There are 4 key habitat types that the NCSCP focuses conservation efforts on: longleaf pine uplands, isolated depressional wetlands, streamhead pocosins and seeps, and blackwater streams. Although these habitats can vary in the composition of natural communities they support, the areas of highest quality continue to host several rare species of plants, animals, and fungi often found nowhere else outside of the NC Sandhills.
Ecoregions denote areas where ecosystems are generally similar in the type, quality, and quantity of environmental resources they contain. They are critical for implementing ecosystem management strategies across agencies and organizations that are responsible for managing different types of resources within the same geographical areas.
There are four ecoregions in NC, across which one can find barrier islands and coastal lowlands, large river floodplain forests, rolling plains and plateaus, forested mountains, and a variety of aquatic habitats. The NC Sandhills are nestled between the Piedmont and Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain.
The Sandhills Ecosystem
The Sandhills are an inland habitat type, characterized by rolling hills capped by deep coarse sands. They are wedged between the Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions of North and South Carolina and Georgia, within the ancestral homelands of the Tuscarora, Coharee, and Lumbee tribes.
Scientists believe the Sandhills were formed by ancient oceans that rose and then receded in response to melting and freezing of polar ice caps. Beaches formed wherever the water met the land. Each time a beach formed, dune lines were left behind when the ocean receded.
The longleaf pine is the dominant tree species in this system and is essential to its integrity, but the floral and faunal diversity of the system lies in its understory. In fact, the longleaf pine–wiregrass forest may well be the most diverse North American ecosystem north of the tropics, containing rare plants and animals not found anywhere else. The understory throughout the longleaf range contains 150 to 300 species of groundcover plants per acre, more breeding birds than any other southeastern forest type, about 60% of the amphibian and reptile species found in the Southeast—many of which are endemic to the longleaf forest—and at least 122 endangered or threatened plant species.
Partners of the NCSCP aim to better understand, conserve, and maintain this tremendous diversity.
Longleaf Pine Uplands
To determine and maintain habitat extent and connectivity for longleaf indicator species, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) and Bachman's sparrow. Both species are dependent on mature, open canopy longleaf woodlands with lush, native herbaceous groundcover. Our partners frequently use prescribed fire to maintain a reduced mid-story and preserve open wiregrass habitat for these species and others, such as the southern hognose snake and Sandhills pixie-moss.
Isolated Depressional Wetlands
Locating and evaluating the condition and extent of isolated depressional wetlands across the Sandhills landscape will guide our management actions. Many of these wetlands have been destroyed or degraded and no longer support the rare plants and animals they once did. The winter-breeding amphibians that rely on these wetlands also require adjacent upland habitat for other stages of their life cycles, so we aim to restore adequate connectivity and buffers for these species, such as the Carolina gopher frog and tiger salamander.
Streamhead Pocosins & Seeps
Locating and evaluating the condition and restoration potential of streamhead pocosins and seeps will guide our initial conservation efforts. We will then determine whether adequate connectivity and buffers exists for associate species that additionally require downstream riparian corridors, such as the St. Francis satyr, Sandhills lily, and pine barrens tree frog.
To better understand watershed connectivity by reporting on the (1) location of dams, which disrupt natural flow and affect the downstream floodplain and riparian forest communities; (2) extent of intact riparian forests, which filter nutrients, sediment, and serve as important movement corridors for terrestrial and semi-aquatic species; and (3) health of aquatic ecosystems by sampling benthic invertebrates and monitoring water quality. These streams support several rare fish and freshwater mussels, many of which we know little about.