Toby Gray's Posts (11)

Exciting things are happening in the world of grassland conservation. Dwayne Estes and Theo Witsell have been traveling across the Southeast promoting their vision for a Southeastern Grassland Initiative. Three months ago, GCPO LCC communications specialist Gregg Elliott and I saw them present their ideas to Memphis area planners and conservationists at Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. On Monday, February 27th, they came to Starkville, Mississippi to network with a greater portion of the GCPO staff and a handful of Mississippi State University faculty members involved in the science of grassland ecology. The meeting was attended by representatives of Central Hardwoods Joint Venture; Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks; Mississippi Natural Heritage Program; University of Central Florida; US Fish and Wildlife Service; and Wildlife Mississippi. Mississippi State University faculty attending included representatives from the Mississippi Entomological Museum; the Department of Landscape Architecture; the Department of Biological Sciences; and the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Aquaculture.

I kicked off the meeting with a presentation on the contribution of the GCPO LCC to grassland conservation. Last year we produced a Grassland Condition Index data layer for our 180-million-acre geography, and that layer was folded into the broader Conservation Blueprint, which addresses the condition of our nine priority systems in the context of threats such as climate change and urbanization as well as positive elements in the landscape such as the conservation estate and species distribution models. I shared the fact that our Conservation Blueprint is nested in a larger Southeastern Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS) data product guiding landscape conservation across fifteen states and six Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.

Regional scale challenges to grassland conservation include a lack of consensus in the scientific community as to how to categorize them as ecological systems (chiefly because they tend to grade continuously into savanna, woodland, and forest in the landscape, but also due to regional variations in substrate, topography, hydrology, and vegetation), and the lack of a repeatable method for delineating the openings on the ground in our maps (different individuals and organizations include or exclude various zones of woody vegetation when drawing grassland boundaries). These issues frustrate our effort to obtain a baseline measure of how much grassland currently exists and the condition of the patches. We have numerous organizations working on grassland conservation across the region at multiple scales: some groups are focused on a single patch, some on a specific region (such as the Black Belt), and some address only those patches within a particular state. I made the point that at times it seems that these organizations are as disjunct as the patches themselves. Until the Southeastern Grassland Initiative (SGI) took shape last year, there was no organized effort to coordinate grassland conservation specifically across the entire Southeast. The network of partnerships already established by the LCCs is a natural complement to the vision and mission of the SGI.

Botanical Explorers

After I spoke, Dwayne Estes, professor of the Center of Excellence for Field Biology at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee and botanical explorer for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), described the recent and growing appreciation and acknowledgment of southeastern grasslands.  He recalled that, as an elementary school student, he was taught that at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans in North America, the eastern forests were so dense that a squirrel could travel tree-to-tree from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Multiple accounts of vast grasslands by early settlers and explorers indicate that such a squirrel probably would have had to have taken a very circuitous route, chiefly following the riparian zones. Dwayne’s overview of historical grasslands focused on Kentucky and Tennessee and was supported by many references to old parcel surveys and the journals and letters of early settlers. He described the development of the Southeastern Grassland Initiative last year, with early support by Austin Peay State University, philanthropic organizations, and corporate sponsors. The Initiative’s supported projects include preservation, restoration, re-creation, rescue, seedbanks, education, and market-based initiatives such as grass-fed cattle.

Theo Witsell, Grassland Biodiversity Explorer for SGI, then elaborated on the research priorities for the Initiative. The Initiative is planning to develop an inventory of grassland biodiversity by identifying all major grassland habitat types in the region, and also to conduct detailed studies both of current lands and of the historic records. These studies will improve the existing grassland fidelity index, which measures the degree to which each plant species is obligated to grassland habitats. Theo and Dwayne have discovered numerous undescribed plant species while conducting inventories on grasslands, and they expect to find more. High rates of endemism and biodiversity in southeastern grasslands contribute to the overall biodiversity of the region, which has been recognized recently as the world's 36th biodiversity hotspot by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Theo also showed us examples of grassland habitat restoration guides he has published for landowners and the public.

Green roofs and Grasshoppers

Mississippi State faculty members shared their research related to grassland ecology and conservation. Tim Schauwecker, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, highlighted student work on green roofs (birds more frequently visit green roofs, both those planted with the traditional sedum cover and those planted with prairie grasses, than conventional roofs), the use of General Land Office survey notes to find prairie patches in the Jackson Prairie Belt, and the development of a biodiversity index for the city of Starkville. Tim also described recent work on a management plan for the Catalpa Creek watershed, which contains extensive agricultural research fields on the MSU campus, and a planned Wetland Education Theatre with a native grass component to be installed at his Department’s facilities.

Jovonn Hill and Richard Brown described work done at the Mississippi Entomological Museum, housed on the Mississippi State University campus. The GCPO LCC uses species habitat models based mostly on birds. Dwayne and Theo focus primarily on the rare and endemic plants. Insects play an important ecological role, both as pollinators and as a food source for other species. Those of us largely unfamiliar with the science learned a great deal. Many insects -- grasshoppers were a prominent example -- occur only in grasslands, some only in the Black Belt, and some only on particular single patches such as Osborn prairie, a relict patch under TVA power lines a couple of miles northeast of Starkville. Some occur in only one county in Mississippi and one county in Minnesota.

As with the relictual plant species mentioned in my description of the SePPCon conference, this pattern of very rare species occurring at locations very far apart indicates that the species is very old and that the particular location is a remnant of a larger ecological system that was intact long ago. Twenty thousand years ago states such as Illinois and Oklahoma, where tallgrass prairie was extensive at the time of European settlement, were occupied by coniferous forests, and the prairies of the Southeast were refugia for most of the grassland species that colonized the Midwest when the forests and glaciers receded northward. Information on just how these species migrated, whether they dispersed through the grasslands of Tennessee and Kentucky or whether they expanded into the Piedmont and Appalachian regions and then westward across present-day New York, is contained in the genetic markers of the species found on the relict sites.

