By Emma Castleberry
While they lack the showy grandeur of our region’s sun-dappled forests, rolling blue mountains and snowy peaks, Southern Appalachian bogs are perhaps one of the most valuable and imperiled ecosystems in Western North Carolina. When it comes to regional conservation, the protection of the bog is paramount—and also wildly complex. “Bogs are truly the jewels in the crown of the Blue Ridge,” says Owen Carson, botanist and senior ecologist at Equinox. “Home to numerous globally imperiled plants and animals, these magical wetlands are easily overlooked yet integral components of the Southern Appalachian landscape.”
Each bog is unique—there are four different subtypes in North Carolina alone—but they all share three characteristics: remaining consistently wet via groundwater and precipitation; lacking a well-defined canopy; and the presence of a diverse, sun-loving flora including abundant peat moss. What is truly impressive about the mountain bog is the dense biodiversity that can be found in a relatively small land area. So many rare species are reliant on the Southern Appalachian bog, including the carnivorous mountain sweet pitcher plant, found in only five counties in the entire world, and another plant, bunched arrowhead, that is found only in two counties worldwide. Other species that depend on these bogs are green pitcher plants, sundews, a number of orchids, head-high ferns, swamp pink and North America’s tiniest (and arguably most precious) turtle, the bog turtle.
Because of this biodiversity, bogs are highly sensitive to human disturbance. Development and misplaced drainage can easily cause changes in the hydrology of a bog and interrupt its delicate balance. Bogs are also subject to threats like climate change, invasive species such as feral hogs and poaching of their valuable, rare species for sale on the black market. “As such, bogs require special focus and dedicated management beyond simply being protected in order to thrive,” says Carson. The fact that most bogs exist on privately owned land compounds the struggle for conservation.
The complicated nature of protecting these ecosystems requires extensive collaboration between a number of groups, including the NC Natural Heritage Program, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, local conservancies like The Nature Conservancy and Blue Ridge Conservancy, and nonprofit land trusts such as Conserving Carolina. The Bog Learning Network (BLN) was created to help connections among these groups and prioritize bog conservation projects. “There are two groups of folks in natural resource management: researchers that study organisms in the natural environment and managers that implement the science,” says Adam Warwick of the Bog Learning Network.
“This network is the key mechanism for facilitating communication between the two groups. It creates a positive feedback loop. A manager has a question, the question is posed to scientists, the question is answered by research and the managers use the research findings to improve or change management.”
Despite the significant importance of the network’s mission, the BLN operates without any funds. The organization is compromised of people going above and beyond their job duties to protect these fragile environments. “The Bog Learning Network serves a fundamental role in bog conservation as the forum where researchers and land managers from across southern Appalachia come together with a shared mission—protecting one of the rarest habitats in the world,” says Gary Peeples, deputy field office supervisor with the USFWS. “Although they don’t get the attention of our rivers or our mountaintops, our mountain bogs are home to some of the rarest plants and animals in the world, and their future is in our hands.”
To learn more about Southern Appalachian bogs and how you can support their protection, visit BogLearningNetwork.com.