Georgia Wild E-Newsletter
Fall Line Sandhills: Rare Species Found Here
By John B. Jensen
One of the state's more unique conservation lands lies on the north side of Ga. 96 in middle Georgia's Taylor County, about 2.5 miles west of the square in Butler.
The state Department of Natural Resources approved the purchase of what is now Fall Line Sandhills Wildlife Management Area from AmSouth Timber Fund LLC for $1.33 million in 2006, a project announced in early 2007 and powered by a State Wildlife Grant and private donations.
The primary reason for the acquisition was the high diversity of rare species found on the 876 acres. The list of rare and threatened animals and plants includes Southeastern kestrels (a type of falcon), Bachman's sparrows, gopher tortoises, southern hognose snakes, gopher frogs, striped newts, federally endangered pondberry, sandhill golden-aster, Pickering's morning-glory, and lax water-milfoil.
Previous owners managed the upland habitats for timber and pulp production derived from planted loblolly and sand pines. Historically, this area would have been naturally dominated by longleaf pines and scrub oaks. Because the planted pines did not fair too well on some of the deeper, drier sands, remnant natural vegetation and dependent wildlife species have persisted here, while often disappearing in similarly-managed plantations.
DNR Wildlife Resources Division personnel will be using a variety of methods to aggressively manage and restore these habitats to their natural state, ultimately benefiting rare and common species native to this area. Techniques will include prescribed burning, thinning and mulching trees, using herbicide on exotic and weedy vegetation, and planting longleaf pine seedlings. Such management comes with inherent growing pains; namely, it will make the site look somewhat ugly before time allows it to rebound with greater natural beauty.
The name Fall Line Sandhills comes from the tract's transitional location and predominate upland habitat. The Fall Line is the boundary between the crystalline bedrock of the Piedmont physiographic province just to the north and the sedimentary conditions of the Coastal Plain province found here. As streams flow across this boundary, they more readily erode the sandy Coastal Plain side, creating cascades at the transition. When strung together across the state and beyond, these cascades, or falls, create a fall line.
This transition coincides with the shoreline of ancient seas and just below it are remnant beach dunes. Today, these landlocked dunes have unique plant and animal communities on deep sandy soils characterized by ecologists as sandhills. Many Coastal Plain plants and animals are very dependent on this habitat type.
Sandhills are dry and relatively harsh ecosystems in which only specialized plants and animals can thrive. Many of the animals found in sandhills survive the dog days of summer by living in burrows they or other animals dig. Solitary wasps, oldfield mice and gopher tortoises construct burrows in sandhills, their location made conspicuous by the presence of a mound of excavated, clean sand deposited in front of the opening.
Some 300 species of animals are known to use the burrows of gopher tortoises for shelter from summer heat, winter cold, natural fires and predators.
Fall Line Sandhills WMA also contains several isolated wetlands. This wetland type is characterized by the absence of connection to a stream drainage, inundation (or filling) that occurs primarily through rainfall, and periodic, often seasonal, drying.
These characteristics are critical to many invertebrates and amphibians because they prevent the establishment of predatory fish. Obviously, fish cannot survive in wetlands that frequently dry up, but semi-aquatic species like gopher frogs need only temporarily available water for breeding and larval growth. These species do not have natural defenses to predatory fish and thus must seek such fishless wetlands to complete their life cycle. When the wetlands are dry, adult amphibians retreat to the nearby sandhills where they usually burrow below the soil.
Fall Line Sandhills is what DNR once called a natural area, a state property (thus belonging to all Georgians) protected and managed to conserve the ecosystems it includes. The primary management is for restoration of natural species and habitat diversity, and for scientific research and education.
Recreational uses allowed at Fall Lines Sandhills WMA include hunting, nature observation, hiking and picnicking. Deer, turkey and small game (except fox squirrels) can be hunted here in season. Please consult the annual hunting regulations booklet for details on seasons and regulations.
To get to Fall Line Sandhills WMA, from the intersection of Ga. 96 and U.S. 19 in Butler go west on Highway 96 (toward Columbus) 2.6 miles to Taylor County Industrial Park, then turn right. A kiosk will be on the left side of the road.
John Jensen is a natural resources biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division's Nongame Conservation Section.
Georgia Wild E-Newsletter