring nearly 38,600 acres of priority public and private sandhill sites over the next three years. The focus in Georgia? Rebuilding habitat, said Matt Elliott, a Nongame Conservation Section program manager with the state Department of Natural Resources.

“Depending on the area, we’ll be doing prescribed fire, removal of sand pine (and) planting of longleaf pine,” said Elliott, who will coordinate work in this state.

Sand pine is not native to Georgia sandhills, which are areas of deep sandy soils with longleaf pine and scrub oak species, especially turkey oak, in a low, open-tree canopy over drought-tolerant shrubs, grasses and cactus. Rated a conservation priority in each of the four states’ Wildlife Action Plans, sandhills range from southern Alabama to across Georgia’s Coastal Plain, far down the Florida peninsula and into the Carolinas. The habitat is a type of longleaf pine forest, considered one of the most critically endangered ecosystems in the world.

Sandhills have been degraded or destroyed by development, conversion to uses such as timber and row-crop agriculture, and a lack of natural fires that keep invasive hardwoods at bay and promote the growth of grasses that provide forage for gopher tortoises and other wildlife.

The large-scale restoration needed for sandhills reaches beyond individual states. The project will target high-priority sites, banking on help from partners such as The Nature Conservancy and Project Orianne, a private effort to restore federally protected eastern indigo snakes throughout their range.

Work will include increasing controlled burning, removing invasive species, controlling hardwood trees and shrubs through mechanical and chemical means, and replanting longleaf pines. At least a fifth of the restoration will be on private land. Surveys of plants and birds will help measure the impact. Gopher tortoise surveys will contribute to management of these long-lived, slow-to-reproduce animals.

The tortoise, Georgia’s state reptile, is a keystone sandhills species. Gopher tortoise burrows are used by more than 300 species of invertebrates and a number of invertebrates. Healthy tortoise populations are critical to wildlife diversity in Southeastern upland habitats. Yet, the species is federally threatened west of the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers in Alabama and Mississippi, and there are two petitions to list it as threatened in the eastern part of its range.

The sandhills project actually has roots in a partnership called the Gopher Tortoise Candidate Conservation Agreement, which the four states formed in 2007 to develop a tortoise conservation strategy. Georgia is also wrapping up a sandhills inventory aimed at assessing conservation needs of rare plants and animals. “That helped us pinpoint the areas where we wanted to work” in the multi-state effort, Elliott said.

Related initiatives include a Healthy Forest Reserve Program by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to restore sandhill habitats along Georgia’s Fall Line and a Wal-Mart Foundation-funded project within the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section to educate teachers about sandhills.

The four-state project is ambitious, Elliott agreed. But, considering the other projects also focused on conserving sandhills, “It all sort of adds up,” he said.

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