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Setting Our Lands A-buzz: Creating sustainable habitat

Painted lady on zinnias; by Frederica Weiner

The warm days of late spring and early summer provide many opportunities throughout the state’s natural areas to see a wide variety of blooming flowers, shrubs, trees and vines. From the low-lying coastal plains to the rocky meadows in the mountains, Maryland is in full bloom. Unfortunately, within these diverse and colorful landscapes, scientists and laymen alike are noticing something quite disturbing. Pollinators, including once common species like the monarch butterfly, are conspicuously absent. Unfortunately, this is not a site-specific observation, but part of a documented trend of shrinking populations across the globe. As many as 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species are now threatened with extinction.

Bumblebee on an aster; by Judith Dolehanty

This concern is not new. In the first summer issue of the Maryland Natural Resource in 1998, an article documented the decline of the regal fritillary butterfly and described an attempt to protect the last population in the state. Ultimately that effort was unsuccessful; currently only three populations have been documented in the nation’s entire eastern region. The regal has not been confirmed in Maryland since 1993; however, the conservation efforts there sparked early interest in and concern about pollinator habitat.

Conservation continues
What is different now is the need to intensify efforts based on the scope and scale of the decline. Species that were once common and abundant are now being affected. These losses have been attributed to a variety of causes including urban and suburban development, pesticide use, air pollution and climate change. Diseases and parasites also play a role, and declines in pollinator populations adversely affect biodiversity and the nation’s food supply. A 2014 memorandum called for a task force to address this issue, and since then, the Environmental Protection Agency has engaged state agencies in developing plans to protect important pollinator species.

GARDENS Over the past three years, 15 state parks have established pollinator gardens. They are generally less than 1,000 square feet and usually located near nature centers or ranger stations. While small in scale, these gardens can provide an important source of nectar during migration. They show visitors how attractive they are and how they can easily become a landscape feature in any yard. They also provide wonderful opportunities for park staff to educate visitors through interpretive signs or as part of environmental education programming.

EDGE Edge habitat is typically a strip of land adjacent to a road, trail or agricultural field that is managed by regular mowing. In many cases, these areas have been mowed simply because that is the historically used management practice. In some instances, these areas already include pollinator species, so “no-mow” practices are sufficient to create edge habitat.

MEADOWS On a larger scale, land managers are creating pollinator meadows in open areas that are currently farmed, maintained as turf grass or mowed. These are difficult-to-mow areas, or they are not heavily used by visitors. Finding these locations involves using aerial imagery and geographic data and maps. Once identified and verified as suitable, actual site conditions can be assessed and a plan can be developed. It can take up to five years to successfully convert these areas to viable habitat, and in some cases, specialized equipment, seed and technical expertise are necessary.

Strategic habitat
With the responsibility of managing nearly 500,000 acres of mostly undeveloped properties, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has tremendous potential to create, conserve and restore pollinator habitat.

Prompted by observations in the field of a variety of health issues, biologists, foresters, land managers, naturalists and planners have quickly become engaged in evaluating the problem, looking for solutions and implementing innovative strategies. These include creating pollinator-specific gardens, habitat and meadows.

In addition, the department is exploring opportunities with land management partners, including utility companies that maintain rights-of-way within state parks.

Last fall, the Maryland Park Service came to an agreement with Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, Inc. to identify and implement plans for such sites that could be converted to pollinator habitat through integrated vegetation management. Implementation of the plan began immediately with the cessation of mow- ing activity. The rights-of-way are to be inspected regularly to determine if limited spraying and removal of tree saplings is necessary, and any maintenance is to be conducted in accordance with pollinator-friendly protocols.

Expanding awareness
To educate the public, displays in nature centers, interpretive programming and additional content highlight the important role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems and the nation’s food supply. Nearly every state park nature center includes an exhibit where visitors learn about bats, bees, birds, butterflies and wasps.

To emphasize efforts and help visitors understand why certain areas are no longer maintained as mowed lawn, No Mow Zone signs are posted in affected areas to raise awareness and show what pollinator habitat looks like.

Making opportunities
One challenge is the lack of resources to properly plant and maintain habitat during the three to five years necessary to establish a healthy and self-sustaining mix of pollinator plant species. Planting meadows on a large scale is also hindered by a lack of equipment, funding and technical expertise. It is anticipated that some measures may require partnerships with firms that specialize in this type of planting or include provisions for habitat creation in agricultural leases.

Other challenges include addressing deer browse, controlling invasive species, ensuring that newly-established meadow areas do not detract from an area’s appearance and protecting areas from high visitor impacts.

Ruby-throated hummingbird on milkweed; by Debbie Koenigs

The department’s pollinator habitat creation and enhancement efforts are possible because the state owns and manages land that is set aside for conservation and protection purposes. Having protected fields, forests, meadows, stream valleys, waterways and wetlands in every county provides an important food and flyway. Additional lands are acquired for conservation each year, and dedicated staff works diligently to restore the health of pollinator populations.

If successful, common species will become more abundant, and perhaps there will be a return of the long-gone species like the regal.

Article by Mary Owens—planning and conservation programs director.
Appears in Vol. 20, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2017.