Southeastern Grasslands Initiative

Jeremy Frencha and Brittney Viers, Quail Forever/Southeastern Grasslands Initiative

The southeastern region of the U.S. was one of the most diverse grassland regions of North America, yet more than 99% has been lost due to such factors as conversion to row crop agriculture, forest succession, and wetland drainage. Reversing the decline in grassland biodiversity will require a regional effort with a multitude of partners. Our objective is to use NRCS-RCPP (Regional Conservation Partnership Program) funds to conduct a multifaceted conservation program that will complement existing efforts, especially near protected landscapes. This RCPP is led by the Central Hardwoods Joint Venture (CHJV) and the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). Our RCPP includes efforts needed to recover populations of grassland bird species deemed in need of conservation attention by Partners in Flight, as well as the native biodiversity associated with the historic grassland landscapes of the Interior Low Plateaus ecoregion of Tennessee and Kentucky. Habitat improvements for the bird species of concern, which are more dependent on vegetation structure than on species composition, can be accomplished by opening up suppressed native grasslands with removal of woody cover and prescribed fire, reconversion of cropland or fescue pastures to native grasses, increasingforb-to-grass ratios, changing grazing intensities, and altering haying regimes. We are also focusing on imperiled grasslands simply in need of management practices to restore them back to their natural conditions. This strategy will be employed in cases where higher native plant diversity is important to maximize benefits to a wider variety of organisms. Three species of grassland-breeding birds were designated as priorities for the CHJV in the 2016 Landbird Conservation Plan: Northern Bobwhite, Henslow's Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark. The CHJV region supported an estimated 6.5 million-acres of native grasslands (prairies, savannas, barrens, glades) at the time of European settlement, but nearly all of it has been lost or degraded due to conversion to row-crop agriculture or non-native pasture grasses, succession to woodlands and forests, and urban development. As a result, it is critical that we work with NRCS and other partner agencies and organizations to implement farm bill programs that favor grassland restoration, either through biodiverse focused conservation practices or establishing native warm season grass pastures that mutually benefit livestock and native grassland species.

Date Recorded: 
Thursday, March 5, 2020

Cooper Breeden and Dwayne Estes, Southeastern Grasslands Initiative / TPCA

In Fall 2019, conservation partners from across the southeast began to convene on a monthly call to discuss how to tackle the complex problem of improperly managed roadsides—roadsides that are either being sprayed or mowed to death to the detriment of rare and unique plant species and communities. This update will include a summary of roadside protection efforts in Tennessee. We will briefly review recent changes in the state’s management policy and its implications on conservation. In addition, we will review a new project we have started in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Transportation. This project includes a status assessment of roadside pollinator and grassland habitat, the development of a roadside management plan, and the installation of a demonstration prairie.

Contributing Author(s): 
Date Recorded: 
Thursday, March 5, 2020

Dr. Dwayne Estes, Southeastern Grasslands Initiative Plant Conservation Issues on Roadsides and Right of Ways in Alabama