Staying Genetically True and Other Challenges Ahead

Understanding of the genetics and the use of local genotypes in restoration is important, because success is more likely when species adapted to those local conditions are used. In practice, the local genotypes are difficult to obtain. Seed collection, germination, caring for and transporting the plugs, are all labor intensive processes. In many situations, a private landowner has no choice but to use plant stock from another state. Furthermore, so-called conservative plant species, those restricted to a very particular habitat, can be “uncooperative” when encouraged to expand. Simply expanding the size of the opening by thinning and removing the tree cover is not enough to expand the relict patch because the rare species have trouble competing against the more weedy early successional vegetation.

Above: Cara Joos, Science Coordinator for the Central Hardwoods Joint Venture, makes a point to the group.

In the follow-up discussion, three main challenges to a regional approach to grassland restoration and conservation were identified:

  1. The popularity of the field of science once known as “Natural History,” an integrated science that considers biotic and abiotic interactions (plants, animals, the physical environment), is declining. Biology departments are increasingly focused on specialized fields such as molecular biology. As current biologists with expertise in field-based research retire, fewer are coming along to take their place.
  2. Plants with local genetic characteristics are vital for quality restoration work. Companies exist that will collect seed and propagate plants from local stock, but at significant cost.
  3. A baseline assessment, a current inventory, requires a mapping methodology that can parse out warm season and cool season, or native and non-native grasslands, efficiently across large landscapes. This is a known issue in the geospatial science and conservation community, and we continue to seek solutions.

In the end, all partners came away with a better understanding of the current and potential state of regional scale grassland conservation. The staff of the GCPO LCC was very impressed with the depth of botanical knowledge that grounds the Southeastern Grassland Initiative and the possible applications of that knowledge, such as the on-going effort to digitize and geo-tag the thousands of grassland obligate specimens found in the many herbaria of our region. Dwayne and Theo of the SGI expressed appreciation for the geospatial science products developed by the LCC and their potential applications. And we were all impressed by the work done by the Department of Landscape Architecture and Entomological Museum here at Mississippi State University and how their projects can strengthen and enhance our conservation work. This meeting laid the groundwork for what we hope is a highly effective regional partnership as we move forward to conserve this ecologically important and highly imperiled feature of the southeastern landscape.

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A Growing Plant Conservation Network in the Southeast

Two weeks ago I attended the Southeastern Partners in Plant Conservation (SePPCon) meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Held on the grounds of the Atlanta Botanical Garden and organized by the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Center for Southeastern Conservation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and members of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, SePPCon’s aim was to bring together government agencies, land managers, botanical gardens, university programs, and botanical experts to inform each other on best practices and topics relevant to rare plant conservation and to form a cohesive network of resources to support regional efforts for at-risk & listed plant species in the Southeastern U.S. 

The meeting was attended by about 160 people from 22 states, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, and by representatives from NatureServe, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, The USDA Forest Service, The Center for Plant Conservation, The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, The North Carolina Botanical Garden, the Missouri Botanical Garden, The American Public Gardens Association, The Center for Biological Diversity, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, The Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks LCC (me), the South Atlantic LCC (Rua Mordecai), and various Natural Heritage Programs/Commissions, Universities, and other organizations. The official footprint of this conference included the following states and territories: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri (Southern), North Carolina, Oklahoma (Eastern), South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas (Eastern), Virginia, West Virginia (Southern), and Puerto Rico & the Virgin Islands. A meeting summary and indexed recordings of the presentations will be available at the SePPCon Website in December 2016.

The Venue:

Chihuly sculpture in an Eastern Woodland garden setting

Chihuly blown glass stalks amidst oak-leaf hydrangea, witch hazel, and spice bush in back

The Atlanta Botanical Garden and its Cneter for Southeastern Conservation provided an amazing setting for this event. The conference kicked off just after the final day of Chihuly in the Garden, an installation of elaborate original glass sculptures by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly. Most of the pieces consisted of arrangements of dozens of individual colorful glass forms inserted directly into their garden settings or supported by elaborate metal frameworks. Watching the slow and careful process of workers disassembling the installations was as interesting as the installations themselves.

These eccentric, sometimes serpentine, floristic forms were particularly at home in the indoor gardens of the Fuqua Orchid Center, where tropical orchids and other epiphytes (plants that grow attached to a host but are non-parasitic, such as lichens here in the Southeast) are displayed in three separate display structures. The first, a Tropical Rotunda (pictured above), is about three stories high and features an impressive pinkish curtain of aerial roots and plants from equatorial regions. The Tropical High Elevation House (not pictured) features plants from the high elevation zones of the Andes mountains, the Tepuis of southern Venezuela, and Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. Temperatures in the High Elevation House are maintained at between 76 F in the day and 55 F at night. Since these montane plants require an environment that is moist as well as chilly, traditional air conditioning won’t work, and the house is cooled by a mechanical air washer that draws air from the basement and distributes it through the greenhouse via large tubes.

The third room of the Orchid Center is the Orchid Display House, which features a formal stone masonry pool and cedar pergola in the front and more naturalistic displays in back. Attendees who arrived Monday were invited to tour the gardens in small groups after hours, and at dusk the highlight of the Orchid Display house was the Darwin’s Orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, which has an extremely intense spicy fragrance only present at night. Another highlight of the evening tour of these gardens was the frog chorus, which you can hear on this short video. An album with more images of the gardens and the conference is here on my flickr.

Keynote Speaker: Alan Weakley, Director of the University of North Carolina Herbarium

Dr. Weakley’s opening talk, “The Native Flora of the Southeastern U. S. – Deep, Diverse, Durable, Deserving, and Endangered,” describes the region as a biodiversity hotspot at many taxonomic levels. Southeastern biodiversity is driven by a multiplicative function of geology x soil x fire x rainfall x time. Across the region, biological activity occurs in a multitude of geological settings and soil types and in a context of more fire, more hurricanes, and more lightning strikes than is common elsewhere on the planet. Furthermore, large areas of the Southeast have been available as dry land for the entire history of land plants on Earth. Many plant species have been on this land for a very long time.

