Study: Current Management Tactics Must Expand To Protect Sandplain Grasslands

JohnCarl McGrady •

Smooth Hummocks retouch 1 CROPPED 600x334 c
The Nantucket Land Bank's Smooth Hummocks property, which contains some of the best examples of sandplain grassland habitat.

An article published by the Sandplain Grasslands Network suggests that most current management strategies are insufficient to combat the threats sandplain grasslands are facing. The threats range from invasive species encroachment, climate change, and sea level rise.

“While we have made good progress in the short-term and have learned a great deal about these habitats, our management is currently not adequate to maintain this system over the long-term considering both current conditions and the implications of climate change,” Dr. Sarah Bois, the paper’s lead author and the Director of Research and Education at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation, said in a statement.

The Sandplain Grasslands Network, which is a collaboration of conservation organizations including the Linda Loring Nature Foundation and the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, works to protect sandplain grassland ecosystems.

Sandplain grasslands, treeless habitats characterized by native grasses and low shrubs, are threatened biodiversity hotspots found primarily in coastal regions of Massachusetts and New York. The Sandplain Grasslands Network, formed in 2016, unites grassland managers and scientific researchers from across the ecosystem’s range to share knowledge and promote effective management strategies.

Important for their rarity, limited geographical range, and the diversity of uncommon plant and animal species that they support, the grasslands dominate much of Nantucket’s open space. Nantucket is home to a large portion of the remaining sandplain grassland habitat, and their conservation has long been a priority for local organizations.

“We have been managing and creating grasslands in globally rare sandplain habitats for nearly 40 years,” Bois said.

But they are still at grave risk. Over 90 percent of the grasslands have been lost since the middle of the 19th century and as climate change accelerates, that percentage is likely to rise.

The recent report - an overview of existing literature on sandplain grassland management and interviews with sandplain grassland managers - found that current efforts to protect the threatened ecosystem must be expanded if the ecosystem is to be preserved.

According to the report, the majority of studies investigating many conventional management strategies found that the strategies did not reduce invasive species or increase plant biodiversity, though some managers reported success.

In addition to Bois, the paper’s authors included Karen Beattie, Jennifer Karberg, and Kelly Omand of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. Four of the paper’s 11 authors in total were from either the Linda Loring Nature Foundation or the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, highlighting the leading role the island has taken in the research and conservation of the grasslands. Part of this leadership role is due to the scale of the island’s sandplain grassland habitat.

“We have some of the largest extant sandplain grassland habitat. We have so much open space that was preserved for a long period of time,” Bois said. “The goal of the paper was bringing together all of the knowledge that exists about sandplain grassland management and a lot of those management technique originated on Nantucket.”

This is in contrast to other areas where remnants of the ecosystem remain.

“For example, the sandplain grasslands that are in Long Island are small pocket remnant sites or sites that are being restored,” Bois said.

The report recommends that managers experiment with different combinations of management techniques. One technique that the report suggests is controlled burns during growing season instead of while plants lie dormant in the winter and early spring. This strategy was also recommended by managers. Prescribed burns during growing season seem to be much more effective — but are also more difficult to organize as the excessive smoke and potential dangers make it hard to obtain permits.

Resources are stretched during the summer months and the fire department is less able to respond should something go wrong. In addition, drier, hotter summers mean that burns during growing season are becoming harder to control.

Still, if the habitats are to be conserved, some changes will have to be made. The report will appear in the Journal of Restoration Ecology later this year and is available for early access online now.

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