Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Central Gulf Lands

Landscape at a Glance

A map showing the Central Gulf Lands focal area.

Map of Central Gulf Lands focal area by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

While representing less than six percent of the Gulf Coast frontage, Mississippi and Alabama nonetheless contribute significantly to the Gulf ecosystem. The watersheds that stretch inland within these two states ultimately impact to the overall health of the adjacent bay and estuarine systems by contributing freshwater and nutrient inputs to habitat and passage for the endangered Gulf sturgeon. The overall focal area is a crucial buffer in response to potential effects from sea level rise; it provides flood and erosion protection for wildlife and human communities, and landscape for potential habitat migration. It is also a critical stopover point for migrants (birds and butterflies) crossing the Gulf.

A winding river with white sandy banks covered in trees.

The Pearl River. Photo by USFWS.

This focal area includes the sixth largest watershed in the United States (Mobile Bay), the largest undammed river in the lower 48 states (Pascagoula River), and some of the most biologically diverse systems of their kind in the United States. Mobile Bay watershed covers approximately two-thirds of the state of Alabama and portions of Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee. Other significant watersheds throughout the focal area include those of the Pearl, Biloxi and Perdido Rivers, which terminate into estuaries and bays like Bay St. Louis, Biloxi and Perdido. The Mobile delta floodplain covers more than 300,000 acres and represents one of the largest and best-preserved deltaic systems in the lower 48 states – including more than 160 species of freshwater fishes, 75 species of freshwater mussels, 120 freshwater snail species and 17 turtle species historically occurring there.

The wet longleaf pine prairies in this landscape are among the most species-rich forest types in North America and influence the quantity and quality of water that ultimately enters the Gulf. The once vast longleaf pine ecosystem in the southeast is now less than three percent of what once covered 90 million acres. Reduced by fragmentation, lack of fire, and invasive non-native species, what remains provides important habitat for the federally listed Mississippi sandhill crane and red-cockaded woodpecker, the Bachman’s sparrow, the Henslow’s sparrow, the yellow rail, the gopher tortoise, carnivorous plants such as sundews and bladderworts, and up to nine different species of pitcher plants along with a suite of other imperiled species.

Conservation efforts capitalizing on collaboration with stakeholders are very successful in this focal area, and many efforts to develop local watershed-driven management plans decision support tools are underway or have been recently completed. For example, Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality developed the Comprehensive Ecosystem Restoration Tool (MCERT) provides data that describe landscape conditions for all watersheds that drain into the Mississippi Sound. This science-based tool will help decision makers identify restoration actions that best address various conditions while achieving priorities identified in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Restoration Plan. The Coastal Stream and Habitat Initiative project in Mississippi will generate conservation and restoration design plans for nine coastal watersheds in communities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program is also in the process of completing comprehensive plans for 31 coastal watersheds that directly feed into Mobile Bay, the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. Collectively, these tools will help guide future funds towards appropriate habitat restoration and water quality improvement projects, as well as enhance the ecosystem functions and resilience of the coastal counties of Mississippi and Alabama. The Service supports such long-term, large-scale species and habitat management strategies, including monitoring them for success and applying adaptive management. We can support these strategies by including actions such as prescribed fire, invasive species control, living shorelines, land acquisition/conservation, beneficial use of dredged material and other techniques, all while addressing climate change, sea level rise and coastal resilience.

Target Species

Long-term upland habitat management efforts – particularly prescribed fire – will help establish additional suitable habitat throughout the focal area and, in turn, achieve population objectives that aid in the recovery of endangered wildlife like the Mississippi sandhill crane (>130 cranes, with 60 nesting cranes per season for 10 years); the dusky gopher frog (six metapopulations that include a minimum of 12 breeding ponds); and the red-cockaded woodpecker (nine populations with >250 potential breeding groups from among 10 designated secondary core populations, one of which is the Desoto National Forest, with each breeding group not dependent on artificial cavities to remain at or above this population size). These and other habitat conservation and management efforts will also help provide suitable habitat for the gopher tortoise (56,400 individuals) and species with population objectives identified by the Gulf Coast Joint Venture such as the LeConte’s sparrow (2,964 individuals), the loggerhead shrike (9,364), and wintering waterfowl; as well as species with population objectives identified in the North American Landbird Conservation Plan such as the Henslow’s sparrow (168,000 individuals) and other pine savanna-dependent bird species (e.g., the Bachman’s sparrow and the yellow rail).