The talk focused on rare plants found in four distinct southeastern habitat types:

  • Mountain tops in the Southern Blue Ridge: some plants found on only a few mountain tops have relatives in New Hampshire and Nova Scotia. Others have relatives in British Columbia, Alaska, and Japan.
  • Serpentine Barrens: These are very isolated and limited environments with many disjunct species. As with other habitat types characterized by high rates of endemism, new species are still being discovered.
  • Coastal Plain: Biodiversity here has only recently been widely acknowledged, as  Reed Noss points out in Forgotten Grasslands of the South (2013). As with the other types, many locally rare species have relatives in distant parts of the world. The Florida worm lizard, with relatives in South America, is an example. A number of Coastal Plain endemics show a pattern of occurring in isolated patches in northwestern Florida, Coastal North Carolina, New Jersey, and Nova Scotia. Pine Barrens Gentian is an example.
  • Rockhouses, which occur in seepage areas, cliff bases and under overhanging ledges. This characteristic microclimate buffers the extremes of the climate of the Southeast: they never get too cold, too hot, too wet, or too dry. Here we find Hypochilus pococki, a spider in the lampshade weaver family with relatives in Asia.

Species that are locally rare but that have relatives in distant locations are said to be relictual, a really cool word that I don’t often hear but was used many times at this conference. Reading further on my own I find that this pattern on the land indicates ancient age: the common ancestor may have occurred when these locations were closer together in space; continental drift and climate change are possible agents of isolation of relictual species. Returning to Weakley's talk: rare and endemic species tend to show up in areas with high biodiversity: they seem to be showing us where the hot spots are. And areas that have maintained high biodiversity through past eras of climate change are more likely to continue to do so through the present and into the future. These are reasons why plant conservation is an important contribution to the larger project of global environmental conservation. However, conservation efforts directed towards animal species receive much more money from federal agencies than projects that focus on plants. Several other speakers made this point as well.

Weakley concluded with a rundown of the many things that have changed for the better in the past 40 years. In 1976, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) were brand new. Only a few Natural Heritage Programs existed. Email did not exist, and neither did GPS or GIS. The Nature Conservancy had about 100 employees worldwide, whereas today they have about 3200. Floristic manuals were written by professors, for professors, and USFWS and USFS had few botanists on their payrolls. Today we have a more diverse community of conservation professionals utilizing a suite of amazing tools. One such tool is FloraQuest, a smart phone app produced by the University of North Carolina that allows the user to identify native plants of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic States using an interactive dichotomous key and an illustrated glossary of botanical terms, with results filtered by GPS location.

Other speakers: common themes

As I mentioned, a number of other speakers referred to the mismatch between the number of plants protected by in the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Vivian Negrón-Ortiz, Botanist for the Panama City Field Office of USFWS, has a recent publication going into more detail about the pattern of expenditures for plant conservation under the ESA (see table, right).

Another hot topic was best practice protocols for ex situ conservation, meaning the propagation and growing of plants outside their natural range, such as in herbaria or botanical gardens. Some argue that ex situ conservation undermines in situ practices, which involve the protection and conservation of a species in its natural habitat. Another danger of ex situ is that it can constitute (or be perceived as) a form of “green washing” a project that in reality has no conservation value. Johnny Randall, Director of Conservation Programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, explained that for some high-priority species, and especially in cases where populations are small and/or highly fragmented, or that lack seeds, pollinators, or genetic diversity, ex situ conservation is an appropriate action. David Bender, Botanist with the South Florida Ecological Services Field Office, described an example of what he termed an uncooperative species, a spiny shrub called Florida Ziziphus (Ziziphus celata). Originally collected in 1948, the plant remained unidentified and unnamed until 1984, when it was presumed extinct. It was rediscovered in 1987 in Polk County, Florida, as a small population consisting of a single genotype. Prospects for recovery were slim until other small populations were found, and some genetic diversity was obtained through hand pollination, but the plant prefers distinct mating types. “It’s very picky,” Bender explained, “and we say it is uncooperative because you do a lot of things to try to save it but it just doesn’t want to work with you.” Bender contrasted this species to the more cooperative Garret’s Mint (Dicerandra christmanii), a small fragrant shrub found only in Highlands County, Florida. Although its habitat is under extreme pressure from development, new populations have been discovered at Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, where the plant cooperates with practitioners by sprouting new seedlings after fires.

Botanists and Conservation Professionals discussing ex situ and in situ safeguarding during the Species Workshop Sessions

Another topic that frequently arose was the fact that plants are named as species of greatest conservation need (SGCN) in only 17 of our State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs), and in only four states and two territories in the Southeast (Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands), Reasons for this include the fact that federal law requires states to name animals but not plants, and the US congress forbids allocating State Wildlife Grants (SWGs) to plant conservation specifically, but these funds can go towards conservation of specific habitats and thus benefit threatened and endangered plants indirectly. In some states, the State Fish and Wildlife Service lacks the authority to manage plants. In these cases plant conservation is managed by the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Quality, or the Department of Agriculture. I would like to point out here that most of the SWAPs I have read, and certainly the plan for my home state of Mississippi, approach the recovery of the identified animal species in terms of habitat conservation, and that plants, in addition to abiotic elements such as soil, land form, and climate, constitute a major component of habitat. Although excluded from SGCN lists, specific plants are named (common name only) in the habitat descriptions of the Mississippi SWAP.

Since plant conservation cannot be funded directly through SWGs, state-level Plant Conservation Alliances (PCAs) fill this gap. The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance is the gold standard, the model for other southeastern states. Since its founding in 1995, the GPCA has grown from a small group of dedicated individuals to a network of 42 public gardens, agencies, schools, companies, and conservation organizations providing over $1.3 million in direct and indirect support for plant conservation. The GPCA recently received special national recognition from a the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies celebrating the organizations “outstanding contributions” to advancing professional fish and wildlife conservation in North America. In 2013, the GPCA received a Program Excellence Award from the American Public Garden Association. I don’t know how many other southeastern states have Plant Conservation Alliances. I know that Alabama has one and that Mississippi does not.

The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance exists in a supportive atmosphere for plant conservation at the state level. The state of Georgia’s statutory definition of “wildlife” includes plants, which is uncommon, and their State Wildlife Action Plan identifies 290 plant species as a high priority for conservation. Discussions at SePPCon indicated that Georgia and North Carolina are the only southeastern states with enforceable plant protection laws.

