Conservation Overview

Louisiana is rightly known as the “Sportsman’s Paradise.” Its coastal marshlands and waterways harbor abundant fisheries and provide wintering grounds for numerous waterfowl; its interior forests host deer and other game species; and its inland lakes and streams teem with freshwater fish. But the means of enjoying the state’s variety of natural systems and settings extend beyond traditional outdoor sports. Birding, hiking, and biking trails lace through the state and are becoming ever more popular activities for outdoor enthusiasts.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

Perhaps most notable among Louisiana’s diverse natural communities are its coastal wetland forests, which support the largest waterbird nesting colonies in the nation. Bottomland hardwood forests and coastal live oak cheniers also provide critical stop-over points for neotropical migratory birds.

Thirty rare mussel species occur in the state, most in the small streams of central Louisiana, including the federally and state threatened Louisiana pearlshell mussel (Margaritifera hembeli). In the southeast, the deep sandy soils of the small stream forest around Pushepatapa Creek support the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) and many state rare plants, including the country’s southwestern-most occurrence of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia).

The natural wetland communities of the longleaf pine flatwoods and savannahs, and their associated bogs and baygalls are home to more than 25 percent of Louisiana’s rare plant species. Grassland birds like Henslow’s sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii) also make use of these areas for foraging and breeding. The northwest and north-central portions of the state display the greatest diversity of communities, including sandhill woodlands, saline prairies and woodlands, calcareous forests and prairies, sandstone glades, and shortleaf pine/oak-hickory forests. 

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Federal, state, and local agencies manage more than three million acres of public lands. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) oversees the state’s largest portfolio of more than 1.5 million acres of landholdings and leases. The Louisiana Natural and Scenic River System that LDWF administers includes 3,000 miles along 62 streams or sections of streams throughout the state. 

Lake Ramsey Wildlife Management Area, encompassing almost 800 acres in St. Tammany Parish, supports at least 18 rare plant species, making it one of the most significant longleaf savannahs remaining in eastern Louisiana. This rare habitat evolved through the regular occurrence of fire, so prescribed fires are critical to its continued maintenance. The area also supports other valuable natural plant communities including bayhead forest and small stream forest.

Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area is another diversity hot spot, with more than 20 rare plant species within the almost 6,000 acre area. Hikers amid the ferns and forests of its high ridges and steep ravines, just an hour north of Baton Rouge, may feel as if they’ve entered the Appalachian Mountains. The area’s narrow band of loess soil — silt deposited by the wind — is home to 29 state rare plant species and 14 rare animals.

Also worth noting is Kisatchie National Forest, 600,000 acres of woodlands dominated by restored longleaf pine forests with other diverse communities including seepage bogs, hardwood slope forests, and calcareous prairies. 

While public lands are crucial to conservation throughout Louisiana, private landowners hold 90 percent of the state. Private lands hold many of the state’s remaining ecological jewels, and federal and state agencies and non-governmental conservation organizations work closely with landowners to provide the outreach, education, and support they need to manage these valuable resources properly for future generations. 

The Natural Areas Registry Program, within the LDWF Natural Heritage Program, is an important outreach program for private landowners. The owners and managers of more than 45,000 acres have enrolled in this registry voluntarily, receiving guidance on supporting rare species and special natural communities and where to find cost-share funding to help with management of their special places. One such property in Desoto Parish supports the state’s finest remaining saline prairie and saline oak woodland and hosts more than 20 rare plant species, including the state’s largest population of earthfruit (Geocarpon minimum), a federally threatened species.

The Nature Conservancy is one of the primary private conservation organizations in the state. TNC owns and manages more than 20,000 acres of natural lands within Louisiana, and their preserve on Grand Isle supports the state’s last remaining barrier-island live-oak forest. This site has long been recognized as one of the most important stopovers for neotropical migratory birds crossing the Gulf of Mexico.

Threats

The primary challenges facing conservation in Louisiana are habitat loss and fragmentation. Numerous development pressures drive these threats: urban expansion, oil and gas production, roads and utility infrastructure, and myriad of other land uses. Once conversion occurs, fragmentation follows, with the remaining habitat blocks becoming both smaller and more isolated.  Wildlife populations in these fragmented habitats are isolated from other breeding populations, face increased competition for limited resources, and come into conflict with other land uses. 

Many of Louisiana’s natural communities and plant-and-animal associations — coastal prairies, longleaf pine, bogs — developed in the presence of regular fire cycles. But negative attitudes towards fire over the last century have disrupted these fire-dependent systems. Concern over the liabilities of burning near urban areas or other communities has also drastically curtailed the use of prescribed fire as a management tool.

Invasive plants and animals pose another enormous threat to Louisiana’s natural systems. Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera), an introduced exotic, has virtually eradicated the remaining coastal prairie patches of southwestern Louisiana. Its monospecific stands shade out the sun-loving prairie grasses and forbs. A regular fire regime of prescribed burning every one to three years would have saved the coastal prairie remnants, but fire suppression has also become a problem.

Louisiana’s aquatic systems are continually under assault. Waterways and coastal wetland ecosystems are all the victims of hydrologic disturbances. Construction of canals, dredging, channelization, ditching, impoundments, and non-point source pollution have all contributed to this degradation, causing coastal wetland loss and making Louisiana more susceptible to damage from hurricanes. 

Louisiana’s Future

Even in the face of these challenges, Louisiana citizens recognize the importance of their natural resources, particularly coastal ecosystems. Following the hurricanes of 2005, there has been tremendous support for state programs and initiatives to restore the LA coastline and other degraded wetland systems.

Coastal restoration efforts will help to slow or repair some of the damage, but conservation of the remaining intact coastal ecosystems is also essential. One such program, the Coastal Forest Conservation Initiative (CFCI), is designed to conserve critical coastal forest habitat by acquiring these areas through purchase or conservation servitudes. Through these and other changes, the state’s conservation community hopes to encourage new awareness of and greater support for initiatives across Louisiana.

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