10 to Watch: These Native Species Need Our Help Now

NC Native Species Need Our Help Now

In any season, North Carolina is home to some of the natural world’s most intriguing citizens. Here are 10 wildlife species struggling with habitat loss, disease, over-harvest, and other challenges. The North Carolina wildlife federation works year-round to keep these home-grown natural wonders healthy and thriving.

1. Grasshopper Sparrow Ammodramus savannarum

This small, short-tailed sparrow winters from the southern U.S. to Costa Rica and the Caribbean, and is a breeding summer resident of open native grasslands, fields, and prairies in much of the eastern United States and Great Plains. In North Carolina, this ground-nester can be found in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Piedmont and coastal plain, where it builds a nest in a small depression at the base of a clump of grass. Its name comes from both a buzzy song and the preference for grasshoppers, which it paralyzes with a pinch to the thorax and then methodically shakes off each pair of legs before feeding the prey to its young. Due to grass- land habitat loss, fragmentation, and conversion of fields and pastures to non-native sod grasses such as fescue and Bermuda grass, this interesting species is declining in North Carolina and throughout the breeding range. Conservation actions include protecting and actively managing large grassland areas (at least 15-25 acres in size), mowing only in March and early April on a 2-3 year rotation, and promoting warm-season grasses such as orchard grass, brome, bluegrass and red clover.

2. Northern Bobwhite Colinus virginianus

This common gallinaceous (chicken-like) gamebird, also known as the quail, is a permanent resident of overgrown fields and open woodlands such as longleaf pine stands in much of the eastern United States, Great Plains and the Southwest. In the winter, quail can be found in coveys of more than 20 birds and are always roosting in a circle with their heads positioned outward. In North Carolina, this ground-nester can be found throughout the state and builds a nest in a grass-lined hollow with up to 20 white eggs. The chunky quail gets its name from its loud and piercing whistle, and feeds on seeds and small succulent leaves, and insects including grasshoppers, beetles, and cutworms. Due to habitat frag- mentation, clean farming practices (removal of shrubby fence rows and windrows), loss of fire-managed forest stands, and conversion of fields and pastures to non-native sod grasses such as fescue and Bermuda grass, this sought after gamebird is sharply declining throughout its range. Conservation actions that can benefit this early successional-lover include enlisting in the NCWRC’s Cooperative Restoration and Habitat Enhancement (CURE) program, protecting crop field fence rows and field borders, managing habitats through prescribed burns and mowing on a three-year March and April rotation, and promoting warm-season grasses such as broomsedge and bluegrass.

3. Bats Chiroptera order

There are 16 known bat species found in North Carolina either as permanent residents, migrants, or winter residents. Several species such as the little brown bat, endangered Indiana bat, and tricolored bat winter in large colonies within caves and mines called hibernacula. Several of these areas are protected habitats in state. Other species such as the red bat, Seminole bat, silver-haired bat, and hoary bat are tree roosting bats and prefer dense clumps of leaves and even Spanish moss. Several of these nocturnal species, including the little brown bat, Brazilian free- tailed bat, and Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, will use man-made structures such as old buildings and attics, warm barns, bridges, and artificial roost structures for maternal colonies. Due to their preference for several insect pest species such as cutworm moths, bats are of great benefit to humans. Due to habitat loss and other human-related development, and now a virulent cold-loving fungal disease from Europe known as Geomyces destructans, or white-nose syndrome, that has killed up to six million bats, several species such as the Indiana bat, little brown bat and tricolored bat are now in serious decline. Conservation actions that can benefit bats include the protection of upland, riparian and bottomland forests, avoid disturbance of known roost sites, the installation of bat boxes, and support of the NCWRC’s nongame and endangered wildlife tax check-off program.

4. Bog Turtle Glyptemys muhlenbergii

Bog turtles reside in wetlands along the Appalachian Mountains into the Blue Ridge Escarpment and parts of the North Carolina Piedmont. The smallest species of turtle in North America, bog turtles mate from about March to June, lay eggs in June and July, and hibernate from October to April. Since the population has dwindled 80 percent from its historic numbers, bog turtles are listed as a federally threatened species. These reptiles have been threatened over the years by loss or fragmentation of habitat due to agriculture, invasive species, succession of habitat, and land development. They are further threatened by collection for the illegal pet trade. Actions being taken to help this species including captive breeding programs, controlled burns, responsible land development, and managed cow grazing. The NC Wildlife Federation supports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed Southern Appalachian Wildlife Refuge because it will provide valuable habitat for not only the threatened bog turtle, but other endangered species as well. Farmers and landowners can help the turtle by providing appropriate habitat so the turtles can reproduce. Anyone can help the turtle by supporting strong wetland protections by our government.

5. Brook Trout Salvelinus fontinalis

Technically, the brook trout is not really a trout, but rather a char more closely related to Dolly Varden and Aortic char than rainbow and brown trout. Still, it is considered the only trout native to North Carolina. Brook trout inhabit headwater streams in our western mountains that provide the cool, clear, well-oxygenated waters the species requires to reproduce and grow. The fish rarely exceeds 10 inches in length in most of our waters, mainly due to the small size and infertility of headwater streams. In more favorable habitats brook trout can reach lengths of seven pounds or better.

The original strain of brook trout in North Carolina is the southern Appalachian brook trout, which is genetically distinct from its northern cousins that originally ranged from the Mid- Atlantic States to Canada. Widespread stocking of northern strain fish that occurred before we knew there was a distinct native strain eliminated many Southern Appalachian strain populations. Today, some of our brook trout waters contain only northern fish, some have mixed populations, and some continue to sup- port Southern Appalachian populations. In 2005 the General Assembly designated Southern Appalachian brook trout as North Carolina’s official freshwater trout.