 There are national organizations supporting plant conservation, and these include the American Public Garden Association, represented at SePPCon by Pam Allenstein. Their Strategy for Plant Conservation can be read at http://northamericanplants.org/. There is also the national-level Plant Conservation Alliance that supports three working groups: medicinal plants, alien plants, and restoration. At the international level we have the Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

 The Southeastern Partners in Plant Conservation is an emerging and still-developing coalition of Conservation Professionals seeking a platform for collaboration at a regional scale, that is, somewhere between the state and national levels. As was pointed out at the conference, different agencies and organizations identify the “Southeast” in different ways (Virginia either is or is not a Southern State depending on whether you are with USFS or USFWS, see image, right). The ambiguity of “Southern” identity was referenced at SePPCon when a presenter from Kentucky rather cheekily argued that Cincinnati is the northernmost southern city, and was met with head-shaking and mild expressions of skepticism from the group.

To sum up: A distinct and direct focus on the Plant Kingdom illuminates challenges and opportunities for large landscape conservation. For instance, plants tend to move much more slowly than animals as climate change affects the geographical configuration of suitable habitats. The role of plant conservation community in relation to the larger landscape conservation community is evolving. Southeastern Partners in Plant Conservation is an example of a developing, Meso-scale network, smaller than national and larger than state organizations. Landscape Conservation Cooperatives and Joint Ventures, initiated with the purpose of working at this same scale, are ideally suited to partner with and facilitate this emerging network.

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Introduction:

While never a dominant feature in the landscape, natural grassland systems once formed an ecologically cohesive and important “archipelago” or “shifting mosaic” of patches of open grasses and broad-leaved herbaceous flowering plants called forbs, usually on calcareous soils in belted formations, across much of the East and West Gulf Coastal Plains and, more rarely, in parts of the Ozark Highlands and Gulf Coast. About 99% of these landscapes have been converted to other land uses or have transitioned into forested conditions due to fire suppression and ecological succession. As these landscapes disappear, so to do the species that rely on their characteristically open structure for habitat. Perhaps the most imperiled of the terrestrial ecological system types, Grassland-Prairie-Savanna was identified as one of the nine “Broadly Defined Habitats” developed by NatureServe and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a habitat framework for conservation as described in the Draft Integrated Science Agenda of the GCPO LCC.

Prairie patch polygons in the Tombigbee National Forest, Chickasaw County, digitized by the Mississippi Natural Heritage Program, now part of our Draft Dataset of Known Prairie Patches in the GCPO. World Imagery Source: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, i-cubed, Earthstar Geographics, CNES/Airbus DS, USDA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS User Community.

What:

In order to support a Draft Rapid Ecological Assessment of Grassland-Prairie-Savanna, GCPO staff created a spatial data layer of all known examples of natural prairie within our geography, using spatial datasets derived from a variety of sources. The spatial data layer shows observed and noted prairies in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri. Currently we have no records of prairie patches for parts of the GCPO outside of these states. The dataset is available for viewing or exporting at our Conservation Planning Atlas (CPA).

Why

When we began the process of writing the ecological assessment of the Grassland-Prairie-Savanna priority system last summer, we realized early on that spatial data products describing land cover, land use, vegetation class, or ecological systems, such as those produced by the Gap Analysis Project, LANDFIRE, NatureServe, or the National Land Cover Database (NLCD), could make a valuable contribution but could not be relied upon exclusively to answer our primary questions of where, how much, and in what condition. These spatial data products do a very good job with broad and differentiated classes such as developed land, open water, forest, and herbaceous cover. Within the forest class, the distinction between evergreen, hardwood and mixed forest classes is widely acknowledged to be fairly accurate at large landscape scales. Herbaceous classes are much more difficult to parse out using remote sensing and the various classification and feature extraction algorithms, and the fact that prairie patches are relatively small and scattered (compared to forests) further complicates things. Native prairies and other grasslands must be burned, mowed, or otherwise disturbed to suppress woody encroachment and to enhance desired habitat conditions for wildlife. Consequently these natural habitats experience a phenological cycle – a regular succession of structural stages – similar but not identical to those exhibited by other herbaceous land cover classes such as pasture/hay and cultivated crops. Consequently, a recently-burned prairie may be difficult to distinguish from a recently hayed pasture or a recently harvested cropland in an aerial image. In order to offset the uncertainty in the available geospatial data, we enhanced our analysis of the amount and condition of prairie-grassland-savanna by incorporating a spatial data layer of all observed natural prairie patches in our region. We appealed to partners in each of the eleven states in our geography, asking them to share information about where prairie conservation is taking place in their areas.

How

We obtained geospatial data layers describing prairies in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. We also obtained data from Illinois and Tennessee but were unable to use it for a variety of reasons. Since the Alabama layer was the largest file (14,595 polygons totaling 15,533 acres), we appended the Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri spatial datasets to it, producing a dataset of 14,713 polygons totaling 30,475 acres. We eliminated attributes unique to the source layers, and added attribute fields for state, county, and acres. You can read more about how the layer was produced in the dataset description page on our Conservation Planning Atlas, or in the Draft Ecological Assessment of Grassland-Prairie-Savanna on the GCPO LCC website.

Where?

The Draft Dataset of Known Prairie Patches in the GCPO describes the location, size, and configuration of prairies that we know about. Where are the prairies that we don’t know about? There are certainly more to be found. We encourage our partners to provide feedback in the comments section of the map on the CPA. The comments tab allows the user to draw polygons, lines and points in addition to written comments. To learn more about how to leave comments, watch this video tutorial.

We look forward to continuing engagement with partners as we work to understand and conserve this important ecological system.

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A couple of weeks ago I was able to attend the Mid-South Prairie Symposium at Austin Peay State University (APSU) in Clarksville, Tennessee. The symposium was organized by Dwayne Estes, professor of APSU’s Center of Excellence for Field Biology at APSU and botanical explorer for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT). Dr. Estes’ research interests include biogeography, threatened and endangered species, and plant communities of Tennessee and neighboring states. Dr. Estes opened the conference by referring to an adage from his elementary-school days that, upon the arrival of the first Europeans in North America, the eastern half of the continent was almost entirely forested, such that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to Texas without ever touching the ground. This vision of the landscape reflects the notion that natural succession from cleared field, to weedy pioneer species, to shrubs and vines, to pine forest, to mixed pine-hardwood, and ultimately to a “climax” condition of dense, closed canopy hardwood forest, a pattern observed extensively on the eastern seaboard, applied everywhere that the climate supports forest. In reality, early European explorers noted extensive open grasslands across much of what is now the Southeastern United States including observations of horses legs being stained red from the juice of thousands of fruiting strawberries, and wildfires that burned for miles and days, a pattern that changed with shifts in wind direction. That squirrel would have to have taken a very circuitous route indeed to avoid touching the ground, which in many places was covered in grass. Today, those grasslands, and the ecological processes that supported them, are almost entirely gone from the scene.

