Learning how to improve rare mountain bogs

Mountain bogs are among the most rare and most fragile ecosystems anywhere in the U.S. Though they are home to some very rare species, such as Gray’s lily and the mountain bog turtle, not very much is known about exactly how these small, high-elevation wetlands work.

Pineola bog produces variety of plants after careful thinning process.
Pineola bog produces a variety of plants in early spring after careful thinning process.

So, naturalists with the state parks system are taking a very methodical approach to managing the bogs – and getting impressive early results.

The parks system has three bogs in western North Carolina that are designated state natural areas – Pineola Bog, Beech Creek Bog and Sugar Mountain Bog – and so joined the Bog Learning Network, a collaboration of scientists from state and federal agencies and private conservation groups that manage bogs. The group adopted a “no regrets” philosophy to take some cautious action to improve the habitats.

“Basically, it’s an ecological version of ‘do no harm,’” said western region biologist Marshall Ellis. “You take some judicious management actions and then wait to see if they work. If so, you move ahead. If not, then you reconsider. Mostly, you just make sue that whatever you’re doing is something that the ecosystem is resilient enough to withstand.”

"Before" photo shows woody alders shutting out most other plants,
“Before” photo shows woody alders shutting out most other plants.

At Pineola Bog, that meant removing much of the alder, a woody plant that seemed to be shading out some of the more fragile plants. It was simple but pretty laborious work by biologists and the staff from Elk Knob State Park in Watauga County, the unit responsible for routine management of the area. They chose a portion of the 91-acre bog that had already been altered somewhat by a long-gone gravel mining operation. As spring crept into the mountains, the difference was startling. More varied plant life sprang from the spongy soil, including an abundance of fringed phacelia blossoms that had not been seen before. Ellis said the next step is to expand the alder thinning effort into other management zones.

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