The Georgia aster is an uncommon southern plant that has been in decline for decades and on the verge of federal protection. Yet today, numerous organizations, private and public, are stepping up to conserve the plant in an effort that should keep it off the endangered species list.
The move comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and other state and federal agencies, advance a large, partnership-based effort to conserve at-risk plants and animals across the Southeast.
“Across the South, we’ve really put an emphasis on bringing partners together to recover plants, fish and wildlife before they need protection under the Endangered Species Act,” explained Fish and Wildlife Service Southeastern Regional Director Cindy Dohner. “It’s a strategy that’s making great strides, in part because conserving one at-risk plant or animal often benefits others. Conserving Georgia aster habitat conserves habitat for rapidly declining birds like the grasshopper sparrow and eastern meadowlark.
“Proactive and voluntary conservation also benefits landowners, because the actions offer flexibility and help minimize their future regulatory burdens.”
Georgia aster, Symphyotrichum georgianum, is a purple flowering plant found in the upper Piedmont and lower mountain regions of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. In 1999, the Fish and Wildlife Service made Georgia aster a candidate for inclusion on the federal endangered species list, meaning it warranted being on the list, but other species were a higher priority.
“We’ve brought together many of the key landowners who can collectively determine the future of this plant,” said Dr. Mara Alexander, the Fish and Wildlife Service botanist coordinating this effort to conserve the rare aster. “We’ve outlined a land management approach that meets their needs, while supporting Georgia aster.”
DNR Wildlife Resources Division Director Dan Forster said agency scientists have been searching out and documenting populations since about 2006 to better understand the status of Georgia aster in the state. DNR has also made land management changes, such as increasing the use and frequency of prescribed fire, to restore and enhance habitats, and worked with the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance on habitat management and outplanting projects to conserve the species.
The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance is a network of 27 public gardens, government agencies, academic institutions, utility companies and conservation organizations committed to preserving Georgia’s endangered flora.
“It takes teamwork to conserve rare plants,” Mr. Forster said. “DNR’s work documenting Georgia aster populations, restoring habitats and partnering with the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance to expand efforts will dovetail with this critical agreement, which provides the team needed to conserve the species and its habitat.”
The agreement, called a Candidate Conservation Agreement, is designed to proactively conserve plants and animals before they need federal protection. The measures committed to in the agreement by partners, in conjunction with other conservation actions, should prevent the need to place the species on the endangered species list. Signatories to the Georgia aster agreement include the Fish and Wildlife Service, Clemson University, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia Power, North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, National Park Service, North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the U.S. Forest Service, with each signatory agreeing to undertake conservation actions.
- Searching for new populations;
- Monitoring known occurrences to estimate range-wide population trends;
- Keeping forests with Georgia aster thinned to a level that provides ample sunlight, while minimizing threats from drought and competition;
- Avoiding mowing utility and transportation rights-of way with Georgia aster from late spring to mid-fall, when Georgia aster is at its tallest, and reproducing. If possible, mowing in mid- to late-spring to maximize impacts to invasive plants before Georgia aster is high enough to be significantly damaged;
- When mowing rights-of-way, cutting to no less than four inches, and avoid operating machinery on wet soils to reduce soil compaction;
- Avoiding broadcast spraying of herbicides in or near Georgia aster populations;
- Marking populations to avoid inadvertent damage during right-of-way maintenance.
Cooperators to the agreement, who are assisting in the conservation of the Georgia aster largely though research and monitoring, are the natural heritage programs of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina; the Atlanta Botanical Garden; North Carolina Botanical Garden; State Botanical Garden of Georgia; The Citadel; The Nature Conservancy; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Georgia aster was once more common across the Southeast, living in open savanna and prairie communities. Extensive wildfire control and the disappearance of large, native grazing animals left nothing to keep these areas open and grassy. As a result, forests have largely taken their place on the landscape. This decline in savanna and prairie habitat was reflected in a decline in the plants and animals that depended on these areas. Conserving this species today involves working to keep parts of the landscape open through the use of prescribed fire – fire intentionally set under very specific weather conditions, often to mimic the ecological role of natural fires; or cutting trees and mowing.
The Georgia aster effort is part of a large-scale, multi-partner strategy in the Southeast to boost plant and wildlife populations and habitat before they need the protection of the Endangered Species Act.