Dr. Estes organized an impressive assemblage of leading researchers in natural grasslands conservation in the Eastern United States, including horticulturalists and nurserymen actively installing landscapes composed of regional ecotypes all across the region (and in some places on rooftops!), research professors studying everything from management of cattle to replicate the effects of bison grazing to the mysterious reproductive cycle of native bamboo (hint, it is semelparous, meaning that it blooms but once and then dies. Also, it explodes when it burns). Keynote speaker and renowned biologist Reed Noss placed prairie research in the larger context of natural history, a broad-based approach to the study of nature that is disappearing from the national consciousness almost as rapidly as the treasured landscapes themselves as researchers become increasingly specialized in their fields.

The theme of the symposium was “If we rebuild it, will they come?” This refers to the challenges of restoring these dynamic and complex ecosystems which, once destroyed, do not come back on their own. Dr. Estes prompted invited presenters to speculate on the process of taking forests that were once savannas and cornfields that were once prairie and rebuilding them as grasslands modeled on the few remaining natural examples, and then to speculate on the likelihood of whether doing so will cause the conservative plants and animals come back. University of Tennessee scientist Patrick Keyser re-phrased the question as, “if you have all the pieces of a 1967 Chevy Chevelle dumped in your driveway, do you have a 1967 Chevy Chevelle?” Functioning ecosystems require more than the presence of a set of representative species identified by scientists. Resilience, or the capacity for persistence in the landscape despite detrimental factors, requires certain ecological processes, such as fire and grazing, in addition to an assemblage of parts. Everyone involved in prairie conservation understands the importance of fire: there are no “fire skeptics” left. The more interesting (and controversial) research happening today examines the importance of grazers (historically bison) and browsers (historically deer and elk) in abating the successional processes that cause grasslands to transition to forests, and the feasibility of using domestic livestock, in addition to fire, in efforts to mimic the historic disturbance regime. Dr. Keyser and colleagues have been writing about the use of native warm season grasses as livestock forage for years; his talk at the symposium reviewed recent scientific investigations into the possibility of rotating cattle and fire intensively (a technique known as patch-burn grazing) as a native grassland ecosystem management tool.

Another theme that ran through the day-and-a-half of presentations was the diversity of types of prairies, grasslands, and savannas and the extraordinary rates of endemism (species unique to a particular geographic location) and the presence of threatened, endangered, and recently-described species at these locations. Natural grasslands occur on a continuum of soil depths (from deep soil prairies to thin soil glades on shallow bedrock) and tree densities (from treeless prairies to savannas to woodlands) and moisture (from dry prairies and barrens to montane bogs, fens, depression ponds, and riverscour, flood-maintained grasslands associated with riparian cobble and boulders in rugged Appalachian streams). Attendees were given a beautiful booklet describing all of these grassland types and more. A presentation by Theo Witsell, botanist with the Arkansas Natural Commission with experience in landscapes all across the Eastern United States, tallied high rates of endemic and recently-described species in grassland patches, many quite small, scattered widely across the region. His presentation culminated with dramatic aerial images of how these small patches, some of which at one time covered thousands of acres, are shrinking or disappearing altogether due to urbanization. Many of these patches were never surveyed botanically, and we’ll never know what was lost.

The Thursday field trip brought the attendees to the Fort Campbell Army installation on the Tennessee-Kentucky border a few miles north of Clarksville. The site was selected by the War Department in 1941 specifically for airborne training due to the extensive grasslands already in existence. There we were treated with a sight rarely seen in the Southeastern United States: a stand of tall grass, both native and exotic species, with trees present only in the drainages, as far as the eye can see. We were not allowed to take photographs of this or any other landscape at Fort Campbell, and we were also prevented from walking through these extensive fields, as they comprise the impact zone for ordinance training, kept virtually treeless due to the frequent burns associated with artillery and bombing exercises, similar to the way they were described 200 years ago. We were able to tour a smaller patch used as a drop zone for the 101st Airborne Division, where we observed a healthy mix of warm season native grasses and forbs interspersed with copses of mature oaks. It was a very fine day.

On behalf of the GCPO LCC, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Dwayne Estes and to all those who attended the symposium, for their talent and dedication to the conservation of this important and sometimes overlooked system. Mike Black, director of the Shortleaf Pine Initiative, noted that, for the first time in recent memory, a net gain in landscape coverage by longleaf pine has recently been reported, due to efforts of groups such as The Longleaf Alliance and America's Longleaf. Similar good news for shortleaf pine is probably years away, for native grasslands, maybe decades. However, interest is building, coalitions and initiatives are forming, and the GCPO LCC, along with our neighbor LCCs, are excited about our potential contribution to efforts to collaborate across states, agencies, and organizations in this important work.

As I state above, photography was forbidden at Fort Campbell. However I am able to provide a few pictures of a beautiful pocket garden designed and planted by Dr Estes and his colleagues and students, comprised entirely of native plants, in the courtyard of the Sundquist Science Complex, where the conference was held.

Garden comprised of native grasses, flowers, shrubs, and vines at the Sundquist Science Complex at Austin Peay State University.

Purple milkweed, Asclepias purpurascens, and spotted phlox, Phlox maculata, in the native plant display garden at Austin Peay State University.

 

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Earlier this week, GCPO LCC staff met with representatives from America's Longleaf, The Shortleaf Pine Initiative, The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Weyerhauser, The Nature Conservancy of Alabama, The Joseph W. Jones Center at Ichauway, Mississippi State University, the National Fish and Wildlife Federation , NatureServe, and The US Forest Service to discuss collaboration on several projects focused on better understanding and management of open pine ecosystems. Open pine woodlands and savannas, once common in the eastern United States, support many wildlife species, including the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, northern bobwhite, black pine snake, and Bachman’s sparrow. The geographical range of open pine habitat has declined dramatically over the last century due to extensive harvesting, conversion of forests to other land uses, the suppression of landscape-scale fire, and other factors. Without fire, or a disturbance regime that imitates fire effects, what little pine woodland and savanna that remains transitions into a closed canopy mixed hardwood condition through the process of natural succession.

