The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Displaying items by tag: habitat

IMG 0996Joy Grissom (left) and Gerry Moll pose for a photograph with their collection of rescued native plants at Knoxville Botanical Gardens.  Photos by Anna Lawrence/Hellbender Press  

Joy Grissom and Gerry Moll: Preserving East Tennessee's natural heritage with shovels and wheelbarrows

If there’s a massive ecological disturbance in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?

The Knoxville Native Plant Rescue Squad, of course. 

Joy Grissom and Gerry Moll spent the past six years identifying, digging, hauling and muscling native East Tennessee plants to salvation from construction, grading and logging sites.

The duo has saved thousands of plants and their communities from certain demise. They have plucked plants to safety from areas ranging from a 170-acre logging operation in Cocke County to relatively small commercial developments in Knox County.

“We both love and appreciate the natural world, a lot,” Moll said. “We would see that where there is development, a lot of these native plants are just bulldozed under,” he said during an interview earlier this spring at the Knoxville Botanical Garden. Thus the genesis of the Native Plant Rescue Squad, which was organized 2015 and received its own official nonprofit status in 2018.

Most of the plants and trees are harvested in a “shovel and wheelbarrow operation” after an initial canvass of the property. Then they get organized by species in neat rows at the botanical garden: White pine saplings. Black-eyed susans. Blackberries. Elderberries. Pawpaw. Persimmon. The plants are fragile but safe. They are for sale on the cheap. They need homes.

Published in News
downloadDr. Brian MIller
 

MTSU researchers document hellbender's accelerating decline in Middle Tennessee

(Author’s note: I was aware of the hellbender before interviewing Brian Miller, but did not know the giant salamanders were present on the Highland Rim of Tennessee. Subsequent reading and interviews with other researchers, including Dr. Bill Sutton at Tennessee State University, Nashville, confirm Miller’s statements that hellbenders are vanishing from large portions of Tennessee, and Missouri. The healthy populations in portions of the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest may be an exception to a general trend toward extirpation and, ultimately, extinction).

Brian Miller has been researching hellbenders for decades. He serves on the faculty of Middle Tennessee State University where he teaches in the biology department and mentors younger researchers, many of whom publish their research.

He has even developed a digital "Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Middle Tennessee." The guide began more than 30 years ago as a dichotomous key for students in his vertebrate zoology class and now includes hundreds of photographs and exceeds 400 pages.

Dr. Miller researches the hellbenders of the Highland Rim, the upland that surrounds Nashville and the Great Basin. Populations of hellbenders in streams of this region are perhaps Tennessee's most endangered.

QUESTION: I noticed that you specialize in herpetofauna. Most of the research listed on your faculty page is focused on amphibians, but with some papers on snakes. Can you comment about your research?

ANSWER: You are correct that amphibians are my primary research interest, particularly salamanders. However, I also have strong interests in reptiles, and my students and I have conducted research on various species of snakes and turtles.

When did you become interested in hellbenders?

Hellbenders have been of interest to me since I first encountered them while enrolled in a course on herpetology at the University of Missouri in 1977. I was fortunate that the professor of that course, Dean Metter, was involved with research on hellbenders and I began to assist with his research in 1978, in collaboration with Robert Wilkinson at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.

Chris Petersen was working on his master's degree with Dr. Wilkinson at that time and he matriculated to the University of Missouri a couple of years later to start on his Ph.D, which was also with hellbenders. Chris and I spent time in the field gathering data for his Ph.D. project until I moved to Washington State to work on my Ph.D.

I was hired into the biology department at Middle Tennessee State University in 1989 and began working with hellbenders in this state in 1990. At that time, I was able to locate populations in several rivers in Middle Tennessee, including a large population in the Collins River. I decided to concentrate my efforts on this population and one in the Buffalo River.

Of note, the population I worked with in the Collins River was dominated by large adults, whereas the population in the Buffalo River consisted of many age classes, including young individuals.

