Inventory reveals the nature of Union County

Nov. 30, 2012 @ 07:00 PM

Unknown to most Union County residents, areas of pristine natural woodland containing rare and endangered life are all around their homes and schools.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resource and N.C. Natural Heritage Program just finished an inventory of these special areas and the ecosystems found in them. It details the oldests forests of native trees, plants that only grow in the special soil types found in Union County, rare plants only found in this region and endangered plants and animals found only in Union County. 

Biologist Bruce Sorrie spent about two years cataloging the plants and animals found in Union County. And he did not just look in any place. Sorrie looked for areas of the county untouched by human development and free of any alien, invasive species. He found 23 of these significant natural heritage areas around Union County, many of which are on privately owned farms or on government-owned conservation lands.

This was the first time Union County's flora and fauna has been catalogued by the N.C. Natural Heritage Program, NCDENR public information officer Jamie Kritzer said. Scientists relied on existing studies dating back to the 1700s in their search. While they feared the increased development locally has thinned the number of existing rare plants, the team was pleasantly surprised to find them in abundance.

"The scientists went in with a general idea of they types of plants and animals have been documented as living in some of these areas in the past, but they were surprised to find them living there in such abundance," Kritzer said.

The team found three locations where the most notible of the county's rare animals, the Carolina Heelsplitter, lives. The Federally Endangered Schweinitz's sunflower was found in several places in the county. Other rare species, like the Georgia aster plant, Piedmont aster plant, Carolina darter fish, Eastern Creekshell mussels, thickpod white wild indigo plant, Carolina birdfoot-trefoil plant and the loggerhead shrike bird.

The greatest concentration of special habitats was near Rocky River. The inventory mentions observing a family of bald eagles, which were rarely spotted in recent years.

Sorrie noted finding two plants that no one had reported seeing in Union County - the sole known population of Missouri rockcress and a patch of Piedmont Wild Pink.

"What it would indicate, even in one of the most developed areas of the state you have places that are still untouched and undeveloped where natural habitats still exist," Kritzer said.