By Richard Tharp, Wildlife Biologist
The original longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystem stretched across several southeastern states and covered approximately 90 million acres. Today only about 3 million acres of this tremendous forest remain. These remains are not a contiguous forest but are scattered remnants of the historical forests that were first found by the original discoverers of this nation. An interest to significantly increase the acreage of longleaf forest back has emerged in recent years. With this renewed popularity comes the question: does this forest type offer any benefits for wildlife? If the answer is yes, then this forest could serve the landowner on two different fronts -- wood production and providing beneficial characteristics for wildlife. Following are some of the positives that the longleaf ecosystem offers to wildlife.
It is no secret that the longleaf forest must be maintained by fire. More specifically, it must be maintained by fire on a regular timetable. History reveals that the original forest was routinely burned. Fires occurred naturally and were also started by native Americans and settlers. These early residents realized that burning promoted the beneficial habitats needed by plants and wildlife -- the very same plants and animals needed for their own survival.
Fire moves across the forest and removes debris that has built up on the forest floor, returning nutrients to the soil. Open areas are created allowing birds such as the northern bobwhite quail and Eastern wild turkey to feed on grass and plant seeds exposed by the burning. Frequent fire retards woody stemmed growth, promotes herbaceous growth, and provides the needed components for insects to thrive. These insect infested areas are utilized as bug catching zones for young birds, especially in late spring and early summer. It also creates dusting areas and allows for easy movement.
A casual observer seeing the open terrain of this forest type may believe that two types of plants, longleaf and wiregrass, dominate these areas. Closer inspection reveals that burning increases the quantity and quality of herbaceous growth such as legumes, forbs, and shrubs. Since the longleaf pine is a weak
competitor against other woody plant species, fire is an important component to reduce that competition. As evidence of its fire hearty nature, longleaf can be burned the year after it is planted.
The longleaf forest provides the necessary habitat for a large and diverse group of wildlife. Compared with other pine species, the openness of the longleaf forest is beneficial to many animal species. This openness allows a considerable amount of sunlight to reach the forest floor thus stimulating the growth of many grasses and legumes. These plant types support numerous wildlife species. The airy condition of this forest is perfect for the production of insects that feed many of the bird species that reside there. Some species that inhabit the longleaf system require a specialized habitat. The red-cockaded woodpecker requires a home in a live tree while other woodpeckers homestead in dead snags. The special home requirement of this red-cockaded woodpecker can only be found in mature longleaf pines that have red heart disease allowing for the excavation of a nest and den site.
Other animals also find home opportunities in the longleaf forest. During a fire event, the remnant stumps from past trees are often consumed. Left behind is a connection of tunnels where the root system has been burned away. These underground areas provide homes to many animals ranging from insects to snakes. Finding plenty of ground level foods and soil types needed to dig underground burrows makes the longleaf forest appealing to the gopher tortoise. These burrows provide shelter and food sources for hundreds of other animal species.
Fire maintained mature longleaf stands develop an open canopy. A result is the carpeting of the forest floor with wildflowers that provide food for butterflies. One characteristic of an immature longleaf forest is that the seedlings remain in the “grass stage” for a period of time. When compared with other pine species, longleaf seedlings grow a root system for a longer period of time and show little change above the soil level. This slow growth period allows for an extended period of time when herbaceous growth is available to wildlife. Some natural disturbances in a mature forest often result in the removal of a tree or two. This type of disturbance creates holes in the canopy which, as stated earlier, result in a tremendous growth of plant materials that provide food and shelter for many forms of wildlife.
The longleaf forest has the ability to sustain a host of wildlife. Birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and others can be found throughout this unique habitat. Several animals found on the federal or state lists as endangered, threatened, or as a species of concern are inhabitants of these areas. Protection and restoration of this forest type could certainly benefit all these species, which, in turn would greatly benefit us all.