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** Archived Article - please check for current information. **

June 27, 2012

Alternative habitat management research conducted at Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve

Are there productive alternatives to prescribed burning such as mechanical mastication or herbicide treatment? Those are the questions facing land managers working to restore or enhance pristine, diversified and aesthetically pleasing longleaf pine forests.

Historically, longleaf pine ecosystems were maintained by natural or purposely set (prescribed or controlled) fires in the Southeast. It is becoming increasingly difficult to conduct prescribed fires to mimic these historic fire regimes and maintain this unique ecosystem with increased restrictions imposed by state and federal laws. It has been well documented there is a decline in the flora and fauna species of the longleaf pine ecosystem as a direct result of habitat losses due to fire suppression.  

Currently there is little information available to landowners or land mangers concerning the effects that alternative silviculture (care and cultivation of forest trees) practices will have on longleaf pine ecosystems.  S.C. Department of Natural Resource’s Wildlife Biologist Brett M. Moule initiated a joint research project with Clemson University beginning in 2007 to compare the effects of prescribed burning versus mechanical mastication and herbicide treatment within an established longleaf pine forest located on Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve.

Final data analyses have not been made based on the current research, but visual examinations and annual surveys have been conducted and it appears that the vegetative layer of the forest floor is responding positively for each treatment. Since the initiation of the project in 2007, there have been approximately 2500 acres burned, 700 acres treated with herbicide and 100 acres masticated. 

The main emphasis of the research project is to increase the scientific community’s understanding of the response of this ecosystem to alternative treatments and suggest how they can be applied to sustain the longleaf pine wiregrass ecosystem and to benefit the native gopher tortoise population on the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve. Moule is also hopeful the ecological knowledge gained from the study can be applied to help perpetuate the continued restoration activities required to maintain and enhance longleaf pine forests throughout its range.

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