SGI Coordinator to Serve as Lead Botanist for Three Projects with the Cumberland Piedmont Network of the National Park Service

A Cooperative Agreement between the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative and the Cumberland Piedmont Network (CUPN) of the National Park Service (NPS) was recently shepherded to completion by Zach Irick, SGI Southern Appalachian Grassland Ecologist. The agreement will provide funding for three projects in 14 parks in the region over a 5-year period.


Surveying Green Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia oreophila)


Zach Irick will be leading development of a “focused condition assessment” of this federally endangered carnivorous plant, which is unique in that it is one of the only pitcher plants that occurs along river drainages and also one of the few occurring on the Cumberland Plateau rather than the coastal plain. Fully one-half of the known populations of this plant are found in the Little River Canyon National Preserve of northeast Alabama, but to date this species still remains highly imperiled.  



Many area sites, some of which were historically shortleaf pine savanna, are becoming fire suppressed and succeeding to forest, so Zach will be using data from a fire effects monitoring program to study the effectiveness of thinning applications and burning. Additionally, SGI will be collecting leaf tissues to be analyzed by a geneticist at University of Colorado-Boulder to answer the question, “What constitutes a healthy population?” That’s a deceptively simple question, as this plant is clonal, and 500 pitchers might actually be just 10 to 15 distinct individuals!


To further complicate the picture, this species is primarily pollinated by the queen bumblebees of several Bombus species, which can fly only up to about a mile. Finally, there are secondary populations that have established in river scour barrens, and the question must be answered: “Should we protect these populations or not?” If these secondary sites are “sinks” (i.e. places where plants and animals establish but cannot effectively reproduce), they may not merit protection.


“These species will disappear if we do not begin taking action now,” said Irick. “As soon as they are shaded, the plants’ vigor starts to decline. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this work because S. oreophila is very imperiled. Within 50 years, half of them could be gone. There is also a poaching problem with Sarracenia in general. People steal these plants to profit from their sale to horticultural and even scientific collectors, and in many cases they are stealing them from public lands which belong to all of us.”


Cumberland Gap National Historical Park Rare Plant Surveys


SGI’s Southern Appalachian Coordinator will update records for 93 plant species of conservation concern that occur in Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky in a variety of habitats in the Cumberland Mountains including rare grassland communities such as meadows, mountain bogs, and glades. This two-year project will assess all populations in the three states, visiting every single one to collect “element occurrence data” (i.e. what occurs where).


“This is a challenging study,” said Zach. “It’s hard to get around in some of these areas. I’ll have to hike very long distances through some of the densest and most rugged forests in eastern North America to get to some of the rare plant populations and natural communities. It also takes a long time to drive around the Park, negotiating a 3000-foot ridge. Access can be very difficult, following ridge top trails across the summits and then bushwacking downslope to Virginia on one side, Kentucky on the other, and Tennessee to the south.


Cumberland Piedmont Network Vegetation Inventory & Monitoring


SGI will provide management recommendations to the National Park Service for numerous plant communities that represent significant diversity and a range of habitats. Recommendations based on science and modeling will use data gathered from vegetation inventories conducted in 14 parks across 8 states within the Cumberland Piedmont Network’s focal area.


Zach Irick will be serving as the chief botanist for a team resurveying vegetation plots established by NPS 5 years ago. Plots are 400 square meters (sq m) and consist of four 100 sq m modules. Each module has nested 10 sq m and 1 sq m quadrants; this allows researchers to identify plants that occur at different scales. Ecologists will also map trees and take basic data on woody vegetation. The goal is to track the status of these healthy plant communities over time. Any data that indicate declines would result in action to address threats.


“We’ve seen a lot of ecological change in just five years,” says Irick.  “Tornadoes tore through Stones River National Battlefield, littering a glade with downed cedars. At Russell Cave, a limestone escarpment woods with more than 100 plant species, we’ve seen a lot of damage from deer; they’ve eaten all the plants!”