If Part 2 of a five-state effort led by Georgia DNR hits its mark, about 52,000 acres of prime sandhills habitat will be restored from Florida to Mississippi by 2014.
That means thousands of acres rejuvenated through prescribed fire. Thousands of longleaf pines planted and invasive hardwoods and “off-site” pines removed. Dozens of species such as gopher tortoises and Bachman’s sparrows helped.
It's a tall order, even though this habitat, also called dry or upland longleaf, rates as a conservation priority across the Southeast.
But the Multistate Sandhills/Upland Longleaf Ecological Restoration Project has in its favor a recent award of $981,000 from the State Wildlife Grants Competitive Program, plus the addition of Mississippi and Louisiana to an already strong lineup of Georgia, Alabama, Florida and supporting organizations.
The project also has a record of success. Two years into the first phase powered by a previous grant and matching money and work, partners are ahead of schedule, particularly in the prescribed burning critical to restoring ecosystems that require regular sweeps of fire.
“Alabama, Georgia and Florida have passed their three-year goals in two years,” said Matt Elliott, project coordinator and a program manager with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
Second-phase work will vary from more controlled burns on public and private lands to planting groundcover and longleaf pine, expanded monitoring of gopher tortoises, and continued teamwork with groups such as The Nature Conservancy and Georgia Power. The plans dovetail with the State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy guiding public and private efforts to conserve Georgia’s biological diversity (details at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/wildlife-action-plan).
Objectives for restoration sites include increasing vegetation beneficial to tortoises and the breeding birds characteristic of higher-quality sandhills. Gopher tortoises will benefit, but population changes for this slow-reproducing species will take years.
More than 50 sandhills species need significant conservation measures.
Georgia DNR’s focus will include prescribed fire and longleaf restoration at Townsend and other wildlife management areas, as well as on many new private sites. Elliott said interest from private landowners in using prescribed fire on their property has been a pleasant surprise. “There are a lot more people … than we have the capacity to (work with).”
Reaching across property and state lines is vital to boosting the quality, quantity and connectivity of sandhills.
State Wildlife Grants
Since 2000, the State Wildlife Grants program has been the main funding source to help keep common species common and protect others before they become critically imperiled and more costly to recover from the brink of extinction. Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these grants enable DNR and its conservation partners to protect wildlife and wild places to maintain the state’s natural heritage.
Phase 2 Team
Partners in the second phase of the sandhills restoration project include the Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi state wildlife agencies, The Nature Conservancy, The Orianne Society, Georgia Power, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gopher Tortoise Council, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway, Fort Gordon and many private landowners.
Giving Wildlife a Chance
The sandhills project is another example of how buying a nongame license plate or donating to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund through the state income tax checkoff and other ways supports wildlife conservation. Contributions benefit DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds for its mission to conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and natural habitats in the state.
For more information, visit www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218). For details on The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, a nonprofit advocacy group for Nongame Conservation, call the Forsyth office or go to http://tern.homestead.com/.