A unique mountain refuge protects endangered wetlands and the wildlife within
East Flat Rock, North Carolina – It’s not much to look at really. Nothing about this all-too-familiar stretch of Southern blacktop indicates that a rare, beautiful and endangered flower thrives just beyond the railroad tracks.
There’s a convenience store, a small engine repair shop, a few modest homes. General Electric makes lights at a factory up the road. Bat Fork Creek meanders nearby.
Below the tracks, though, in an Appalachian mountain bog, bunched arrowheads rise from soggy ground. The white-flowered plant is found in only two spots worldwide: here in Henderson County; and just down the road in Greenville County, South Carolina.
Equally rare is the the type of land upon which these bunched arrowheads grow. The seven-acre plot is poised to join the Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge, a scattering of 30 small wetlands stretching from Ashe County in the northwest corner of the state to Clay County in the southwest. Mountain Bogs is unique: no other refuge stitches together so many small plots of land across such a wide area.
Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service controls only one bit of bog land in the entire refuge: a 35-acre easement in Ashe donated by The Nature Conservancy in April 2015. The remaining lands remain privately held, but within the Service’s “acquisition boundary” and could one day become part of the refuge. Meanwhile, the Service, the state, conservation groups and private landowners protect and restore the bogs.
The refuge is set to grow. In addition to the Henderson and Ashe county sites, the Service seeks to expand three other bogs across western North Carolina. Two new sites could also be added to the complex – one encompassing 7,000 acres – that more resembles an archipelago of disconnected lands than a traditional, thousands-acre wildlife refuge.
Fish and Wildlife held a slew of open house meetings across the mountains last December and is expected to settle on an expansion list this fall. Time is critical.
Southern Appalachia is fast filling up with homes, business parks, horse farms, storage sheds and utility rights-of-way. Sprawl engenders stormwater runoff, clear-cutting, draining and ditching of land which kills bogs. The valley floors once contained an estimated 5,000 acres of boggy wetlands. Today, maybe one-tenth of the rare and imperiled habitat remains.
“Back in the day, the French Broad River valley had a lot of bogs like this,” said Gary Peeples, the No. 2 guy in the Service’s Asheville office. “But this landscape has been so manipulated, most are gone. Bogs were drained, and things like beavers, which probably helped maintain the remaining bogs, have diminished.”
Signs of vigor
Peeples and Rebekah Reid, a Service botanist, were traipsing around a Hendersonville wetland recently in search of various threatened and endangered plants. A light rain and the thrum of cars along another two-lane blacktop provided the morning soundtrack. Boot-sucking mud slowed the search, yet the intrepid duo found their prey: an endangered mountain sweet pitcher plant.
“It’s a little past blooming, but it looks happy to me,” said Reid, adding that a dozen populations of the unusually red flower – all in the Carolinas – exist worldwide. “We look for flower output. That’s a sign of vigor – and we have lots of flowers. Besides, how often do you see pitcher plants? They’re super cool. They’re carnivorous. They adapt to a poor-nutrient environment by eating insects.”
Bugs perching on the slippery rim of its hollow, pitcher-shaped leaves are lured by a lovely scent before falling into the pitcher only to drown and dissolve in a pool of water and enzymes.
This bog, in the Riverbend area near Hendersonville, fills eight acres and is fed by groundwater and a shallow stream running off a cow pasture on the other side of the road. Swamp pink (threatened) and mountain purple pitcher plants also call the site home. And the bog turtle – the smallest turtle in North America, typically less than four inches long – once frequented the site, but hasn’t been seen in years.
The wetland, at first blush, is perfect habitat for the turtle and other rare, water-loving mountain species. Sphagnum, a sponge-like moss that holds and disperses water at key intervals, carpets much of the bog. Bog turtles, protected under the Endangered Species Act, lay their eggs in sphagnum. Salamanders – the Southern Appalachians host the greatest diversity of the little amphibians– also breed here.
Hardwoods and pine trees shade the wetlands. And a variety of mountain laurel, sedges, ferns and poison sumacs provide lush groundcover.
