Longleaf Ecosystem Diversity
The longleaf pine ecosystem once dominated an estimated 90 million acres across the southeast. Today, it is rare in occurrence and occupies only three percent of its original range. The longleaf pine ecosystem has been referred to as a “grassland with trees.” Indeed, it is the herbaceous layer within this forested ecosystem that creates one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. At small scales, the longleaf pine forests of the lower coastal plain can have comparable species diversity to that found in South American rain forests. While the longleaf pine forests of the Sandhills do not share the same extent of diversity, they harbor an impressive array of species. More than 800 species of plants have been identified on the refuge.
Land Management Demonstration Refuge
As one of only two “Land Management and Demonstration Refuges” in the southeastern U.S., the refuge provides opportunities for direct observation of the longleaf ecosystem’s flora and fauna while providing the potential to display resource management and restoration techniques. Visitors can view much of the refuge along the Wildlife Drive; a 9.5-mile paved access road that provides opportunities to visit, view and study the flora and fauna that comprise the longleaf pine ecosystem.
Open fields encompass 1,200 acres at Carolina Sandhills NWR, approximately 2.5 % of the total area. Refuge staff use agricultural practices to maintain these areas to benefit wildlife. Objectives for this program include meeting basic wildlife needs for food, shelter, and cover. Preservation and restoration of the existing soil base is also an important objective. Finally, restoration of native grasses, forbs and legumes is at the forefront of ecosystem management objectives.
Approximately 200 acres are planted in crops beneficial to wildlife species. In many cases, food crops are planted in strips along the edge or in the center of these fields to maintain cover and shelter for smaller mammals and ground nesting birds. Typical crops planted to benefit waterfowl include grain sorghum and millet. These crops provide foods high in nutritional value during the coldest, most stressful periods in the winter. Green browse in the form of wheat and ryegrass meet the less stringent nutritional requirements for waterfowl.
A few refuge fields are annually planted with a mixture of crops preferred by mourning doves, including black sunflower, sorghum, Japanese, dove Proso and brown-top millet. Annual plantings of beggarweed, partridge pea, sorghum, millet, and sunflowers provide excellent food sources for bobwhite quail.
Because Carolina Sandhills NWR already provides excellent habitat for the wild turkey, little additional management is needed to maintain and increase this population. Since turkey will benefit from the majority of the crops produced on the refuge to benefit other wildlife, little farming effort is directed specifically for turkeys. Plantings of chufa, a peanut-like tuber producing plant, in fields along the Wildlife Drive helps to attract these birds for wildlife observation opportunities.
Another species that it right at home in the longleaf pine ecosystem is the white-tailed deer. Management practices such as prescribed burning and selective thinning in natural and planted pines benefit most native wildlife species, especially white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and bobwhite quail. Refuge staff conduct supplemental plantings of fall and winter forage such as winter wheat and ryegrass.
Native Warm Season Grass Restoration
While 200 acres are devoted to agricultural practices, 1,000 acres of fallow fields are being restored over time to Native Warm Season Grasses (NWSG) to enhance wildlife habitat for a variety of species, such as the bobwhite quail and wild turkey, while restoring native bunch grasses to the landscape.
An important element of NWSG restoration is selecting the appropriate species. While local genotypes are sought, the scale on which this is evaluated can have tremendous affects on cost and availability. The Sandhills region extends from southern NC to eastern Alabama and has much similarity across that range, thus providing potential seed sources.
Establishing NWSG can be a challenge even in good soils. The sandy, nutrient-poor soils of the Sandhills region are even more challenging. The refuge is trying a variety of grass, wildflower and legume seeds either planted individually or in mixes to determine which are best for this xeric environment. Along the Wildlife Drive, several areas have been planted including Fields 18-5 and 18-6 and strips along the Oxpen Road. Some of the species that the refuge is trying include big bluestem, buffalo grass, sideoats grama, little bluestem, blue grama, Indian grass, Virginia wildrye, purpletop, broomsedge, Southeastern grass mix, xeriscape Eastern grass mix, and native perennial wildflowers such as Monarda, coneflower, Gaillardia, Gaura, lupine, coreopsis, and black-eyed Susan. Over time, as fields of native grasses and wildflowers become established, the refuge will harvest seeds from areas with successful establishment to restore additional areas of the refuge.
Invasive, Non-native Species
Another challenge in establishing NWSG on the refuge is the presence of non-native vegetation, which outcompetes many native species. In earlier years, wildlife biologists and managers were proponents of planting supplemental grasses and legumes on the refuge to provide more nutritious forage and cover for game species, particularly ground nesting birds. However, many of these species were not native to the United States or Southeast and over time have become monocultures in their respective locations. For example, Chinese weeping love grass, as a sparse bunch grass provides excellent cover for northern bobwhite quail and was widely planted on the refuge for decades. However, sparse stands have become thick and impenetrable for young birds; crowd out native grasses such as wiregrass; and burn at higher BTUs than traditional grasses associated with the longleaf pine ecosystem, thus posing a concern for firefighter safety. Other non-native species of concern that the refuge will address during the next decade include tree of heaven, sicklepod, Crotalaria, Chinese tallow tree, privet, Johnson grass, nutgrass, bamboo, and fescue.
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