The projects discussed at this meeting all address open pine in terms of observable desired forest conditions, such as canopy cover, basal area, percent ground story vegetative cover, midstory density, and other condition metrics, with the goal of determining appropriate ranges for each condition metric. These ranges vary depending on the species of concern and the type of open pine forest under management. Longleaf pine forests occur in the southern part of the southeastern United States, generally on sandy soils, and can be broken out as xeric (dry) and wet types. Loblolly and Shortleaf pine forests occur in the flatwoods of the coastal plain and in the hills and mountains of the Ouachita, Ozark, and Appalachian ranges. Desired forest conditions for gopher tortoise, a charismatic fauna of the sandhills and coastal forests, are different than those of Bachman’s sparrow or northern bobwhite. Conditions for forests managed for timber production, an important part of our network of lands and waters, are different from those applied to stands managed for wildlife conservation. These projects address these conditions in different landscapes and in forests with different management regimes. The overall goal is to provide managers with science-based decision support tools (essentially when to thin, when to burn, when to let it grow into condition) in order to engender the best wildlife response. Moving forward, the LCC is developing projects designed to test the proposed condition metrics by monitoring species occurrence in forest plots both in and out of condition.

The meeting was held at the Mountain Resources Center, a Jackson State University Field Schools project north of Heflin, Alabama. The Center is in the Talladega National Forest at the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. The Talladega National Forest is home to two wilderness areas, Cheaha and Dugger Mountain, and is within a few miles of the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge. Together, these areas form a large, mostly intact, and ecologically significant tract nestled between three large cities: Birmingham, Chattanooga, and Atlanta.

 USFS Wildlife Biologist Jonathan Stober led the group on a tour of woodland conservation sites and spoke about the challenges of managing for fire-dependent species in proximity to such large urban areas. Stands of pure longleaf pine, and longleaf pine mixed with shortleaf pine and dry oak, are unusual in the mountains, and these hilly regions of northern Alabama and Georgia are the only areas where the species naturally occurs in elevations above the coastal plain and piedmont (see map of Local Implementation Teams within the Historical Range of Longleaf Pine, provided by America’s Longleaf).

At Talladega National Forest, pine and pine-oak woodlands occur on the drier ridge tops, just as with oak woodlands I visited in Bankhead National Forest with the Fire in Eastern Oak Forests Conference last spring and with shortleaf pine bluestem savannas I visited in the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area with the Shortleaf Pine Initiative Biennial Conference last fall.  We visited a recently-burned ridge top and saw apical meristem shoot growth on singed longleaf seedlings next to dead loblolly seedlings of the same size and age.

We also visited a red-cockaded woodpecker colony on a windy ridgetop woodland dominated by mature longleaf pine with an understory consisting mostly of blueberry, blackjack oak, and bracken fern.

The GCPO LCC would like to thank everyone who took the time to come out and share their knowledge and perspective on this important and dynamic forest type. We would also like to thank the staff of the Mountain Resources Center and Jacksonville State University for their hospitality, and especially Jonathan Stober for his insights during the hands-on, up-close tour of mountain longleaf and dry oak woodland management sites.

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Toby Gray's dissertation is live!

My dissertation on the relationship between the Keetch-Byram Drought Index and wildfire size and frequency in selected natural areas of the US has passed the university's formatting review board and has been published online.

The research indicates that the Keech-Byram Drought Index (KBDI) is not as strongly related to wildfire frequency in the Southeast as it is in the western United States. KBDI predicts wildfire potential by modeling the amount of moisture in the top several inches of the soil and duff layers. It is a conventional and widely-used component of wildfire potential models. Few studies exist that compare actual daily KBDI values to historical wildfire occurrence records. Foresters and ecologists have questioned the efficacy of KBDI alone as a predictor of wildfire in the Southeast. The dissertation examined average KBDI values on days when new fires ignited and on days when no new fires were reported at eight natural areas (four in the western United States, four in the southeast) for the period 1980 – 2010. I found consistent separation between non-fire and fire-start daily KBDI values for the four western locations, indicating that the drought index is a good predictor of wildfire potential at those locations. In the Southeast, one location (Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge) showed no difference between non-fire and fire-start daily KBDI. Two other locations showed a slight difference, and the fourth (Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge) showed a difference similar to that found in the western states.

This study suggests that the efficacy of KBDI as a predictor of wildfire occurrence is geographically variable and particularly weak in the southeastern mixed forest ecoregion. Breaking the wildfire record out by ecoregion province, the dissertation shows that wildfire in the Southeast does not follow the single (summer) season of burn pattern observed in the west but is instead characterized by increased frequency in late winter/early spring, followed by a dip in activity, then another peak in the late summer. This seasonal pattern has been noted in the state of Mississippi. My analysis shows it extending into Texas, the Midwest, and Appalachia. I suggest that this pattern leads to a tendency for KBDI to underpredict wildfire potential in the winter and overpredict in the summer in the Southeast.

From the standpoint of wilderness conservation, this dissertation supports the notion that state and county level forestry commissions should not rely on KBDI alone in the issuance of burn bans. Fire-dependent ecosystems are generally more efficiently managed when summer burns are implemented rather than winter burns exclusively. More research and a better understanding of the geographical variability in the relationship between soil moisture, fuel moisture, KBDI, and wildfire size and frequency could lead to changes in how KBDI is used locally and could lead to greater flexibility regarding summer burning in Southeastern forests.

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Last week, GCPO LCC Coordinator Greg Wathen and I attended the 3rd Biennial Shortleaf Pine Conference, hosted by the Shortleaf Pine Initiative in Knoxville Tennessee. The Initiative was launched in 2013 in response to the dramatic decline in shortleaf pine forests in the last several decades. Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) was once common in pine and mixed pine-oak forests from Texas and Oklahoma to the eastern seaboard from Florida to New Jersey.  Since shortleaf pine is more resistant to fire, ice, snow and drought than other pines, its decline threatens the resilience of southeastern forests.

