Nature preserves help protect rare species

By on September 30, 2019

Liatris helleri on near the top of Paddy Mountain nature preserve.

Standing on a rock face on top of a mountain tucked away in Western North Carolina, Lesley Starke looks for a flower.

Starke, Plant Conservation Program Manager with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is not after just any flower; she and around a dozen volunteers have hiked to the top of Paddy Mountain near West Jefferson to study Liatris helleri, also known as Heller’s Blazing Star. Paddy Mountain serves as a plant conservation preserve for the flower, a rare species which only grows on the rocky ridges near the peak.

“The Paddy Mountain Plant Conservation Preserve was established to protect this plant species,” Starke said. “We have more than two dozen of these types of preserves all over the state, each targeting an important imperiled species.”

Starke, along with her volunteers, hiked to the top of Paddy Mountain in August along an abandoned logging road, one of the few safe ways to reach the peak. As a nature preserve, Paddy Mountain is not designed for pedestrian use or ease of navigation. There are no parking spaces for cars, and even the steep, often overgrown logging road only goes so far before dispersing into unmarked forest.

And that, Starke said, is the easy way up.

“The other way we get there is through a boulder field,” she said with a grin. “We’re going to take the trail this time.”

The preserve is isolated by design. Liatris helleri is fragile, owning largely to the fact that it only grows on the solid rock outcropping near the top of the mountain. Because of that, the flowers’ roots do not run deep at all, and foot traffic could easily scrape it off the stones if people regularly walked around in its habitat. Data collection trips like the one Starke led in August are conducted sparingly as to make sure not to disturb the unique ecosystem on Paddy Mountain.

That ecosystem exists because of Paddy Mountain’s combination of high altitude and specific soil composition, Starke said.

“Paddy Mountain is an example of a series of protected sites, and those are within the amphibolite mountains,” Starke said. “Amphibolite is a type of rock, and it weathers to a particular soil chemistry that is different from the surrounding landscape. These pockets of unique habitat are important not only because they are at high elevation but also for their chemistry.”

The mountain is home to a wide variety of plant species, due to both its unique soil and the lack of frequent foot traffic. While the reserve is built around Liatris helleri, the other plants and animals on the mountain benefit from that protection all the same.

Paddy Mountain is part of a network of plant conservation preserves all over the state. The variety of plant conservation sites under NCDA&CS jurisdiction has grown substantially since the program first began.

From the early days of managing just a handful of sites, the department now has 25 preserves under its umbrella. Starting with the first acquisition in 1996, the network of preserves has grown to over two dozen as of 2019.
Paddy Mountain, where Liatris helleri grows, totals around 450 acres in size, but the other preserves vary from as small as five acres to one outlier of nearly 7,000 acres.

Those acquisitions followed the passage of the Plant Protection and Conservation Act in 1979, which established the plant conservation program. The program is tasked by law with safeguarding biological diversity in the state, which is why Starke led her group to the top of Paddy Mountain to collect data on Liatris helleri.

“What we were doing is contributing to a demographic data set of several Liatris helleri populations initiated by the National Park Service. This work gives us a ‘head count’ per year – what is going on with this species at Paddy Mountain – but it’s also to take an account of the reproducing individuals in the population,” Starke said. “This way we’re able to get a good idea of how our plants are doing, and how they compare to other populations.”

Once that data is collected, Starke said, the next step is to analyze it in comparison to last year’s results. Doing so consistently over time allows researchers to find trends in the flower’s growth that would then inform any action that might be necessary.

The “over time” part of that statement is particularly important. Data, especially regarding smaller populations, can have large swings that might look alarming in the short-term, but actually make more sense when looking at the bigger picture. This round of data collection marked the plant conservation program’s third year in a row, with the program having collected similar data in previous years.

By comparing recent data to the archives of past results, scientists can see if recent changes in a population are indicative of anything larger.
“We try not to have knee-jerk reactions, because smaller populations can have weird cycles and you’ll see bigger swings,” Starke said. “We try to put what we see in context; have we seen this before, is this part of a longer trend?”

Starke said that conservation efforts like the one at Paddy Mountain are greatly aided by volunteers. From local residents, students from Appalachian State University and members of conservation groups like the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy, people with a heart for conservation frequently make the trip from around the state to aid in data collection at Paddy Mountain and beyond. She urged people to contact the Friends of N.C. Plant Conservation for more information on how to get involved with the preserves.

“That’s our real opportunity for outreach, bringing people to the preserves. But since they’re closed to general access, we try and do a lot of those trips,” she said. “It’s through the friends that we’re able to advertise those efficiently.”

To contact the Friends of N.C. Plant Conservation, email fopcvolunteers@gmail.com or use the contact form online at www.ncplantfriends.com.

The “over time” part of that statement is particularly important. Data, especially regarding smaller populations, can have large swings that might look alarming in the short-term, but actually make more sense when looking at the bigger picture. This round of data collection marked the plant conservation program’s third year in a row, with the program having collected similar data in previous years.

By comparing recent data to the archives of past results, scientists can see if recent changes in a population are indicative of anything larger.
“We try not to have knee-jerk reactions, because smaller populations can have weird cycles and you’ll see bigger swings,” Starke said. “We try to put what we see in context; have we seen this before, is this part of a longer trend?”

Starke said that conservation efforts like the one at Paddy Mountain are greatly aided by volunteers. From local residents, students from Appalachian State University and members of conservation groups like the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy, people with a heart for conservation frequently make the trip from around the state to aid in data collection at Paddy Mountain and beyond. She urged people to contact the Friends of N.C. Plant Conservation for more information on how to get involved with the preserves.

“That’s our real opportunity for outreach, bringing people to the preserves. But since they’re closed to general access, we try and do a lot of those trips,” she said. “It’s through the friends that we’re able to advertise those efficiently.”

To contact the Friends of N.C. Plant Conservation, email fopcvolunteers@gmail.com or use the contact form online at www.ncplantfriends.com.

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