NCWF is playing a leading role in a new conservation initiative that involves the designation of the Little Tennessee River watershed as the nation’s first Native Fish Conservation Area. The designation will focus on brook trout and other native fishes in coordinated conservation efforts on a watershed scale. This watershed approach will be effective in meeting many of our conservation challenges for brook trout, including that of global climate change, and will help ensure a bright future for brook trout in North Carolina.

6. Carolina Heelsplitter Lasmigona decorata

The Carolina Heelsplitter occurs in high quality, low turbidity waters in the Catawba and Pee Dee River basins. This mussel is not a cute nor cuddly species, but it is crucial to water quality, is a food source for other aquatic species, and acts as a clear indicator species of water quality. Historically, its range included other drainages, but the species is restricted now to only 10 populations.

You may have heard of this mussel in the news when its presence complicated the construction of the Monroe bypass near Charlotte. Construction and land development threaten freshwater mussels because water quality suffers when large loads of sediment enter streams. Habitat destruction from dredging, some dams, and channelization also threaten this and other mussels. It is critical to maintain intact ecosystems including forested riparian areas to reduce stormwater and agricultural runoff—perennial streams should have a 200-foot buffer and intermittent streams 100 feet. You can make a difference in the survival of freshwater mussels by shading the edges of your streams with native plant species (which also provide habitat for other wildlife) and responsibly disposing of any household chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

7. River Herring Alosa pseudoharengus (alewife) and Alosa aestivalis (blueback herring)
River herring are anadromous species, meaning they spend most of their adult life in the ocean and travel into freshwater streams to spawn in the spring. The herring life cycle opens the species to a range of threats because it must travel upstream to reproduce. Ubiquitous dam building and road culverts, especially in the coastal plain, limit migration and spawning of these fish causing the population numbers to crash. The decline in river herring also affects other fishes, such as striped bass which feed heavily on them. Following the 2007 amendment to the N.C. River Herring Fishery Management Plan, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Marine Fisheries Commission have put measures in place to aid in the population’s recovery, including restrictions on harvest. The agencies are currently under- taking a study for another possible revision of that plan, to which NCWF has offered supporting comments. With proper management, we can anticipate that herring populations will rebound and once again fill their historic role as a valuable food source for humans and wildlife.

8. Speckled Sea Trout Cynoscion nebulosus

The speckled sea trout is found in North Carolina coastal waters from Currituck to Bald Head. This beloved fish is a prolific spawner capable of rapidly recovering from periodic population fluctuations depending on several environmental factors and fishing harvest. These trout inhabit our estuaries during much of their life cycle and move between the sounds and the Atlantic Ocean where they stay close to beaches to offer some of our coast’s finest surf fishing in the spring, summer, and fall. In the late fall and during the winter months, speckled sea trout move into inshore waters—usually up coastal streams and bays—into sheltered, deep-water temperature refuges where they overwinter and build up energy for the spring spawning season. Sea trout are especially vulnerable to mortality when the lethargic fish congregate in inshore waters during the winter months.

Speckled sea trout are listed as depleted due to overfishing over the past 20 years, and recreational harvest regulations have been restricted several times in recent memory. At present, the daily recreational catch limit is four fish of at least 14 inches in length. One barrier to higher population levels facing these fish is the commercial harvest, which allows 75 fish per day without any protection from nets and gigs in the vulnerable time when trout are overwintering in inshore waters.

Speckled sea trout need protection from excessive harvest during the winter months, such as the pressure exerted by the large harvest by commercial fishermen at that time of year. Currently, recreational fishermen are mounting an effort to designate speckled sea trout as a coastal game fish.

9. Red Wolf Canis rufus

Once common throughout the eastern and south-central United States, the red wolf is now one of the world’s most endangered wild canids. Populations were decimated by the 1960s due to intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat. A remnant population of red wolves was found along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana; 14 of these became the foundation of a successful captive breeding program.

The first litter of red wolves was born in captivity in 1977, and 10 years later enough captive red wolves existed to begin a restoration program on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. Today, more than 100 red wolves roam their native habitats in five northeastern counties. Our state is the only place left in the world where this species roams wild.

NCWF has a long history with the red wolf reintroduction project. A Federation internship supported monitoring efforts the first year the animals were reintroduced to the wild. Currently, NCWF has posted a reward for any information leading to arrest of recent killings of this species. Additionally, litigation is currently pending as to the legality of night hunting both coyotes and red wolves in eastern North Carolina. For now, the wild red wolf still howls in North Carolina, and in North Carolina alone.

10. White-tailed Deer Odocoileus virginianus

The white-tailed deer is generally abundant across North Carolina, and adapts well to all habitat types from steep mountain slopes to deep coastal swamps. It is the number one game animal in North Carolina. The hunting season stretches for nearly four months in places, and generates significant stimulus to local economies as more than 100,000 deer hunters take to the woods and fields to hunt.

You might reasonably ask why any concern over white-tailed deer exists given the successful distribution and abundance of deer populations. The major threat to white-tailed deer today in North Carolina and other states is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), which strikes all members of the deer family and always results in death. CWD is spread via animal contact, has a very long incubation period—which makes diagnosis in live animals difficult—and has no known treatment. It can decimate deer herds within large areas. CWD has been found in Virginia and West Virginia, which instills the fear that CWD will be found here at some future point in time. The most frequently encountered and greatest threat for introduction of CWD is the illegal importation of captive deer into an area.

To protect North Carolina’s healthy and valuable white-tailed deer resource from the scourge of CWD, vigilance to prevent introduction of diseased animals is imperative. Support strong laws and strict enforcement to accomplish this goal.

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