May 8, 2019
Posted by: Kate Tweedy
If you’ve visited LSSI during October, you’ve seen dune ridges swaying with pink-flowered Muhly Grass (Gulf Hairawn Muhly Grass, Muhlenbergia sericea). Not only is this grass beautiful, it is an immensely important plant species in the early-successional grassland habitat that makes up 10% of our island’s upland acreage. Thanks to Muhly Grass maritime grasslands, our island supports robust populations of GA conservation priority species including painted buntings, island glass lizards, and eastern diamondback rattlesnakes.
Little St. Simons Island has some of the most expansive areas of maritime grassland on the Georgia coast. Throughout much of the southeastern region, however, maritime grasslands have experienced pressure from anthropogenic development and accelerating erosion. Unfortunately, the maritime grassland ecological community is globally imperiled. Because Muhly grasslands are valuable to wildlife and because maritime grassland acreage is decreasing throughout the southeast, we on LSSI manage our grasslands to ensure they will persist and provide ecological benefits for decades to come.
To maintain our 300 acres of Muhly grassland we implement prescribed fire. Muhly grasses do not depend on fire like some other plant communities in our region (e.g. Longleaf Pine savannas), but we have learned that fire is a useful management tool for preventing young Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera) shrubs from crowding out grass-dominated areas. Over the last decade, LSSI staff have partnered with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the University of Georgia to perfect fire techniques for maritime grassland applications. We found that Muhly responds well to low-intensity burns on a four-year cycle. This burn strategy has been effective for preventing succession to a shrub-dominated landscape. We put this knowledge into action late this winter.
At the beginning of the growing season this February and March we used prescribed fire in 60 acres of grassland. Within days of each burn treatment we documented new growth of Muhly Grass from the burned stubs left by the fire. We look forward to future late-winter burns on a rotational schedule that will ultimately maintain a favorable mosaic of open grassland and shrub thicket areas, maximizing benefits to grassland and edge-associated wildlife and plants.
The next time you visit LSSI, check in on the burned areas at Sancho Panza Road and Bass Creek Road. We hope you see the wonderful habitat and maybe some of the rare species that depend on it!
Kate Tweedy, LSSI Ecological Coordinator
*^LSSI Land Steward Bard Wiesen uses a drip torch to “dot” fire throughout a burn treatment plot. Photo by Kate Tweedy.
*^One week post-burn: Muhly Grass springs to life after a rainfall following the prescribed fire at Sancho Panza. Photo by Kate Tweedy.
*^One and a half months after the prescribed burn at Sancho Panza Road, the spring grass growth is lush. Photo by Kate Tweedy.