Patrick Thompson, Coordinator Alabama Plant Conservation Alliance

Alfred Schotz, Botanist Alabama Natural Heritage Program

Michelle Reynolds, Administrator Southeastern Roadside Defenders

Patrick Daniel, Collaborator Southeastern Roadside Defenders

Alabama has a diversity of habitats, species, ideologies and challenges. Private lands management is a place where these things all come together. On the roadsides, this is especially true. The most heartening thing about the condition of Alabama’s roadside plant communities is the fact that they have voices speaking up for them. The Southeastern Roadside Defenders is a place for voices to come together. The goals of the Southeastern Roadside Defenders Facebook page is to gather and share information on good vegetation management plans, share herbicide regulatory info, promote examples of good programs and success stories, while building a network of allies. We believe in grassroots activism. By sharing good examples as well as the bad, we think we can connect the dots and build a broad network to help combat the overuse of herbicides and the subsequent destruction of plant communities that provide important eco-services along our roadways. We believe roadside wildflowers play a role connecting people, land, communities, and tourism. We use before and after photos to demonstrate harm to plants, erosion caused by the lack of plants, and harm to the environment and stormwater infrastructure from the erosion and sediment. We focus on these points in discussion with officials: public health, aesthetics, connectivity, environment, water quality, and road/shoulder degradation. We partner with allies and meet with officials and municipalities to help align their comprehensive goals with best practices in vegetation management. By mirroring language written by city, county, and state planners, we strive to find common ground and help to develop policy. This approach has been slow but steady. We encourage others to speak and act locally by arming them with information and talking points. Steam is building. There are real problems in this state. Phlox pulchra, an S1G1 species with only 6 occurences has been sprayed with herbicide at two roadside locations. The conversations with people concerned about roadside vegetation management across the region have shown us that our problems are not unique. Alabama looks forward to pointing to the successful work being done in North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee and our other southeastern states to hold our vegetation managers to these higher standards. Alabama’s roadside species will benefit from all of your efforts to raise the bar, and we thank you for that.

Date Recorded: 
Thursday, March 5, 2020

Margi Hunter, Tennessee Naturalist Program, Cooper Breeden, Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, Austin Peay State University, Tennessee Plant Conservation Alliance

The lack of funding and resources necessary to conserve many of our most imperiled species and communities is a ubiquitous problem. In the absence of traditional support, more grassroots and citizen-led efforts are essential to ensure the survival of rare populations and habitats. In Tennessee, one citizen science-initiated and -led project has demonstrated the impact these grassroots efforts can have on our rare flora. We will present on the safeguarding efforts surrounding the running glade clover, Trifolium calcaricum. It is only known from 6 populations, only 1 of which in Tennessee is protected. With encouragement from the Tennessee Division of Natural Areas, a citizen volunteer initiated contact with a private landowner, secured permission to propagate plants from the site, and established 18 different reintroduction sites in nearby parks and state natural areas. In addition, a subset of plants were given to a local botanic garden to create an interpretive rare plant display. Future plans for this project include a suite of ecological and experimental studies to examine the effect of multiple factors on Trifolium calcaricum demographics on both introduced and natural populations.

Contributing Author(s): 
Date Recorded: 
Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Dr. Reed Noss, Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, Florida Institute for Conservation Science and Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (Contractor) Jennifer Cartwright, U.S. Geological Survey Dwayne Estes, Southeastern Grasslands Initiative Theo Witsell, Southeastern Grasslands Initiative

Grasslands of the southeastern United States are considered “endangered ecosystems,” with many grassland types having been reduced by more than 90% since European settlement and some types approaching 100% loss. Many southeastern grassland ecosystems and the rare species they support are now facing additional threats from climate change, invasive species, and other habitat changes. Recently, grassland managers and researchers from state and federal agencies, NGOs, and universities collaboratively held a regional workshop to identify key science needs for the conservation of southeastern grassland ecosystems and species. The workshop focused on identifying the types of scientific information needed to support the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies in the development of Species Status Assessments (SSAs) for grassland species listed as endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) or under consideration for such listing. Because SSAs provide a unified, official resource for species’ biological information pertinent to all ESA-related decisions (e.g., listing, permitting, Habitat Conservation Plans, and recovery planning), it is critical that they be informed by the best available science. However, research and data are often limited for rare plant species, especially related to potential future climate-change effects on habitat and population trajectories. This presentation addresses some of the major findings from the needs-assessment workshop and discusses possibilities for future research projects to help fill key knowledge gaps identified by workshop participants. Collectively, this needs assessment will help guide the development of collaborative research projects targeted at addressing the most pressing scientific needs for conserving southeastern grassland species of conservation concern.

Date Recorded: 
Wednesday, March 4, 2020

From the SePPCon 2020 conference, three inspiring videos:

The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative Dr. Dwayne Estes, Southeastern Grasslands Initiative Featuring Dwayne Estes, SGI Director, and Theo Witsell, SGI Chief Ecologist. Filmed and edited by Pamela Pasco.

