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New life for rare Oaky Woods prairies

POSTED: August 11, 2011 8:37 p.m.

SOCIAL CIRCLE—Tom Patrick is walking across a chalk prairie on Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area, pointing out plants that should or shouldn’t be there and occasionally wiping at sweat raised by the sweltering summer morning.

Drought has shriveled the summer rush of wildflower blooms that can blanket these areas yellow and purple. Even recent rains can’t erase the cracks fracturing the clay surface into jigsaw puzzle shapes.

Patrick, a botanist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, scoops some of the gray-white soil. When wet, it can bog a four-wheel-drive pickup, one reason locals call these prairies "gumbo flats." Yet when dry, the clay turns powdery. "It’s like talc," Patrick says, his fingers dusted white.

This limestone-rich clay is the calling card of Atlantic Coastal Plain chalk prairies. According to Patrick, the high pH, shrink-and-swell soil left over from ancient seas and seashells favors a unique suite of plants, from yellow prairie coneflower and Dakota vervain in the openings to Durand and chinquapin oaks, Biltmore ash, redbud, Carolina buckthorn and other trees along the edges.

Like other so-called Blackland prairies, chalk prairies are a globally rare habitat. Found only along a shoreline that once curved from middle Georgia through north Alabama, the grasslands have been decimated by agriculture, as well as fire suppression that encourages less fire-tolerant plants. Oaky Woods features some of the Atlantic slopes’ best remaining chalk prairies.

Plans for the 13,000-acre WMA near Warner Robins include restoring and expanding the openings to 400 or more acres, said Bobby Bond, a wildlife biologist with the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division’s Game Management Section.

"The biggest step right now is to introduce fire back into all the prairies … and hopefully get everything on a two-year (burn) rotation," Bond said, adding that low-impact tree removal is also a possibility.

Biologist Nathan Klaus, who, like Patrick, works with the Wildlife Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section, sees rich opportunities for restoration. That effort may involve mowing prairie edges where planted pines or a crush of shrubs and native trees have closed in.

"We’re just trying to push that stuff back and jumpstart the fire ecology," Klaus said.

Chalk prairies and black bears were two conservation targets when the state bought 10,000 acres of the four-decades-old WMA, long a mid-state haven for black bears. The December acquisition led to the discovery of other prairie restoration sites at Oaky Woods, thanks to insights from area manager Raye Jones and analysis of aerial imagery.

The Wildlife Resources Division also quickly made plans to burn more of Grand Prairie, the WMA’s largest chalk prairie. What had been a 25-acre prescribed fire — the usual for Grand Prairie — grew to about 100 acres in February.

The flames killed or singed plants such as persimmon, red cedar and loblolly pine that are not normally abundant on chalk prairies, making room for the grasses, sedges and herbs that are more natural fits. The vegetation attracts a buzz of pollinators such as butterflies and native bumblebees, and wildlife like deer and quail. The prairies provide valuable brood and nesting habitat for turkeys.

Recently at Grand Prairie, Patrick pointed out Boykin’s milkwort, a rare plant with whorled leaves and white blooms, and the only known Coastal Plain occurrence of Georgia aster, a candidate for federal listing.

"We pretty much know what’s there," he said. "We’re moving into a phase where we’re trying to determine how to manage these areas."

Oaky Woods wonders

• The coastal past of chalk prairies includes oyster shells, fossil fragments and even sharks teeth in the white clay.

• These "droughty" soils combine with droughts to help exclude trees, preserving the prairies.

• Oaky Woods features other examples of unique habitats, from old-growth hardwood bottomlands to limestone bluff forests. Befitting its name, the WMA also has many different oak species, such as huge Shumard, Durand, swamp chestnut and cherry bark oaks.

• A 50-year WMA management plan is scheduled for completion next year.

• Wildlife conservation is the focus of the State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy guiding Wildlife Resources Division and DNR efforts to conserve Georgia’s biological diversity. Learn more at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/wildlife-action-plan.

Giving wildlife a chance

The Oaky Woods chalk prairies work is another example of how buying a nongame license plate or donating to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund through the state income tax checkoff and other ways supports wildlife conservation. Contributions benefit DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds for its mission to conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and natural habitats in the state.

For more information, visit www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218). For details on The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, a nonprofit advocacy group for Nongame Conservation, call the Forsyth office or go to http://tern.homestead.com.

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