So too do a variety of invasive plants, like Japanese stiltgrass, honeysuckle and privet. And they threaten the bog’s survival. Stormwater from the cow pasture across the road harms water quality. A nearby school and grocery store attest to encroaching development. Poachers, with a penchant for rare turtles and plants and a familiarity with local geography, pose perhaps the greatest threat.
A year before the refuge was created in 2015, the Service warned that “nearly every remaining example of mountain bog habitat shows some evidence of human alteration.”
Which is one reason Peeples, Reid and other bog experts don’t advertise the locations of mountain bogs. Private landowners who own most of the sites usually don’t want the public traipsing across their land either. But they entrust their rare wetlands to the Service and NGOs like The Nature Conservancy.
“The challenge is to work with multiple landowners to be able to go in, restore and manage the sites,” said Fred Annand, director of conservation resources for TNC in North Carolina, which began acquiring bogs in the late ’80s. “Sometimes it takes years and years to protect everything you need. In the meantime, if you get a foothold, you can do good work to enhance the site. And it will have a domino effect.”
A sprawling refuge
Traditionally, the Service acquires large chunks of (mostly coastal) land via donation or purchase, and transforms them into wildlife refuges. Mountain Bogs is different. Here, the Service established numerous “conservation partnership areas,” large swaths of mountainous territory within which small parcels can be added to the refuge via, easements, donations or outright purchases.
Mountain Bogs is unlike any of the Service’s 560 other refuges. It resembles, somewhat, Everglades Headwaters NWR in central Florida with its reliances on private landowners. And the Silvio O. Conte NWR incorporates a series of separate wildlife areas in four states along the Connecticut River into a 36,000-acre refuge.
“Usually a refuge is focused on one location. Here, you’ve got a lot of little places spread out over a big area all over western North Carolina,” said Andrew Hammond who manages Mountain Bogs, Piedmont and Bond Swamp refuges. “You might have part of the refuge right behind somebody’s house. So it’s a pretty unique situation all around.”
Fish and Wildlife initially identified 30 sites, or conservation areas, as refuge priorities across 45,000 acres of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. It could take decades – and tens of millions of dollars – for the Service to ever acquire all that land. The ultimate goal, regardless of ownership, is to conserve the rare wetlands habitat.
Fish and Wildlife wants to add two new conservation areas (in McDowell, Rutherford and Macon counties) and expand five existing ones. Two expansions would enhance habitat for the bog turtle and the bunched arrowhead. Gray’s lily and a newly discovered maternity site for the Virginia big-eared bat would benefit from expansions in Watauga County.
“This is not exactly an impressive expanse of wilderness area,” Peeples said while searching for bunched arrowheads in the Butt conservation area.
The Service wants to expand the 367-acre Butt partnership area, owned by private landowners and the Conserving Carolina nonprofit, by 42 acres. One of its bogs sits a few miles outside Hendersonville, along the railroad tracks, and in the path of more commercial and residential development.
“These plants are not as cute and cuddly as some animals, but they’re very important,” said Reid, an endangered species listing and recovery biologist. “And you may not have animal habitat without some of these plants.”
Still, the Service would have to shell out an estimated $59 million to buy up all the acreage approved for the refuge, according to a 2015 environmental assessment, an unlikely amount in this era of tight budgets and an aversion to federal land ownership. Easements – paying private landowners to conserve their land – would run $28 million. Owners can still do pretty much what they want with the land as long as they don’t develop it. The Service and its partners, though, manage the bogs and may get first dibs on buying the land if it comes up for sale.
Tim Sweeney, a conservationist and video game developer, recently donated a 7,000-acre easement to the Service – one of the largest ever conservation easement proposals in North Carolina. The hilly, boggy and biodiverse Box Creek wilderness, straddling McDowell and Rutherford counties, acts as a wildlife corridor linking the Piedmont region with Blue Ridge Mountains. And, if the deal goes down, N.C. Mountain Bogs will more closely resemble a traditional wildlife refuge.
“This refuge is pretty unique, all around,” Peeples said. “That’s not likely to change.”