Large numbers of Gulf sturgeon from a number of different river populations were exposed to Deepwater Horizon oil and a substantial number of these fish were affected by this exposure. Restoration approaches used to restore this injury will be consistent with the Gulf Sturgeon Recovery Plan. These approaches include removing instream barriers, promoting sufficient instream flow, and restoring spawning habitat; reducing nutrient loads to coastal watersheds; and protecting and conserving marine, coastal, estuarine and riparian habitats.

A large, prehistoric looking greenish brown fish held by a biologist.

The federally threatened Gulf sturgeon. Photo by Kayla Kimmel, USFWS.

Population objectives for the threatened Gulf sturgeon are couched as catch-per-unit-effort during monitoring, with a short-term target of no decline from the baseline level over a three-to-five-year period; and a long-term target of having efforts underway to restore lost or degraded habitat and the population demonstrated to be self-sustaining. Recent assessments indicate there is potential for increasing the amount of Gulf sturgeon habitat in this focal area. Continued efforts to increase habitat availability for Gulf sturgeon could also benefit other aquatic resources, particularly paddlefish, freshwater mussels and anadromous fish like the Alabama shad, the American eel and the Gulf Coast striped bass.

Strategic Habitat Units

The Service, the Geological Survey of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources began in 2006 to collaboratively focus conservation activities for managing, recovering and restoring populations of federally listed and/or state imperiled fishes, mussels, snails and crayfishes in targeted watersheds and river segments in the state known as Strategic Habitat Units (SHUs) and Strategic River Reach Units (SRRUs). The selection of SHUs and SRRUs facilitates the coordination of watershed management and restoration efforts, as well as focuses funding to address habitat and water-quality issues threatening the areas. The 51 SHUs and SRRUs include a substantial part of Alabama’s remaining high-quality waterways, and reflect the variety of habitats historically and presently occupied by the aquatic species of conservation concern in Alabama.

While many of these actions are proposed for the benefits they provide to our trust resource species, removal of river and stream barriers and improvements to steam flow also benefit riverine species like Gulf Coast striped bass, largemouth bass and other host fish species and invertebrates such as crawfish and mussels that depend on suitable water flow and unrestricted access to river resources. At-risk species like the Alabama map turtle and the Pascagoula map turtle will also benefit from stream flow improvements. Improving distribution, quantity, and quality of water to coastal Mississippi, and Alabama will improve conditions for shrimp, blue crabs, oysters, and saltwater fish species. Improving the quality of upland habitats of this region will also benefit Species of Greatest Conservation Need like the eastern coachwhip or the slender and the mimic glass lizards. At-risk plants — particularly the sweet pitcher plant and Boykin’s lobelia — would also benefit from management of the longleaf flatwoods in this region.

High Priority Actions Based on the Service’s Vision

Continue to develop Strategic Habitat Units (SHU) and complete other coastal watershed management planning efforts (including those involving longleaf pine), and then pursue conservation actions in those areas.

Next Steps

  • Implement the SHU concept through the Alabama Rivers and Streams Network (ARSN) by: identifying threats to aquatic species and riverine biological communities (including factors that reduce connectivity, e.g., dams culverts, etc.); conducting baseline surveys; developing outreach protocols; restoring impacted habitats; and, where applicable, promoting species recovery through reintroductions.
  • Work through the ARSN and other partners in Alabama to support the development of statewide water policy and other decision making mechanisms that influence the timing, magnitude, and duration of inflows into the Mobile Delta benefiting migratory fishes (anadromous, diadromous, and riverine), and other estuarine resources (e.g., shrimp, oysters, brackish water fishes, and turtles).
  • In Alabama, complete the 11 previously funded (four are complete) and 19 recently funded comprehensive watershed plans that identify desired conservation outcomes. Then prioritize and implement conservation projects that will restore and maintain a healthy estuarine ecology in Mobile Bay and the adjacent Gulf waters.
  • Using strategies identified from efforts such as the Coastal Stream and Habitat Restoration and Management Initiative, the Alabama Coastal Comprehensive Plan, the Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program and the Mississippi Gulf Coast Restoration Plan, implement restoration projects to decrease threats to priority coastal streams in Mississippi and Alabama and restore associated habitat and improve water quality in the Mississippi Sound and Mobile Bay.
  • Explore the potential to have the Longleaf Partnership Council designate the Mobile Bay Watershed as a Significant Geographic Area. Such a designation would allow partners in the area to form a Local Implementation Team that would be eligible for additional funding from the Longleaf Stewardship Fund to conduct longleaf restoration/protection and provide a vital connection between the existing Significant Geographic Areas, ultimately benefiting trust resource species.

