Conservation Database Helps Steer Restoration, Land Planning
Talk about a heritage. Twenty-five years after the Georgia Natural Heritage Inventory Program was started, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is tracking nearly 1,200 rare plant and animal species and 185 natural communities – a vital, public database used to guide everything from conservation plans to land management.
Staff with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section regularly document new occurrences of rare species and ecological communities, explore exceptional natural areas, and manage populations of Georgia’s rare wildlife, from lipstick darters to loggerhead sea turtles.
As botanist Tom Patrick, hired by the Heritage Inventory in 1986, said, “I’m still working on plants. … We’re still finding new ones.”
Nongame Conservation Section Assistant Chief Jon Ambrose, the Natural Heritage Inventory’s original ecologist, said the effort has helped the DNR Wildlife Resources Division “keep a focus on all of the elements that we need to conserve.”
The Natural Heritage Inventory started as a venture funded by The Nature Conservancy’s Georgia chapter and the DNR in 1986. The job: Document the distribution and status of the state’s rare plants, animals and natural communities.
Georgia’s program was part of The Nature Conservancy’s successful nationwide push for heritage programs to document “elements” of biological diversity in a uniform way. Although Georgia was one of the last states to create a Natural Heritage Inventory, the state had a precedent: Its Heritage Trust Program started in 1972 was the model for the first natural heritage program, established by The Nature Conservancy and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in 1974.
Jerry McCollum supervised the Georgia Natural Heritage Inventory as a director’s assistant in what is now the Wildlife Resources Division. McCollum, now Georgia Wildlife Federation president, said the proposal by then-state Nature Conservancy Director Rex Boner linked efforts such as natural areas and protected plants.
“It has given DNR a capability which it never had before and never would have had without a structured inventory process.”
Since 1986, the program has changed names, added staff and responsibilities, and become part of the Nongame Conservation Section, formed in 1998. This component of the Wildlife Resources Division is also part of NatureServe, an international conservation data network that grew out of the natural heritage effort.
Varied users from developers and private landowners to corporations and state and federal agencies have relied on natural heritage databases and related map products to inform land-use and management programs. The information, available to the public, has guided land acquisition programs, state and regional wildlife conservation plans, and habitat restoration projects. (Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan is a comprehensive strategy steering Wildlife Resources Division and DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity. Learn more at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/wildlife-action-plan .)
Development and use of natural heritage databases has also led to improved communication and collaboration among scientists across state lines, and conservation partnerships that go beyond environmental laws and regulations.
“We ... have a partnership with people who want to manage for the right things,” Patrick said. "We're always trying to work with people."
Georgians can do the right thing by helping DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section conserve rare wildlife and other animals not hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as native plants and habitats. Ways to help include:
- Buying or renewing a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird license plate ($10 of each sale or renewal goes to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund).
- Donating to the Wildlife Conservation Fund through the Give Wildlife a Chance state income tax checkoff.
- Contributing directly. Visit www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation for details, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).
The Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds, depends on these programs.
By the Numbers
Rare “elements” tracked in Georgia:
- Animals, 482
- Natural communities, 185
- Plants, 710
Sites of rare elements in database:
- Animals, 5,327
- Natural communities, 1,241
- Plants, 5,289
On the Web
- Georgia rare species and natural community data: www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/species-of-concern
- Georgia chapter of The Nature Conservancy: www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/georgia
1966: Georgia legislators pass the Georgia Natural Areas Act, creating a citizens council to identify areas in the state of ecological importance and “secure (their) preservation.”
1973: Georgia lawmakers pass the Endangered Wildlife Act of 1973 and the Wildflower Preservation Act of 1973, providing the legislative basis for Georgia’s Protected Animal and Protected Plant programs.
1985: Georgia’s Nongame Wildlife Conservation and Wildlife Habitat Acquisition Fund is created. The fund is dedicated to conserving Georgia’s native animals and plants not legally taken through hunting, fishing, trapping or other methods, as well as their habitats. The act also establishes nongame wildlife conservation and habitat acquisition programs.
1986: The Georgia Natural Heritage Inventory Program is started as a joint venture of The Nature Conservancy and DNR to document the distribution and status of rare plants, animals and natural communities. Georgia’s program, built upon the DNR Protected Plant and Natural Areas efforts, is one of the last natural heritage programs in the U.S. But the state’s original Heritage Trust Program (1972) was the model for the nation’s first natural heritage program. After three years of joint funding, the program becomes entirely state-supported.
1998: The Georgia Natural Heritage Program and the Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program are merged into the Nongame Conservation Section, a new section in the Wildlife Resources Division equivalent to the Game Management, Fisheries Management and Law Enforcement sections.