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Preserving Long Island Grasslands Provides Habitat for the Endangered Sandplain Gerardia Plant
Photo Credit: Ed Sambolin
New York’s Long Island is home to more than 7 million people, two major airports, nine bridges, 13 tunnels, and one very rare plant—the sandplain gerardia (Agalinis acuta).
Long Island is one of only 18 sites across five states where sandplain gerardia can be found. The plant has been listed as an endangered species since 1988. It is considered a specialist that prefers dry, sandy, exposed, mineral soil and native grasslands.
Long Island’s native grasslands have largely disappeared, having been crowded out by development and infiltrated by invasive, nonnative plant species. However, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) effort has preserved more than 100 acres (40 hectares) of grasslands on Long Island, protecting the habitat for the sandplain gerardia and other species.
In 2007, the Service acquired a 102-acre (41-ha) area from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The property has a long and diverse history. In 1912, a German company built a transatlantic wireless communication facility on the site. It was one of the most powerful and advanced facilities of its kind at the time. The property was acquired by the FAA in 1939 and housed the FAA’s International Flight Service Station until it was relocated in the 1990s.
At that time, The Nature Conservancy noted that the site was home to the largest known population of sandplain gerardia. Under direction of Congress, the FAA transferred ownership of the property to the Service and removed asbestos and other contaminants from the site.
“Protecting open space is a vital part of preserving Long Island’s character, its plants and its wildlife,” said Congressman Steve Israel at the time. “This is a very exciting development for our community and will play a key role in keeping Long Island a beautiful place to live for generations to come.”
Today, the Service manages the property as part of the Sayville Unit of the 6,500-acre (2,630-ha) Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
The Service uses a variety of management techniques for the sensitive grasslands, including mowing and, in the future, prescribed burning.
Photo Credit: Ed Sambolin
“Sandplain gerardia plants respond well to disturbances like mowing or fire,” said Catherine Hibbard, a Fire Program Specialist for the Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System. “It likes that open habitat.”
“Fire helps reduce the buildup of dead vegetation and woody vegetation that’s encroaching,” said Susi Ponce, a biologist in the Service’s Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “If the vegetation gets too dense, the gerardia gets crowded out and can’t grow, Fire also activates seeds that are dormant.”
Service crews recently completed a project to remove areas of overgrown scrub oak and pitch pine to allow more sunlight in and improve the conditions for the sandplain gerardia. Specialized equipment not only removes the trees but grinds them into mulch. Removing the stands of trees keeps them from invading the maritime grasslands and also reduces the fire danger for neighboring homes.
In addition to the sandplain gerardia, other plants and animals on the state’s list of threatened and endangered species call the Sayville Unit property home, including the following: frosted elfin (Callophrys irus), spring ladies-tresses (Spiranthes vernalis), northern blazing-star (Liatris borealis) and several species of flax.
“Sandplain gerardia is a very rare plant and an important part of the ecosystem,” Hibbard said. “You lose it, and you’re losing another piece of the puzzle that makes up this unique environment.”
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