The Transylvania Times -

Recreation – The Overlooked Threat To Rare Plants And Animals


February 5, 2018

Courtesy photo

Botanist Carolyn Wells searching for the rock gnome lichen and the mountain golden heather. Trampling from hiking boots is a serious issue for some of these plants and they are only found at high elevations.

More than 2,000 plants and animals around the world are on the federal threatened and endangered species list – from the great green macaw to the bowhead whale. Of all those, two are lichens – odd organisms resulting from the extremely close relationship between algae or bacteria and a fungus – creating a new life form different from its constituent elements. Of those two lichens, one is only found in the southern Appalachians – the rock gnome lichen.

The habitat requirements of the rock gnome lichen mean it's found in two seemingly very different places, on rocks along cool mountain streams and on rocks on the highest peaks in the southern Appalachians. The common denominators? Cool temperatures and moisture. On those mountains tops, moisture often comes in the form of heavy fog, which can cover much of the peak with moisture without a drop of rain falling.

When we talk about threats to imperiled plants and animals, poorly managed development, invasive pests and poaching are the usual suspects. But on these mountaintops, where the rock gnome lichen lives, another threat exists – Hiking boots.

Rock gnome lichen, spreading avens, mountain golden heather – these and more imperiled species live in some of the most scenic areas in the southern Appalachians – the mountain tops with the great views, the rock outcrops that beg to be climbed: exactly the places hikers like to visit. Unfortunately, for some rare species, simple trampling is a serious survival issue. People who are on an outing expressly to enjoy the great outdoors can unwittingly do harm when they walk off trail to a rock overlook to take their lunch break, crushing the yellow flowers of a spreading avens underfoot.

I often hear from people interested in helping our rarest plants and animals. Fortunately, helping these species is straightforward. On public lands, areas are usually closed for one of two reasons – to protect you, the visitor; or to protect a sensitive natural resource like a rare plant.

Courtesy photo

Lichens absorb their water from moisture in the air. (Photos courtesy of Gary Peeples)

Closures are typically limited in the amount of area closed – rare plants don't take up much space. They're also often closed for a limited period of time since many rock-climbing sites on our National Forests are closed when Peregrine falcons are using them for nesting. When you see a sign asking you to stay on the trail, or stay out of a certain area, simply heed it. You may well be doing your part to help rare species.

It's no secret the southern Appalachians are home to some of the most beautiful spots in North America, long enjoyed by outdoor recreationists. They're also home to plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. As the number of people enjoying these mountains increases, it becomes that much more important that we respect the land we visit, recognizing these mountains are special not only for the views they offer, but the diversity of life they support.

(Peeples is a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. )


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