Natural Heritage Program provides data for conservation efforts across state, region
by Sydney Cromwell
The native prairie lands of Alabama’s Black Belt may not have the postcard appeal of mountains or beaches, but they hold a special place in Al Schotz’s heart.
“To find the beauty, one has to look a little more deeply,” Schotz said. “The beauty is a little more subtle, but it’s there.”
These fertile prairies hold hundreds of grass and wildflower species, a bounty almost invisible to the average observer. As a botanist and community ecologist at the Alabama Natural Heritage Program, Schotz spends his days studying and cataloging endangered species — from prairies to wetlands and every biome in between — in order to guide conservation efforts across the state.
The Alabama Natural Heritage Program, based at Auburn University’s Museum of Natural History, is one of a network of similar programs across all 50 states, the Navajo Nation, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America. The Natural Heritage Network started in the 1970s with a goal of connecting conservation researchers to create the largest possible database about endangered species and ecosystems.
That database informs decisions made by federal and state governments, nonprofit groups and private landowners about what, where and how to conserve, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s determinations of which species are considered endangered.
Schotz said environmental organizations have bought land to protect it without knowing where “the rarest of the rare occur,” which is a problem when there aren’t enough dollars to fund everything that needs protection.
“When we know what we have, … that can help us prioritize our conservation efforts,” he said.
Alabama’s program has been in place since 1989 and creates rare species inventories for the state, including species found in each county and a special database for black bear sightings. The team produces distribution models for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) that consider environmental factors like soil, rain, topography and other species present to predict where endangered plant or animal life are likely to be found, Schotz said.
The Natural Heritage Program also provides mapping, conservation planning and environmental review through grants and contracts with different organizations.
This work is performed by a four-person staff — a botanist, a zoologist, a geographic information system (GIS) analyst and a database technician — with assistance from students and occasional outside researchers.
Schotz joined the team about 25 years ago, coming full circle from his time working with natural heritage programs in New York and Ontario during his time in college. Before that, he was a kid living on a farm in upstate New York, exploring woodlands with his siblings and developing a love of plants, reptiles, insects and “really any facet [or] component of the outdoors.”
Schotz said one of the early cultivators of his future career was the teacher of his 4-H forest appreciation course. Ms. Smith, Schotz recalled, had each student create a plant collection and a notebook identifying trees by their leaves, fruits and uses.
“I even remember, to this day, that I got one of my trees wrong and she crossed it out,” he said. “I can still see it after all these years.”
In the field
Schotz still has that childhood tree journal, though working as a botanist today looks rather different. During the warm months of the year, his work takes him across Alabama and the Southeast, including Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
One of Schotz’s recent projects through the Natural Heritage Program was to map invasive plant species at Redstone Arsenal on behalf of the Department of Defense, in order to know how fast the plants are spreading and create a plan to manage them and encourage native growth. The Auburn Museum of Natural History is also in the midst of a three-year project to document all types of rare species on the property, he said.
Schotz has been working on wetlands classification through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He said the goal is to find the best possible example of each particular type of Alabama wetland, such as a cypress swamp, and create a detailed database of the habitat conditions and species found there.
“These will be used to compare with other wetlands across not only Alabama but across the Southeast” to determine the health of similar ecosystems, he said.
Schotz recently got a grant to study the native prairies in the state’s “belt” of fertile agricultural land. The project will be an update to his 2007 research for the DCNR in Autauga, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Perry, Pickens, and Sumter counties, which identified existing prairies and surveyed the species found there. He also previously studied these same areas as part of his graduate research.
“I have a soft spot for prairies, so that’s why I pursued this Black Belt prairie initiative,” he said.
Schotz said the prairies are one of the most under-researched areas in Alabama and a lot of information about their biodiversity is missing. According to the Alabama Natural Heritage Program’s 2008 annual report, his research on prairies in 2007 led to the first sighting of the eared false foxglove, a rare purple flower, in Alabama since 1940.
In addition to research, Schotz said his current project includes outreach to landowners about prairie conservation. While prairie lands used to cover large swathes of Alabama, much of that acreage has been lost to urban and suburban development, agricultural use and the intrusion of eastern red cedar.
The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting prairies and other types of grasslands in the region, estimates that more than 90% of these habitats have been lost. For Alabama’s prairies, Schotz puts the number even higher: “With the Black Belt prairies, only about 1% remains.”
“Time is of the essence to put our boots on the ground and foster conservation efforts,” he said.
The role of public interest
Like the prairies, Schotz said not every region or endangered species is “charismatic” enough to get the kind of attention that leads to grants and conservation efforts. For every eye-catching orchid, there’s a species of moss that only the most specialized expert can tell apart from the other mosses around it, he said.
“People are drawn to the mountains, so we have a lot of information from the mountains,” Schotz said.
The comparative accessibility of public lands also means those areas are far better studied than private properties.
But researching and conserving fragile habitats and rare species, whether orchids or moss, isn’t a beauty contest, Schotz said. He continues to pursue grant opportunities to study the places and organisms that exist as “black holes” in the Natural Heritage Program’s current knowledge.
Schotz got grants to study two such species in 2019: Harper’s heartleaf ginger, found in four counties in south-central Alabama, and Wherry’s phlox, which has about five known populations, all of them in Alabama.
“It’s just truly a spectacular plant, really showy. I’m just surprised more people don’t know about it. … In my estimation [it’s] one of the most attractive plants we have here in Alabama,” Schotz said of Wherry’s phlox.
In his years of contributing to the Natural Heritage database, Schotz said not every report has resulted in the kind of preservation actions he’d like to see.
“We hope they’re going to be utilized. That’s the fear that I always have personally,” he said. “… When it leaves our hands, we have no control whether it’s on a bookshelf indefinitely.”
He frequently encounters apathy about conservation, or people who care but don’t know what needs to be done.
“I wish we could do more, and I guess any biologist would say that regardless of where they live. Alabama, it has one of the poorest conservation track records across the country. And I try not to get discouraged, I try to preach the gospel to people,” he said.
However, he’s encouraged by the direction of efforts from the state DCNR and even private landowners. By talking with farmers and property owners in Black Belt counties, Schotz said some have been open to options that would let prairie preservation co-exist with cattle, lumber and other agricultural industries.
“I’m certainly pleased, but there’s a lot that remains to be done,” Schotz said.
Visit the Alabama Natural Heritage Program’s website for more information about its work, including the rare species database and how you can report sightings of endangered species.