Historically, longleaf pine woodlands covered much of the southeastern United States. These woodlands were harvested and converted to agriculture so that now longleaf pine woodlands cover just a few percent of their former extent. Much of the remaining large patches of longleaf pine woodlands are isolated to federal (often military) lands and state parks and reserves.
Within these forests are interspersed complex networks of streams that once acted as natural corridors to connect aquatic and semi-aquatic species. Isolation of forest patches leads to isolation of streams, and many streams within longleaf pine forests have been interrupted by roads and other development. These streams used to be highly dynamic due to beavers, which would create large ponds throughout the stream networks. With the massive decline in beaver populations, however, large-scale shifts in stream topography became much rarer.
One of the several endangered species that inhabit this longleaf pine ecosystem is the St. Francis’ satyr butterfly (Neonympha michellii francisci). This small, brown butterfly in the Nymphalidae family is found exclusively on Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. Its habitat is ephemeral wetlands that are created once beavers abandon a pond, which allows the pond to recede enough to support wetland plant species such as sedges, the butterfly’s preferred host plant.
However, this drying out ultimately leads to low quality habitat, as it eventually becomes too dry to support wetland species and suffers from encroachment of woody shrubs. Frequent fire can help retard the growth of woody plants, although not indefinitely. As a result, there is a small window of opportunity for local St. Francis’ satyr populations to breed in an ephemeral wetland, because it only persists for a few years. Due to this constant turnover of habitat, stream corridors are crucial for species survival so that individuals can disperse to newly created wetlands.
Without a significant presence of beavers to create ponds or regular fire to suppress woody encroachment, ephemeral wetlands are uncommon and not well-connected on Ft. Bragg. The exception to this is inside restricted artillery impact zones, where the lack of development coupled with constant small fires from bombs allow for a much more connected stream network. Still, the St. Francis’ satyr population remains at critically low levels.
Currently research is being coordinated by individuals from Ft. Bragg’s Endangered Species Branch and North Carolina State University, led by Nick Haddad. Long-term planning conservation of corridors for the species will require high levels of cooperation between federal agencies, landowners and scientists. A recent large scale restoration project has created new high quality habitat for the butterflies along crucial stream corridors where local populations still persist. With long-term maintenance of good habitat, steady monitoring of population levels, and continued support from the military and its personnel, this species can continue to work its way towards recovery goals and hopefully move off the endangered list.