Remove impediments and integrate bypass structures to improve fisheries access.

Next Steps

  • Work with partners (e.g., ARSN and the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership) to improve surveys for fish passage barriers and opportunities for restoration throughout the focal area (e.g., dams on the Conecuh, Alabama, Tombigbee, Choctawhatchee and Pea Rivers in Alabama; the Pearl and Pascagoula in Mississippi; and the Tangipahoa and Tickfaw in Louisiana) for target species.
  • Complete the removal of the Pools Bluff sill and Bogue Chitto sill, which collectively block access to more than 300 miles of potential Gulf sturgeon spawning habitat.
  • Replace/enlarge undersized culverts that are acting as barriers to enhance passage for managed fishery species and improve water quality for other fish, wildlife and their habitats.
  • Using recent telemetry information from the post-Deepwater Horizon assessments and additional Service monitoring that indicate significant Gulf sturgeon occupancy beyond areas designated as critical habitat, conduct habitat and population assessments of the following rivers: the Pearl, the Pascagoula, the Tchefuncte, the Tangipahoa, the Tickfaw, Amite and the Comite.
  • Prioritize reforestation to strategically improve filtration of runoff within watersheds and to promote aquifer recharge in the interest of stabilizing in-stream flow to maintain suitable substrate composition for Gulf sturgeon and other species known to spawn in the Pearl and Pascagoula rivers, and possibly the Tchefuncte, the Tangipahoa, the Tickfaw, the Amite and the Comite Rivers.
  • Restore subsurface aquatic habitat and in-stream flow to natural configuration through in-channel restoration and shoreline stabilization in the Pearl, the Tangipahoa, the Tickfaw, the Tchefuncte, the Amite, the Comite, the Pascagoula and the Mobile Rivers for Gulf sturgeon restoration and to improve recovery of other species, including the inflated heelsplitter mussel, the American eel, the Pearl darter, the Alabama shad and the Gulf Coast striped bass.

Pursue voluntary land acquisition, as well as implement and sustain funding for large-scale and long-term comprehensive habitat management programs. Work with partners and private landowners to achieve large-scale connectivity of suitable habitats for species such as the Mississippi sandhill crane, the gopher tortoise, the Henslow’s sparrow, the yellow rail and pitcher plants.

Next Steps

A firefighter ignites dry brush along a dirt road.

Prescribed burning at Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR. Photo by USFWS.

  • Develop and/or support existing coordinated partnerships focusing on fire programs (e.g., prescribed fire cooperatives) and invasive species management (e.g., Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas/Cooperative Weed Management Areas) to maximize funds and acreage outcomes. This includes working with state and other partners to implement collaborative habitat management and monitoring strategies for public lands such as the Mississippi Coastal Preserves, Alabama Forever Wild lands, State Parks and National Estuarine Research Reserves and NWRs to preserve habitat for rare, threatened or endangered species.
  • Work with partners such as ARSN to identify key riparian areas for the establishment of possible conservation easements and/or enhanced streamside management zones.
  • Expand prescribed burning and invasive species management as needed to maintain and enhance restored coastal savannas and evaluate target species’ use of restored habitat on public and private lands (as appropriate).
  • Create greater incentives to enlist private landowners in conducting long-term management activities that benefit fish and wildlife species. Possibilities could include geographically expanding programs like Mississippi’s Fire on the Forty program, leveraging funds outside traditional Farm Bill programs, increased cost-sharing and greater regulatory certainty.
  • Preserve working forests through voluntary conservation easements and the application of prescribed fire on a regular basis for habitat maintenance.
  • Improve the connectivity between habitats for federally listed species that require intact systems for dispersal by using appropriate management techniques such as prescribed fire, invasive species control and hydrologic restoration.
  • Work with willing landowners to protect important habitats within the approved acquisition boundaries of Grand Bay and Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWRs (via fee acquisition or conservation easements) to increase connectivity for wildlife and improve long-term habitat management activities and programs.
  • Restore appropriate surface flow and implement habitat management activities to as much as 20,000 acres of coastal pine savanna on the Mississippi Sandhill Crane and Grand Bay NWRs using techniques such as pond creation, the installation of water control structures, mechanical treatment, prescribed fire, invasive species control, native ground cover restoration and water management.