The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

New digital maps outline precious pockets of remaining U.S. biodiversity and the threats they face

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Indiana batThe endangered Indiana bat is among threatened and endangered species in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Southern Appalachians show red as a warning on new detailed biodiversity maps 

This story was originally published by the Sylva Herald.

SYLVA — Great Smoky Mountains National Park has long been known for its abundance of different species of flora and fauna.

Credit old mountains in a warm, sunny and wet region with varying types of climate, soil and stone for that large number.

“The park is almost certainly the most biodiverse national park in North America,” said Paul Super, national park science coordinator. “And certainly the most studied of any national park.”

A group of environmental organizations recently put together a series of maps illustrating the regions with the biggest threats to their biodiversity, and the area around Jackson County and the national park showed up in the red, showing risk. One such map, based on NatureServe data, is among the most detailed maps of endangered and threatened species ever produced.

Partly it’s a numbers game

“One thing about that map  is that a lot of the places shown on the map at greatest risk are also the places that have the greatest biodiversity,” Super said. “There are more species to become rare and potentially lose.”

Jackson County contains many of the same species and faces many of the same issues, Super said.

The Balsams are subject to acid deposition and other pollutants in the airstream,” he said. “They would be at risk if rainfall and cloud cover were to change.”

It is difficult to pinpoint which organisms are most imperiled, Super said.

“It depends a lot on where the species are and their position in the food web, and where the biodiversity is,” he said. “We have a number of concerns in the park, not necessarily driving anything to extinction at this point but definitely causing harm.”

Unwelcome invaders

A primary problem is invasive species, non-natives to the ecosystem that are found in and likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health, Super said.

Two invasives have devastated longtime forest staples.

“Things like the chestnut blight that came through in the 1940s and took out the chestnuts in the park, and the hemlock woolly adelgid that is currently doing the same thing to the hemlock,” Super said. “Air pollution can be a problem, and other stressors can mess things up. There’s something of a cascade. When you lose the hemlock, you potentially will lose species that are dependent on the hemlock for food, or for shelter or the ecological services it provides, such as cooling streams.”

GSMNP has several hundred hemlock preservation areas, using treatments to protect the evergreen, Super said.

Studies are ongoing to ensure the treatments don’t impact other species, he said.

“We’re constantly looking at the safety of what we’re trying to do to step in and help the ecosystem without hurting it,” he said.

Currently one of the biggest worries is the emerald ash borer, leading to calls of “don’t move firewood,” as infected firewood brought into a natural area can spread the pest.

Climate change a stressor

The impact of climate change is unknown at this point, he said.

“We don’t have polar bears and ice sheets or glaciers that are melting here and sea level rise is not a concern, but we expect that there will be changes in temperature, changes in rainfall – when the rain falls, how much rain falls at once,” Super said. “The current projection is there will be more intense rainfall events and more intense drought, which could bring fires.

“We don’t really know of anything going extinct or becoming endangered that is not currently, but it is definitely a stressor.”

The state is very active in monitoring its rare and endangered species and trying to determine the trends for its population, he said.

“There are a number of studies going on in the park taking data from the 1930s and ’40s and re-doing the research the same way to try to see what changes there might be in birds or insects,” he said.

“One other thing about biodiversity is that we’re not just looking at the plants, mammals, birds and fish, but we’re looking at organisms that you might not have ever heard of, that I might not have ever heard of,” he said. “We found a whole phylum that we had never found in the park before, called a Gastrotricha, or ‘hairy belly.’ It’s a little microscopic animal that swims around in ponds. We’re interested in all biodiversity.”

Getting involved, diving in and learning about what is out there is one way people can help, Super said.

“There may be stream cleanups or other ways to help improve the quality of the world that we are living in in Jackson County,” he said.

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