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April 14, 2014

Forest agency seeks info about rare SC species

It doesn’t take long to know you’re in the home of the Carolina Gopher Frog, a rare species that seeks shelter in the 258,000-acre Francis Marion National Forest near Charleston.

It doesn’t take long to know you’re in the home of the Carolina Gopher Frog, a rare species that seeks shelter in the 258,000-acre Francis Marion National Forest near Charleston.

These small, toad-like amphibians crank out plenty of noise as they call for mates each winter and spring. Biologists liken the sound to a snore that ebbs and flows during the night.

But this unusual species, as well as others that inhabit the Francis Marion, could disappear from the forest one day if federal land managers aren’t careful.

That’s why the U.S. Forest Service is holding a three-day meeting in Columbia beginning Tuesday to learn more about dwindling species and how the agency should plan to protect them on the vast Lowcountry woodland.

It’s part of the service’s effort to write a new forest management plan for the first time in 18 years. The plan, akin to a zoning ordinance for trees and wildlife, will help guide the service on how to oversee the Francis Marion in coming years. All national forests have management plans, including the Sumter National Forest in the Upstate and mountains of South Carolina.

Including accurate information about wildlife in the plan can help the Forest Service decide, for instance, when and where to harvest trees. Or the plan could help the service determine whether to improve habitat to help animals such as the Carolina Gopher Frog.

The Forest Service has an idea of how many rare species are on the Francis Marion, but wants to make sure the list is complete and learn what others think about managing for wildlife. Those invited to the April 15-17 meetings in Columbia, which are open to the public, include other wildlife experts from state agencies, outdoor recreation groups and consultants.

“This is a good idea,’’ said Lowcountry conservationist Dana Beach, who said the Francis Marion National Forest is a unique place that should be taken care of.

“It is one of the great places on the East Coast,’’ Beach said. “It is almost a complete transect of habitat types, from brackish marsh, to salty marsh to these higher oak and hickory hammocks,’’ he said. “And its a stronghold for endangered species.’’

Perhaps the most notable rare species is the red-cockaded woodpecker, a bird dependent on old growth long-leaf pine trees, which also are rare. It is officially protected under the Endangered Species Act, although many species with dropping populations are not.

Other rare species at the Francis Marion include the pine snake, the swallow tailed kite and the black bear. Black bears aren’t endangered and appear to be increasing on the Francis Marion, but they also need attention to protect them in the long-run, biologists say.

The meetings will begin each day at 9 a.m. at the forest supervisor’s office at 4931 Broad River Road.

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