By: Kristen Qualls, Southeastern Region Land Stewardship Technician
During the spring months, the Westervelt Ecological Services (WES) Southeastern Region Land Stewardship Team conducted and coordinated prescribed burns on a total of 2,028 acres at two WES Mitigation Banks – Chickasawhay Conservation Bank and St. Marks Mitigation Bank. Prescribed fires provide ecological benefits which can help restore habitat by controlling undesirable species and creating ideal growing conditions for grasses, forbs, and herbaceous cover.
Chickasawhay Conservation Bank, located in Greene County, Mississippi, consists of 1,223 acres of predominantly longleaf pine habitat. Chickasawhay is primarily for the conservation of gopher tortoise habitat. Species such as gopher tortoises, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, coachwhip snakes, and gopher frogs can be found inhabiting the property. Chickasawhay is also known for its active wildlife such as quail, deer, and turkey, in addition to its quality habitat benefiting the threatened gopher tortoise.
Prescribed fire is one of the most effective land management tools to help produce high-quality gopher tortoise habitat. Fire is a key component to aid in the success of this keystone species. Without keystone species, more invasive species would be present along with other species struggling to exist such as eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, eastern indigo snakes, gopher frogs, and many more. Gopher tortoise burrows are homes for many species since they offer protection from predators. Their burrows range in width and depth depending on the size of the tortoise, though smaller juveniles may use burrows of larger tortoises as well. One can likely find a gopher tortoise burrow in upland sandy soils along the Lower Coastal Plain. Since beginning regular prescribed burning at Chickasawhay Conservation Bank, the WES Southeastern Region Land Stewardship Team has helped restore native habitat for gopher tortoises and several rare plants including yellow pitcher plants and sundews.
St. Marks Mitigation Bank, split between Jefferson and Wakulla Counties in Florida, consists of 1,450 acres of wetlands. The site has been identified as a rare species habitat location for the following: Florida black bear, Suwannee cooter, alligator, spotted turtle, alligator snapping turtle, bald eagle, amphiuma, white-flowered wild petunia, incised groove-bur, Chapman’s sedge, Curtiss’ sandgrass, corkwood, beaked spikerush, Godfrey’s spiderlily, and Thorne’s beakrush.
The community types of St. Marks Mitigation Bank vary between coniferous plantation/wetlands, hardwoods, marshes, and upland coniferous landscapes. Fire along these different community types maintains these habitats as well as provides high-quality ecotones where numerous species thrive. Prescribed burning in these fire-dependent wetlands restores and maintains these habitat types by controlling woody shrubs, providing ideal growing conditions for fire-dependent grasses, forbs, and legumes, and preventing the establishment of fire-intolerant plants. Some invasive species are also controlled or prevented by prescribed fire. Climax matrix grasses, such as wiregrass, Muhlenbergia, longleaf threeawn, and Florida dropseed particularly benefit from prescribed fire, requiring growing season burning to promote flowering and seeding. While burning at St. Marks Mitigation Bank, staff members observed black bear, snake, and alligator activity across the site.
Without prescribing fire, today’s ecosystems would be critically endangered. Fire benefits wildlife and community types and promotes fire-adapted plant species. One of WES’s goals is to maintain habitat and landscapes using prescribed fire. As stewards of the land, we want to leave behind a legacy for future generations.