The eastern flank of the GCPO region has been served by one of its newest conservation partnerships since 2006:  the East Gulf Coastal Plain Joint Venture [http://www.egcpjv.org/].  Catherine Rideout and Rob Holbrook serve as Coordinator and Assistant Coordinator, respectively.  The EGCPJV is already a key player in the burgeoning effort to bring back longleaf pine across its historic range, as well as other properly managed open pine and grassland ecosystems.  

The role of joint ventures today is to deliver the conservation goals of the various national bird conservation plans for waterfowl, landbirds, shorebirds, waterbirds and other species such as Northern Bobwhite  [http://www.nabci-us.org/plans.htm].  The EGCPJV has been focused on all birds, especially landbirds, from the start. 

“I really appreciate the diversity that we have in our 13 partners ,” says Rideout.  “We have strong engagement from both state and federal agencies and a great diversity of private and academic organizations.  We have good engagement from people who are interested in both game and nongame bird conservation.  I really think these partners have a lot to gain from working with each other, given their overlapping conservation objectives, which often hinge on habitat restoration and management.”

“Open” Habitat Priorities Befitting a Coastal “Plain” 

“Our initial emphasis has been on pine-dominated communities,” says Rideout.  “The EGCP includes a significant part of the historic longleaf range, as well as communities of slash, short leaf, and loblolly pine.  We’ve also been working closely with our neighboring Joint Ventures, who also have a vested interest in the conservation of these communities”.

One of the JV’s first major products was a Decision Support Tool (DST) for restoration and management of open pine, developed in coordination with Dr. Barry Grand at Alabama’s Cooperative Fish & Wildlife  Research Unit at Auburn University.  The Open Pine DST [http://www.egcpjv.org/pdf/EGCPJVOpenPineDST.pdf ] incorporates a variety of existing habitat and species information along with other criteria to highlight the best places to focus protection, restoration and management of open pine habitats.  “It’s a really excellent example of science planning, designed to help us get the best bang for the buck on our conservation investments,” Rideout explains.

The term “open pine” refers to the structure of southern pine forests.  The openness of the pine forest canopy allows sunlight to reach the ground, creating a rich understory important to many sensitive species, such as Bachman’s Sparrow and Gopher Tortoise.  Historically, a far greater portion of southern pine forests were fire maintained as well, which also helped to keep the midstory relatively open.  These conditions of light, fire, moisture (in some places) and a mild climate have also created some of the world’s most diverse plant communities [see LL article].

Desired Forest Conditions

“We’re now trying to take the DST a step further, and evaluate how priority species respond to habitat management ” Rideout explains.  “The next stage of the Strategic Habitat Conservation [http://www.fws.gov/science/shc/] process is to monitor bird populations and determine if birds responds to management as we expect at those sites.  We need to more explicitly link bird abundance with different habitat conditions in these pine forests.”  Additionally, we have undertaken a project to develop “Desired Forest Conditions” for wildlife in Southern Pine Ecosystems. This is the process, previously pioneered by the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture in bottomland hardwoods [LINK], of outlining “Desired Forest Conditions”  that result from the management of bottomland hardwood forests where the primary objective is the conservation of wildlife.   

The key issue in developing Southern Pine DFCs is “not a lack of information, but the need to pull together people who might have slightly different perspectives - biologists, foresters and fire managers - to ensure that we get buy-in from the major organizations essential to long-term forest management.”  This consensus “blueprint” for wildlife management is essential to actually achieving conservation goals on the ground.  

We are also trying to address economic considerations,” says Rideout, “since so much of the area that we may need or want to manage is privately owned.”  Private landowners may be interested in forest management for both wildlife and income (they are not mutually exclusive), and incorporating economics into the equation assists landowners in the decision-making process.   

The EGCPJV’s goal is to define DFCs for wildlife in Southern Pine ecosystems and complete a draft report by the end of 2012 - then issuing both a technical document for land managers and a less lengthy document for private landowners.  

Cross-Pollination Between State and Federal Agencies Benefits Longleaf

One of the JV’s accomplishments is the success of two partners, the Longleaf Alliance and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP), in developing a proposal to the Private Lands Technical Assistance program. 

The idea for the program arose in response to the rapidly increasing demand for longleaf restoration and management, along with the availability of resources directed toward longleaf conservation.  The Longleaf Alliance and MDWFP collaborated on a proposal to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and the NRCS to create two 2-year positions housed in NRCS offices.  The sole focus of these positions is to augment the capacity to respond to the increasing demand for technical assistance in longleaf restoration and management.  

There was a great need for more staffing to respond to the demand,” says Rideout, “Through this program, our partners work directly with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is very powerful, given their relationship with private landowners and their various programs available to support habitat restoration and management.”   

Next Up, Grassland Birds

Plummeting populations of grassland birds nationwide dictate the EGCPJV’s second conservation priority.  “We’re really trying to focus on the Black Belt and Jackson Prairies in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, and the Jackson Purchase in western Tennessee and Kentucky.” 

The JV has initiated development of a Decision Support Tool for grassland and prairie habitats, working with land managers and grassland bird biologists.  Similar to the JV’s work on the Open Pine DST, the group will identify the best places to work for the benefit of grassland species.  If warranted, the partnership may ultimately develop a “Desired Future Conditions” analysis for grasslands, as well!  

Anyone interested in learning more about the Southern Pine DFCs project should contact Randy Wilson with USFWS, at Randy_Wilson@fws.gov.  Anyone interested in learning more about the grassland bird conservation efforts should contact Catherine Rideout at Catherine_Rideout@fws.gov

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