HOFFMAN – If you build it, they will come. That is what N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologists are hoping for after creating a wetland on the Sandhills Game Land in Scotland County.
Staff created the one-third-acre wetland in early October to provide more suitable habitat for the Carolina gopher frog and other imperiled amphibians.
Gopher frogs, which once were found across the Sandhills and Coastal Plain of North Carolina, are now down to seven known populations in the state because of the destruction and alteration of wetlands and upland longleaf pine habitats. For breeding, gopher frogs require large, isolated, grassy, temporary wetlands that fill and dry seasonally. They also require adjacent large tracts of fire-managed longleaf pine woodlands with plenty of tree stumps that provide burrows and allow the frog to spend much of the non-breeding season below ground.
The Sandhills Game Land is one of the few places left in North Carolina that provides the combination of these rare habitats.
However, the gopher frog needs a helping hand even on this protected land. Long-term droughts have caused the naturally occurring isolated wetlands across the Sandhills to hold too little water to support any gopher frog breeding over the past three years. Because the average life span of a wild gopher frog is not much longer than three years, the population of gopher frogs on Sandhills Game Land, which numbered fewer than 200 three years ago, could be in serious trouble.
While the North Carolina Sandhills are finally out of drought conditions, weather experts predict that droughts will become more frequent and severe in the future, making this a long-term challenge for many amphibians.
The Commission has been working to restore and enhance natural wetlands on the Sandhills Game Land and other locations across the state. To provide more immediate help for the gopher frog,Commission staff created a pond that should hold some water even in years when the groundwater table is too low to provide enough surface water in natural wetlands.
The wetland-construction project presented a challenge because of the large size of the wetland, the need for an engineered site plan, the use of heavy equipment to do precision work, and the coordination of 29 staff members and volunteers, according to Jeff Humphries, Piedmont-Coastal Wildlife Diversity biologist for the Commission.
“We worked with Tom Bebighauser, who is well known for creating hundreds of ponds across North America,” Humphries said. “We started by scooping a 140-foot diameter bowl out of an old field and lined it with a special-made layer of thick plastic. We then added soil and planted native wetland grasses and seeds to provide cover, food and breeding habitat for amphibians.”
The Commission will monitor the new pond for amphibian use, with the hope that gopher frogs and other amphibians will find the pond and use it for breeding.
North Carolina is home to a large number of amphibian species, ranking among the top states in the country for amphibian diversity. Commission biologists work to survey, research and monitor North Carolina’s amphibians, which are indicators of environmental health.
Funding for the Wildlife Resource Commission’s work with gopher frogs comes from the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund, which supports wildlife research, conservation and management for animals and the habitats that support them. Donations to the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund provide matching funds to projects benefiting nongame animals and their habitats.
North Carolinians can support this effort, as well as other nongame species research and management projects by:
- Donating to the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund on the state income tax form;
- Registering a vehicle or trailer with a N.C. Wildlife Conservation license plate;
- Buying a Wildlife Commission American kestrel T-shirt; and,
- Donating online at www.ncwildlife.org/give.