Monday, March 26, 2012

In Abundance or In Trouble?

In Abundance or In Trouble?
11 years of monitoring ramps populations
Article and photographs by Bryan Mudder 

        Since 2000, Joan Walker, research plant ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station has been monitoring populations of ramps (Allium tricoccum) in the mountain coves of western North Carolina.   Sometimes referred to as wild leeks, these perennial plants are among the first spring ephemerals to emerge during March and April.  After a hard winter in the mountains, with food stores running low, you can just imagine what a treat these fresh ‘greens’ would have been to both Native Americans and settlers living throughout this region in years past.  With their electric green leaves, plump, white bulb, and distinct odor – think freshly peeled onion overcome by just-minced garlic – ramps are easy to distinguish from other early arrivers.  Today, locals still harvest ramps for food, medicinal preparations, and to sell at markets at spring festivals.  In the spring you’re apt to see ramps on the menus of fine restaurants across the East.

        National Forests are responsible for promoting and maintaining biological diversity in order to sustainably deliver the valuable ecosystem services we all need.  These include clean air, clean water, healthy soil, abundant wood, recreational opportunities and other commodities that include herbs and edible plants.  During the mid-1990’s, concern was raised about overharvesting ramps in Canada (their northern range), where they’ve been since designated a vulnerable species and are no longer available for commercial sale.  Concerns about harvesting effects in the southern range (north GA, AL, and western NC) prompted Walker’s monitoring study, which investigates the distribution and size of ramps populations in two areas of the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina.  Despite the popularity of these plants, relatively little is known about the abundance, density, and distribution of ramps in this area. 

        The goal of our monitoring project is to track these ramps populations over time and determine whether they’ve been adversely affected by local harvesting, all in the interest of conserving this important species for future generations.  I started working on the project in 2007 as a biological science technician continuing the data collection effort.  We have 25 plots consisting of a central transect - 50 to 100 meters in length - with perpendicular sampling transects - each 10 meters in length - extending along either side at randomly determined distances.  The plots are distributed between 3500 feet and 5000 feet in elevation.  We quantify ramps cover, stem density, and soil disturbance using a line intercept technique.  For 11 years now, these same plots and transects have been carefully measured.  The following is a series of photos associated with our sampling transects taken every year during the monitoring study from a sub-plot 0.5m X 0.5m in size.

        In the years 2000, 2001, and 2005 some digging and/or harvesting occurred in a portion of our photo plot.  Bare mineral soil is exposed in the center and upper right portion of the plot.




        In subsequent years the area where soil was exposed remains void of ramps.



        It isn’t until 2010 that we see a few small ramps coming back.


        National Forest ramps harvest policies have not changed substantially in the last 5 to 10 years across individual Southern Appalachian management units.  Results from our research suggest that it may be time to critically examine the current harvest policy and perhaps take corrective measures, especially as forests are increasingly stressed by human and natural pressures.