This 15-minute video takes you on a journey across the Southeast and through time, to learn more about the habitats that have been largely erased from society’s collective memory: the incredibly diverse native grasslands of the Southeastern United States. Be introduced to the concept of an “old growth grassland,” characterized by hundreds of native grasses, sedges, wildflowers, and shrubs, as well as dozens of species of birds and countless insects. You’ll learn why the myth of the squirrel that could travel from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River is just that: a myth that has been debunked by recent ecological and historical research. Get introduced to the complicated and diverse mosaic of forests, woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands that once existed across the South. You’ll discover that while Southern grasslands may not be as vast as their Midwestern cousins, what they lack in size is made up for by their astounding diversity. These include treeless prairies, open oak woodlands and pine savannas, rocky glades, high elevation grass balds in the Southern Blue Ridge, and open wet meadows, fens and bogs. Learn about the importance of conservative grassland species, such as the May Prairie Aster, discovered in 2008, which occurs only in a single 10-acre prairie remnant and nowhere else in the world. These conservative species can only grow in high quality grasslands, indicating sites of conservation value. Discover the grasslands that are hidden “in plain sight” throughout the Southeast, and find out the surprising sites on the landscape that still host many grassland plants and pollinators such as the Monarch butterfly.  Witness an unplanned grassland loss that occurred in real time during filming of this video, and learn why our native grassland remnants of just 1 to 20 acres are critical–not only as habitat for rare species such as the Northern Bobwhite-- but also to any hope we have of restoring our native grassland heritage. You’ll see that native grasslands in the Southeast are still yielding amazing discoveries of new plant and animal species each year. Find out the surprising ways in which agricultural practices have been kind to our grasslands, and be assured that there is cause for hope.

Longleaf for the Long Run Carol Denhof, President, Longleaf Alliance

The Longleaf Pine was once the dominant tree species in the southern United States, covering over 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas. Over the last 400 years, this species’ abundance has decreased due to non-sustainable timber harvesting, clearing of land for agriculture and development, and exclusion of fire. However, the overall decline of this ecosystem has been halted due to a coordinated effort by landowners and partners in the southeast to restore this iconic Southern forest that is among the most biologically diverse habitats in North America. The Longleaf Alliance (LLA) works in partnership with private landowners, federal and state agencies, other NGOs, and industry to guide the restoration, stewardship, and conservation of the longleaf pine ecosystem. This outreach video, produced by Abel Klainbaum for LLA, is intended to raise awareness of this unique native ecosystem in the general public. The information presented, through the shared perspectives of four active members of the longleaf community

Piedmont Prairie Initiative Rua Mordicai, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Science Applications Rickie White, Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association Carrie Radcliffe, Atlanta Botanical Garden Jim Affolter, State Botanical Garden of Georgia Jennifer Ceska, State Botanical Garden of Georgia Dr. Johnny Randall, North Carolina Botanical Garden Alan Weakley, North Carolina Botanical Garden Dwayne Estes, Southeastern Grasslands Initiative Julie Tuttle, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill

The Piedmont is home to one of the fastest-growing urban megaregions in the country, stretching from Raleigh-Durham to Atlanta and into Birmingham, AL. Historically, much of the region was covered in grasslands, including pine-oak savannas and open treeless prairies, maintained by frequent fire and grazing by bison and elk. Most Piedmont residents don’t know that the thick upland forests they see today were very different before European arrival. This is one of the major barriers to bringing grasslands back to the region. The Piedmont Prairie Partnership is a group of non-profit, state, and federal agencies working to bring back Piedmont Prairies in an area from Virginia down to Alabama. Late in 2019 to early 2020, the partnership created two videos to help tell the story of the past, present, and future of prairies in the Piedmont.

Date Recorded: 
Monday, March 2, 2020