The Collins River situation was like what I was familiar with in Missouri and Arkansas populations. Unfortunately, by the early 2000s the population I was working with in the Collins River was gone; however, populations remain in the Buffalo River. My research with hellbenders during the past decade has been concentrated in streams in the Western Highland Rim.

Do you work with both subspecies, the Ozark, and the Eastern hellbender?

I worked with both subspecies while a student at the University of Missouri when assisting with projects in the Metter lab, but since I moved to Tennessee, I have worked only with Tennessee populations.

What do you perceive as the greatest threats to hellbender populations?

I am not certain why most populations of hellbenders are in decline rangewide, but suspect that habitat alteration, including sedimentation, and disease are involved in many if not all areas where declines are occurring. Lack of recruitment of young is a common theme of populations that decline. 

Published in News

Cerulean Art

Ephemeral birds of lasting beauty dependent on Tennessee forest

Think azure. A male cerulean warbler is sky blue. And to see one, you have to climb to the tops of certain Appalachian ridges and look toward the wild blue. To see one is to see a bit of heaven in an eight-gram bird.

East Tennessee’s Royal Blue Unit is not named in honor of the cerulean warbler but it's appropriate to think so. The land parcel is part of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and is one of the few places — very few places — the sky-blue passerines still nest in North America. It is estimated that 80 percent of the remaining population nests in the Appalachians. 

The cerulean is the fastest declining migratory songbird in North America, said ornithologist David Aborn, an assistant professor of biology, geology and environmental science at UT Chattanooga. The Breeding Bird Survey estimates that cerulean warbler population declined by 70 percent between 1966 and 2008.

“The species is not in danger of imminent extinction, but is rare enough to warrant concern, and its future is not assured,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported in 2020.

Currently a management goal of “no net loss” is in place. “Management programs can be instituted at the present time that do not require major changes in land-use practices, but do consider silviculture appropriate to producing habitat for the species,” the report concluded.

The American Bird Conservancy and ProAves Colombia purchased 500 acres of rural land identified as wintering sites for the migratory bird. The Cerulean Warbler Reserve is the first in Latin America set aside for a migrant bird. It’s a start. But the beautiful bird faces many challenges here and abroad. 

Published in News
Wide scenic winter view into the New River Gorge also shows rapids below a bend and the road and railroad tracks cut into the wooded slopes on opposite sides of the river
The New River in West Virginia is one of the oldest rivers on earth, and it's now included in America's newest national park.  Courtesy National Park Service
 

New River Gorge National Park preserves paddling and climbing paradise

When you think of national parks within a day’s drive of East Tennessee, what comes to mind? Great Smoky Mountains National Park, of course. Or perhaps Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, or Virginia’s Shenandoah. You have a new option.        

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, created by Congress Dec. 27, 2020, by way of a pandemic relief bill, is America’s 63rd and newest national park. Located in southern West Virginia, the 72,186-acre park and preserve protects land along both sides of a 53-mile stretch of the New River, which is famous for its world-class whitewater. It’s walls rise up to 1,400 feet, attracting rock climbers from across the country.

The New River Gorge, known locally as “The New,” currently welcomes about 1.4 million visitors a year. It’s within a day's drive of 40 percent of the U.S. population, and is expecting an initial 20 percent increase in visitation this year because it is now a national park with national attention.

Local merchants and business owners are already touting the economic benefits, including new jobs in in-store retail and dining, two industries decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We're super excited about it," Cathedral Cafe manager Cassidy Bays said. She said the cafe, just minutes from the park, plans to increase staff and extend hours. "We're even building an outdoor patio to increase dining space," Bays said.

And this is not your grandfather’s West Virginia: Locavores can find locally sourced food and lean into a vegan juice bar. Several community-supported agriculture (CSA) and co-op farms are a main source of the cafe menu. "We actually cater to locavores. We are a farm-to-table restaurant" Bays said.  

Published in Water