North Carolina Conservation Summary

Many Americans know North Carolina for the natural areas located at its opposite ends. Both the cool, lush-green mountains of the fog-shrouded southern Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks’ slender necklace of barrier islands host millions of visitors each year. The state, though, includes a distinctive collection of ecological treasures between these regions as well.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

North Carolina is home to many rare and intriguing species: over 5,500 species of plants and mosses, at least 990 vertebrate species (excluding saltwater fishes), and thousands of invertebrate species. Perhaps the most captivating is the Venus flytrap, called by Charles Darwin “the most wonderful plant in the world.” This small plant occurs only in southeast North Carolina and northeast South Carolina in longleaf pine savannas and where the savannas’ boggy borders meet the pocosins. And it is the host of an even rarer moth, the Venus flytrap moth, whose larvae feed on the leaves of the Venus flytrap. These unique species are part of an enigmatic ecological balance: moth larvae feeding on a carnivorous plant that lives only in wetlands that require periodic fire.

Along with some of the best-remaining longleaf pine savannas, the lowlands of North Carolina’s unassuming coastal plain host small areas where moths and butterflies hover above wildflowers and insectivorous plants amid greater plant diversity than anywhere else on the continent. Pocosins—boggy peatlands covered with dense tangles of evergreen shrubs—are another global rarity whose large patches provide a refuge for the world’s only free-roaming population of red wolves. Distinctive seep communities join the pocosins further inland and to the north in the rolling Sandhills, which also includes large expanses of longleaf pine forest.

The gentle hills of the central Piedmont are home to North Carolina’s population centers, but undeveloped uplands remain in its monadnock ranges. Distinctive fish and invertebrates inhabit the Piedmont’s rocky rivers, such as the Cape Fear shiner and the Tar River spinymussel, found nowhere else in the world.

Along the coast itself, the thin strand of barrier islands, the Outer Banks, supports dynamic habitats, including Jockey’s Ridge, one of the highest active dunes in the East. Behind the Outer Banks lay broad, shallow estuaries, or sounds, where expanses of brackish marsh, freshwater marsh, and tidal swamp are stirred by irregular flooding from wind tides.

The southern Blue Ridge region has stood as a refuge for living things for eons. Its unglaciated mountaintops include the highest peaks in eastern North America and harbor a collection of plants and animals unknown to the lowlands. Some are northern disjunct species, whose descendants moved north to populate the forests, bogs and alpine areas of New England. Others, like the high-altitude Fraser fir, are endemic species that occur only in the peaks and valleys of the state’s Southern Appalachian Mountains, where the moist climate and sheltering topography produce the lushest and most diverse vegetation in the region.

Threats

Much of central North Carolina has long been converted to agriculture and dense human settlement. But areas previously considered too wet, steep, sandy or rocky—where most of the state’s important natural areas occur—are now under threat. Development is transforming neglected parts of the coast, mountain ridges and inland reservoir shorelines into densely packed vacation and retirement communities. While most of the state’s longleaf pine forests were swept away in past rampages of timbering, other forested communities are now prone to heavy logging or subject to conversion to plantation rows of loblolly pine and non-native slash pine. More formerly marginal lands face the threat of exploitation from biofuels development or the industrial infrastructure to support oil and gas drilling off the Outer Banks.

The direct impacts of human exploitation are pervasive, but secondary degradation vastly extends the damage to natural ecosystems. Aquatic species in particular bear the brunt of almost all human activities. While breaches in hog farm lagoons get public notice, siltation, polluted runoff from residences and farms, and hydrological changes resulting from increased stormwater discharge cumulatively imperil the freshwater mussels, fish, and stream insects not yet extirpated or on the brink of extinction.

Just as quietly but equally devastatingly, lack of natural fire continues to transform much of the state’s upland forests. Exotic species like Japanese stilt grass, Chinese privet, and Asiatic clams proliferate at the expense of native species and communities. Even more devastating are diseases and introduced predators: chestnut blight fungus, balsam and hemlock adelgids, gypsy moths, fire ants, and flathead catfish all directly attack the native flora and fauna, driving some species close to extinction.

More subtle but still important is landscape fragmentation. Developed areas and busy four-lane highways increasingly divide the state into many isolated blocks of habitat, while dams create major barriers for aquatic and streamside species, isolating smaller, more fragile populations where riverine and riparian habitats aren’t converted outright.

Global climate change may yet dwarf all these impacts. Accelerated rise in sea levels, accompanied by increases in catastrophic storms, are likely to have devastating effects on North Carolina’s barrier islands, sounds, and outer Coastal Plain environment. Breaching of the barrier islands that now protect the sounds from ocean tides would instantly alter one of the state’s most distinctive regions, and the numerous species isolated in the cold climate on high mountain peaks are particularly vulnerable to warming temperatures.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Nearly half of North Carolina's significant natural heritage areas are protected, thanks to strong conservation partnerships involving state agencies, including the Wildlife Resources Commission, Division of Parks and Recreation, Division of Water Quality, and Department of Transportation, federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, national organizations like The Nature Conservancy, and the state’s regional land trusts, local governments, and universities. The North Carolina Natural Heritage Program provides critical information on nearly all of the state’s conservation funding decisions, including two of the most notable: the Natural Heritage Trust Fund, which provides supplemental funding to select state agencies for the acquisition and protection of important natural areas, to preserve the state’s ecological diversity and cultural heritage, and to inventory the natural heritage resources of the state; and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which makes grants to local governments, state agencies and conservation non-profits to help finance projects that specifically address water pollution problems.

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