North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Wildlife Commission and Partners Create Better Habitat for Rare Wildlife Species

Author: NCWRC blogger/Friday, October 27, 2017/Categories: Blog, Conservation, Wildlife Watching

In September, staff with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, along with partners and volunteers, planted 900 red spruce seedlings on the Pisgah National Forest to help create better habitat for many rare wildlife species including the Carolina northern flying squirrel, red crossbill, brown creeper and northern saw-whet owl.

They planted the seedlings in an area of the forest located in Haywood County, north of the Blue Ridge Parkway, to boost the number of coniferous trees, which are trees that bear cones. Prior to its acquisition by the U.S. Forest Service, this area had been impacted by logging and wildfires in the early 1900s, which allowed hardwood trees to grow in place of red spruce.  Many wildlife species depend on coniferous trees, such as red spruce and Fraser fir, for survival. Among them are the federally endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel, which eats truffles, the fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal fungi associated with the roots of red spruce trees. The red crossbill, a stocky red or greenish finch, eats spruce seed and has a specialized bill that pries open cones to extract seed. Other species that benefit from a spruce-fir forest include the black-capped chickadee, rock shrew and pigmy salamander.

The seedlings were grown at the Southern Highlands Reserve, a native plant arboretum and research center in Transylvania County. Southern Highlands Reserve staff and volunteers extracted, cleaned, and germinated seeds, and potted the seedlings.

Over a 2-day period, staff from the Commission, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along with volunteers from The Pisgah Conservancy, Carolina Mountain Club, The Climate Times, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, and Southern Highlands Reserve carried the 900 seedlings one mile down the Flat Laurel Branch Trail. Making seven back and forth trips, some volunteers logged 14 miles delivering seedlings!

In addition, Christine Vigue of Backcountry Horsemen of Pisgah enlisted her two horses to carry heavier items. Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution staffed an information booth in the Black Balsam parking lot. Forestry and wildlife students from Haywood Community College and Warren Wilson College then planted the 12-to 18-inch seedlings using a technique called “underplanting,” which means the seedlings were planted under a hardwood canopy. They did this to ensure the seedlings develop a strong root system and tall stems. The seedlings will be left for a few years to grow, after which Commission staff and partners will return to girdle selected surrounding trees to provide more sunlight to the growing seedlings.

Commission staff also will monitor the effect of the restoration project by conducting surveys on birds and flying squirrel populations, while the college students will help monitor seedling growth and survival.

According to Christine Kelly, a wildlife diversity biologist for the Commission and project coordinator, this is the first such project to restore the valuable spruce-fir ecosystem, which is native to the high-elevation mountaintop in North Carolina and is the second most endangered ecosystem in the United States.

 We hope that this is the first of many such restoration projects. This project area was a top candidate for restoration, but its distance from the nearest road presented a logistics challenge. Fortunately, it is also in a popular area, so there was a lot of interest from volunteer organizations wanting to help haul trees down the trail.

The project was initiated by the Commission and developed by the U.S. Forest Service, Warren William College. Valuable input was provided by members of the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI) and other partners in the conservation community including Southern Highlands Reserve, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, NC Natural Heritage Program, MountainTrue, The Wilderness Society, and Defenders of Wildlife. This restoration project is the first for SASRI.

View more photos of the restoration effort here!

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