Need for seed drives fall har­vest of na­tive grasses

The Covington News - - Agriculture & outdoors -

DOERUN, Ga. — Alan Isler is wheel­ing a Kubota trac­tor through lon­gleaf pines at Doerun Pitcher­plant Bog Nat­u­ral Area, an oc­ca­sional loud clang mark­ing his pass­ing. Trees and stumps are ob­vi­ous haz­ards. But Isler’s fo­cus is more on the thigh-high grass that glints golden in patches of Novem­ber sun. The wire­grass is ready to har­vest.

“We’ve got about 250 acres on River CreekWMAwhere the seed will be go­ing,” said Isler, a wildlife re­source man­ager with the Ge­or­gia Wildlife Re­sources Divi­sion. “To plant, we need about 600 pounds of seed.”

Most of the seed sown at River Creek, the Rolf and Alexan­dra Kauka WMA, near Thomasville, will come from the Doerun site. Isler har­vested the wire­grass-rich, 650-acre nat­u­ral area in Colquitt County for the first time last month. He used a Flail-Vac, a street sweeper-like ma­chine mounted on the front of the trac­tor and de­signed to brush and suck grass seeds into a hop­per. Later, staffer Danny Smith piled the coarse, hair-like wads of seeds and stems into card­board boxes and picked out the pine straw.

Smith slid a wire­grass stem through closed fin­gers. “When it starts stick­ing in your hand, you know you’ve got a good seed,” he said, re­fer­ring to the thread­light, half-inch-long seeds left in his palm. Th­ese, he and Isler agreed, were good seeds.

Wire­grass is part of the lon­gleaf pine ecosys­tem that once cov­ered mil­lions of acres in the South­east yet now rates as one of the na­tion’s most en­dan­gered habi­tats and a high pri­or­ity in Ge­or­gia’s Wildlife Action Plan. The peren­nial bunch grass (Aris­tida beyrichi­ana) is in­dica­tive of a bi­o­log­i­cally di­verse ground cover and es­sen­tial to the fires needed to main­tain that di­ver­sity. Quick to grow af­ter a fire, wire­grass not only burns eas­ily, its stems catch and sus­pend fallen pine nee­dles above the for­est floor, of­fer­ing them as more fuel for the flames.

Lose the wire­grass and you lose much of the abil­ity to man- age with pre­scribed fire, said Mike Har­ris, chief of Wildlife Re­sources’ Nongame Con­ser­va­tion Sec­tion.

Plant­ing wire­grass is one facet in a grow­ing ef­fort to re­store na­tive grasses in Ge­or­gia and other states. The Wildlife Re­sources Divi­sion’s fledg­ling pro­gram is beginning to hit its stride, grad­u­ally tran­si­tion­ing from har­vest­ing seed on pri­vate lands to bank­ing on state-owned prop­er­ties like Doerun. A next step is to ex­plore prop­a­gat­ing seed, Isler said.

Oth­ers are in­volved. At Semi­nole State Park near Don­al­sonville, The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy teams with park per­son­nel to con­duct pre­scribed burns. Without fire— par­tic­u­larly the­war­mor grow­ing-sea­son burns once sparked by light­ning and set by Amer­i­can In­di­ans — wire­grass doesn’t flower or seed and the hard­woods and woody brush kept at bay by flames shade it out.

And without The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy’s help, park man­ager Bryan Gray said he couldn’t do the burns needed. The lack of fire would un­der­mine Semi­nole’s lauded lon­gleaf pine land­scape and in­di­ca­tor species such as gopher tor­toises, which eat wire­grass.

The re­turn for The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy is the chance to har­vest wire­grass seed at Semi­nole. Erick Brown of the Con­ser­vancy said the park is the lo­cal seed source for wire­grass restora­tion at the group’s Wil­liams Bluff Pre­serve, 30 miles away near Blakely. Af­ter about two years of work there, “We’re hop­ing to start see­ing some re­sults this spring,” Brown said.

Some­times the seed har­vest is by man, not ma­chine. In early Novem­ber, vol­un­teers led by Wildlife Re­sources Divi­sion se­nior bi­ol­o­gist Nathan Klaus hand-stripped seeds from na­tive grasses and sedges such as In­dian grass and lit­tle bluestem at Sprewell Bluff State Park in Up­son County and Panola Moun­tain State Park in Henry County. The seeds will be sown in part to ben­e­fit grass­lands birds such as east­ern mead­owlarks that suf­fer from shrink­ing habi­tats. Some will re­store habi­tats at Etowah In­dian Mounds His­toric Site in Cartersville.

Klaus said the lit­tle bluestem har­vest was a record this year, nearly 50 pounds.

Grass­roots in­ter­est and stronger fed­eral em­pha­sis on habi­tat restora­tion us­ing na­tive grasses are ex­pected to raise de­mand for such seed and foster the pri­vate sec­tor’s abil­ity to meet the need.

For Smith, the value is best seen in a stand of young slash and lon­gleaf pines on Doerun Nat­u­ral Area. He points out where sow­ing and plug­ging has pro­duced minia­ture clumps of wire­grass. Some of the plants pro­duced by seed sown as long as five years ago are no more than a sprig. But even slow growth sig­nals the prom­ise of what once was.

“This stuff just doesn’t hap­pen overnight,” Smith said.

Isler re­turns from Doerun’s lon­gleaf and wire­grass forests, the Flail-Vac full again. The seed in the hop­per is a mix of wire­grass and other na­tive plants. It will be cleaned and stored for plant­ing in Fe­bru­ary and March.

Then comes pa­tience, and an­other as­pect of na­ture.

“You get th­ese seed in the ground, then … hope and pray for rain,” Isler said.

U.S. For­est Ser­vice

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