How do you restore a mountain bog? Sweat, science, partners and perseverance.
How do you keep it restored? See above.
Mountain bogs are one of the Southern Appalachians’ most critically endangered habitats, home to species found nowhere else, such as federally threatened bog turtles, state-protected montane purple pitcherplants and federally threatened swamp pinks, some of Georgia’s rarest plants.
Only a small number of the hundreds of Blue Ridge wetlands in the state are candidates for bog-habitat restoration. Fewer than 15 sites – pinpointed by remote mapping and ground-truthing (i.e., checking what maps appear to show) – are being restored. Conservationists want that number increased.
The work involves not only clearing known mountain bog areas, but also evaluating other wetlands that may also be suitable for restoration. Genetic material from rare plants found at a very few intact sites is safeguarded at restored sites. Safeguarding of rare plants involves seed collection, propagation, outplanting the species at suitable sites and monitoring those outplantings. (Through safeguarding, the montane purple pitcherplant has grown in number from fewer than 20 surviving plants in the mid-1980s to more than a thousand at greenhouses and in the wild at five restored bogs.)
Although the woody plants removed in restoring bog habitats are native, removal is necessary to produce suitable conditions for the rare species to survive long-term. Wildlife biologist Thomas Floyd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section said species such as the montane purple pitcherplant and bog turtle require open, sunny habitats.
“As bog habitats become overgrown, pitcherplants no longer grow vigorously, flower or produce seed,” Floyd said. “And without basking and nesting sites afforded by open habitat, bog turtles cannot successfully reproduce, and either seek more suitable wetlands elsewhere or simply dwindle in numbers over time.”
Bog restoration also brings together a network of agencies, organizations and volunteers to complete what often turns out to be a multi-year ordeal. While agencies such as the DNR and the U.S. Forest Service start the overhaul of sites, much of the maintenance falls to partner-created organizations such as the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, whose members include the Atlanta Botanical Garden, State Botanical Garden of Georgia, DNR and Zoo Atlanta, to name a few.
Nongame Conservation Section botanist Mincy Moffett said the ideal long-term goal of habitat restoration is to bring the habitat back and then be able to “walk away.”
But because of today’s fragmented forests and the lack of natural disturbance (including the influence of beavers) that keeps woody vegetation at bay, “continued maintenance for these bogs is necessary and usually done by volunteers,” Moffett said.
Through reliance on dedicated volunteers, all partner organizations save valuable resources, "allowing them to focus on the discovery and restoration of additional bog sites,” he said.
As part of a DNR study started in 2007, scientists are using herbicide and prescribed fire to determine the most efficient way to control woody vegetation in bogs. One of three bogs studied was a hayfield only 30 years ago, having been converted to agricultural use years before. While not ideal habitat, a bog turtle population survived within the ditches of this former wetland. Then, the field became overgrown, making it increasingly less suitable for the turtles.
“As part of the eight-year study, the woody vegetation was removed in much of the habitat, giving resident bog turtles a better chance of long-term survival,” Floyd said.
The initial observation of plots treated just two autumns ago shows promise for a new maintenance protocol that will save conservation manpower and dollars.
Mountain bog restoration is a high-priority conservation action in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy that guides DNR and DNR Wildlife Resources Division efforts to conserve biological diversity. The work is also a key part of the U.S. Forest Service’s plans for stimulus money for critical habitat work.
“The stimulus money will help us speed up recovery of the bogs on (Chattahoochee) National Forest land by providing the funds necessary to complete the more labor-intensive shrub clearing activities associated with bog restoration,” Forest Service wildlife biologist Mike Brod said.
While DNR is gearing up to complete the restoration experiment at the hay field-turned-bog, many other bog sites have a long way to go. This winter, prescribed fire treatments will be installed to test hypotheses and compare techniques.
Only time will tell if long-term bog restoration work will provide the critical habitat necessary for the rare species that depend on one of Georgia’s rarest ecological systems. But there’s no doubt that restoring this rare habitat across the landscape is a lofty goal.
At a glance
Mountain bogs are associated with seeps, springs or small creeks, and typically small – between a 10th of an acre to 5 acres. Each is unique, exhibiting slight differences in species composition, elevation and hydrology. Each also provides critical habitat for a variety of species found nowhere else.