Like longleaf pine, shortleaf pine is well-adapted to frequent fire, but it responds to fire in an entirely different way. Longleaf pine saplings insulate their cambium from the killing heat with an abundance of long, bushy needles that resemble tufts of grass. Shortleaf pine allows the fires to completely kill the above ground portion of the plant, then re-sprouts from dormant buds just below the soil surface. These buds are associated with a double crook formation that makes shortleaf pine seedlings easily distinguishable from other pine species. This fire-adaptation allows shortleaf pine to thrive in woodland and savanna settings characterized by a continuous herbaceous ground story and sparse overstory canopies.

Shortleaf Pine Initiative director Mike Black introduced the conference by describing the process that led to the release of the newly completed third draft of the range-wide conservation plan, which was distributed to all attendees and will be available for public review soon. Dr. Jim Guldin, USFS research ecologist, gave the keynote address, in which he outlined many of the factors to consider in the restoration of shortleaf pine. He noted that in those areas where the ranges of loblolly and shortleaf overlap, partners need to be honest with land owners about what can be achieved economically with shortleaf. As is the case with longleaf, shortleaf cannot compete economically with loblolly on short rotations, but will produce excellent saw timber on long rotations. Other incentives, such as aesthetics or environmental services, are necessary to raise interest in growing shortleaf pine in loblolly country.

He also noted that, for reasons not fully understood, hybridization between shortleaf and longleaf is becoming more common. Overlap in the periods for the release of pollen by both species, which are historically separated temporally, are becoming more common. Oklahoma State University Professor Rod Will presented a strong argument that the increasing rates of hybridization could lead to the disappearance of shortleaf through a process called introgression. Martin Blaney, habitat coordinator with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, shared a management perspective based on twenty years of shortleaf pine restoration in the Ouachita National Forest. While presenting endpoint metrics and desired future conditions for three shortleaf pine communities, Blaney emphasized caution about reliance on prescriptive “recipes,” since site conditions and management goals can vary a great deal across the vast range of shortleaf pine.

The Wednesday field trips included a visit to a beautiful restored oak woodland savanna in the Catoosa Wildlife Management area on an absolutely gorgeous sunny first day of autumn. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency created much of the savanna after timber harvests in 2000 and 2001 in response to a southern pine beetle outbreak. Many stands have been burned three or four times since, and in some areas shortleaf pine regeneration is occurring in extensive colorful expanses of wildflowers and grasses, including little bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass.

In his review of the importance of the Shortleaf Pine Initiative, Ken Arney, Deputy Regional Forester for the US Forest Service, remarked that in the 1970s the chief conservation conflict in this arena was between timber interests and wildlife. We have come a long way and now work cooperatively with industry partners to keep forest in forest and prevent its loss to other uses. He also acknowledged the Longleaf Pine Initiative as a model of success. The third biennial Shortleaf Pine Initiative Conference left me with a greater understanding of who is doing what and why when it comes to restoration and conservation of open pine woodland and savanna in the northern portion of the Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative geography.

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Grasslands Forgotten in the South? Not by the GCPO LCC

Natural grassland has been identified by many conservation groups as a system of global concern. Worldwide, the grassland biome is climatically driven and occurs when precipitation is sufficient for herbaceous vegetation but insufficient for trees. In some regions climatically suited for forests, including the Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozark Highlands, variations in soil conditions (the presence of calcareous or alkaline soils, usually in belted formations) and historical disturbance patterns such as fire and grazing combine to produce grasslands, prairies and savannas in certain areas. European settlers in the nineteenth century found open grasslands to be easier to convert to farmland and pasture than the neighboring forests. Consequently, much of the original ecosystem has been lost to agriculture and development, and the removal of free-roaming fire from the landscape has allowed the invasion of woody plants (in particular cedar) onto much of what little remains. By some estimates, only 1% of the original prairie landscape exists, both in the Southeastern United states and in the more widely-known tallgrass prairie of the Midwest.

Although prairie patches and grasslands were noted in the South by William Bartram (1791) and E. W. Hilgard (1860), nearly all of our scientific understanding of the system has been produced in only the last thirty years. The contribution of H. R. DeSelm and N. Murdock’s chapter on grass-dominated communities in the 1993 book Biodiversity of the Southeastern United States: Upland Terrestrial Communities (Martin et al. 1993) was the first comprehensive, scientific monograph of southeastern grasslands as a coherent ecological system distinct from the prairies of the Midwest and Great Plains states. Since then, attention to this system has increased, giving rise to numerous initiatives and symposia, most of which focus on landscapes confined to a single state or geologic formation. The paucity of literature on Southeastern grasslands as a coherent and characteristic feature across the region is so acute that the first book-length effort to understand them, published by Reed Noss in 2014, is entitled Forgotten Grasslands of the South.

Challenges to conservation of southeastern grasslands

Regional conservation design efforts for southeastern grasslands are hindered by a lack of long-term, comprehensive, empirical studies assessing conditions within the system in terms of standardized variables. Aquatic systems, for example, are the subject of national scale monitoring efforts and associated data archive and distribution systems such as the National Hydrography Dataset (NHD). Similarly, forested systems are subject to long-term standardized national scale inventory as part of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program. In the southeast, however, natural grasslands have no corollary monitoring effort associated with them, where their status as a coherent, regionally important system has emerged comparatively recently.

Additionally, examples of natural grasslands on state and federal protected areas are rare and, for the most part, only recently restored. The vast majority of southeastern grasslands exist on private land, beyond the easy reach of federal agencies or partnerships wishing to implement regional scale landscape conservation design efforts. A patchwork of state agencies and local initiatives are known to assist private landowners who wish to maintain grassland habitats for game species and recreational uses. The most comprehensive regional effort to restore grasslands on private land comes from the constellation of voluntary USDA initiatives authorized under periodic Farm Bill legislation designed to control commodity production and offset land conversion.  These include grassland practices established under programs such as general and continuous sign-up Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and Sodsaver provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill and partnership endeavors like the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCCP). However restrictions to accessing spatially-explicit information related to Farm Bill grassland practices complicates efforts to assess this (or any) priority system in terms of a regional network of lands and waters. Access more information about the 2014 Farm Bill as it relates to fish and wildlife conservation.

The GCPO LCC Grasslands Rapid Ecological Assessment

As part of the GCPO’s ongoing assessment of priority ecological systems, the LCC is assessing natural grasslands, prairies, and savannas in our geography to gauge where natural grasslands currently exist, historically existed, and could be restored. As part of our grassland ecological assessment, we are building a comprehensive geospatial database of all existing grassland within our geography. We invite all partners to share with us what they know about what kind of grassland conservation work is happening in their neighborhoods, particularly if that knowledge includes explicit geographic locations. Examples of relevant geospatial data are point locations of observed prairie indicator species (we have a set of these, confined to the state of Mississippi, from the Mississippi Natural Heritage Program), digitized historic patch locations from General Land Office (GLO) records (such as those published by John Barone in 2005), and named, ongoing restoration efforts on state or federal land. Many partners have expressed interest in a comprehensive, contemporary archive of geospatial data layers of existing natural grassland sites in the region. The Conservation Planning Atlas (CPA) of the GCPO LCC is an ideal tool for storing and sharing this information.

Natural grasslands are fragmented, widely scattered, and vulnerable on the landscape. Historically these patches expanded and shrank as part of a temporally shifting mosaic driven by fire and draught effects. Currently they disappear as land is converted to incompatible uses, and sometimes reappear in isolation when land is neglected or cleared for utility rights-of-way. Many species do not rely on these patches exclusively, but rather as a critical component of a matrix that includes open pine, oak savanna, mixed forest, and other systems. The creation of a comprehensive catalogue of natural grassland patch locations, hosted by a collaborative such as ours, would be a significant advancement in our evolving understanding of southeastern grasslands and would constitute an important linkage in the partnership goal of comprehensive regional landscape conservation design. If you are willing to contribute to this effort please contact Toby Gray at the GCPO LCC. Email toby@gri.msstate.edu or telephone 662-325-7642.

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Why do a rapid ecological assessment?

Management actions to target desired conservation and restoration outcomes for any land unit or region should proceed from a sophisticated understanding of current and potential condition and configuration of the ecological system of interest. Spatial depictions of where to apply management actions in order to maximize their effectiveness are a cornerstone of conservation design. Open Pine Woodland and Savanna was historically a dominant vegetative cover for much of the East and West Gulf Coastal Plains, some portion of the Ozark Highlands, and much of the South Atlantic and Peninsular Florida Landscape Conservation Cooperatives. About 95% of the original habitat has been lost due to development, conversion to agriculture, and the timber industry. Historically, frequent fire played a role in maintaining the open, savanna-like forest structure and grassy understory, which, along with other characteristics, form an ecological niche utilized by many species, including Mississippi Sandhill crane (endangered), red-cockaded woodpecker (endangered), and gopher tortoise (candidate for most of its range, threatened west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers in AL, MS and LA).

 

In 2013 the Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GCPO LCC) Adaptation Science Management Team (ASMT) identified open pine woodland and savanna in the East and West Gulf Coastal Plain subgeographies as one of the nine priority ecological systems on which to focus initial science investments.  From this the ASMT provided an initial set of “landscape endpoints”, or indicators, in their draft Integrated Science Agenda (ISA) related to amount, configuration, and condition that reflect the desired ecological state of the open pine system.  After these were identified the next logical step was to identify where in the GCPO LCC landscape these desired conditions were being met, how much of the landscape was in the desired condition, and how much more was needed and/or could be provided by management to reflect those conditions.  In essence, before we could go about prioritizing science investments we needed to know where open pine was located on the landscape.  The GCPO LCC rapid ecological assessment takes a regional approach to identifying areas where priority systems are in the desired ecological state identified in the ISA and uses the most current, comprehensive, and consistently-derived geospatial data available in its process.

 

How was the ecological assessment conducted?

We assessed amount, configuration, and condition of this system within the GCPO boundary by evaluating spatial data layers representative of desired ecological states for the system and combining the layers in an additive mapping procedure. Input layers included a “pine mask” of ecological systems that are currently/potentially dominated by pine (derived from the USGS National GAP land cover data layer), estimations of basal area and canopy cover published by the USFS, and unpublished estimations of midstory density, midstory basal area, and average tree diameter per acre provided by USFS Remote Systems Application Center scientists. Each input layer in the additive mapping procedure is comprised of only those cells for which threshold values are met for each condition. Score values were assigned to each input layer, the layers were summed, and the output was processed further to identify areas where the greatest number of desired conditions occur in the greatest concentration.

 

What did we find?

The initial draft open-pine assessment suggests pine-dominant forests are common in the GCPO, covering about 47.8 million acres, or 27% of the total area. Less than 4% of the pine-dominant forest meets the endpoint condition thresholds representative of desirable habitat characteristics. The process identified 1.7 million acres of open pine on 7825 patches widely scattered throughout the GCPO, mostly in the East and West Gulf Coastal Plains. We identified 700,590 acres in 344 patches >600 acres in size and within 3 km of patches also >600 acres in size. The configuration of patches in the GCPO is most densely concentrated in Chattahoochie, Marion, and Taylor Counties, Georgia; Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties, Florida; Beauregard and Vernon Parishes, Louisiana; and Polk County, Texas. The draft assessment report has undergone initial partner review and draft open pine polygon patch layer and open pine conditions summarized by HUC12 basin layers are now available on the GCPO Conservation Planning Atlas.  All products will be revised following a second round of reviews early this summer.

 

How can conservationists use this product?

Spatially explicit assessments of priority systems at large landscape scales can inform and direct the conservation efforts of land managers, agencies, NGOs and the broader conservation community. These data products can also be combined with models of urbanization and climate change to assess future threats to the priority systems, as well as habitat models to assess their value for wildlife. The map algebra process is fairly simple and repeatable, and in future iterations endpoint values and data layer input scores can be easily adjusted to estimate amount and configuration scenarios reflective of alternative forest conditions. We will follow this with a second installment that assesses relationships among open pine endemic species and their associated landscape endpoints in order to provide clear linkages among habitats and species in the system, help the LCC partnership identify and prioritize data needs, and lay the necessary groundwork for a comprehensive conservation design strategy in the GCPO.

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