published Monday, May 12th, 2014

Agreement to protect flower across Southeast

Purple aster bush
Purple aster bush

ATLANTA — A threatened flower called the Georgia aster that once flourished across the Southeast may find better protection now that a utility company, highway crews and local governments are promising steps to protect it.

The purple aster grows best in woodlands and prairies with plenty of sunshine and acidic soils. Scientists say it once flourished across much of the Southeast before large grazing animals were pushed out of the region and humans started controlling wildfires, which naturally clear land and create the conditions favorable for the flower. It's now found in parts of Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

While natural prairie land has decreased, the flower can be found on sun-exposed land when humans create prairie-like conditions. For example, biologists have found the aster growing along the access roads that utilities build beneath power transmission lines. Workers keep those pathways free of overhead vegetation and periodically mow the ground. Other spots include mowed land along highways and interstates.

"It's basically mimicking the large grazing area," said Mara Alexander, a botanist for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Federal officials reached an agreement with groups including utility company Georgia Power, state highway officials and local government and landholders to agree to steps meant to help save the flower. For example, work crews maintaining rights of way will agree not to mow them from mid-May through mid-November. That will spare the aster from being cut during its growing season.

Under the deal, those signing the agreement promise not to blanket areas with herbicides, which can kill the aster, and instead spray chemicals only where needed. The agreement also calls for regular counts of aster populations, which should give environmental authorities more information on how the plant is fairing.

"We're interested in protecting biodiversity, that's really part of our mission statement," said Chris Matthews of the Mecklenburg County, N.C., Park and Recreation Department, which will be conducting counts on its lands. It periodically sets small fires on its preserves to manage brush, which allows plants like the Georgia aster to grow.

At least some concerned with the plant's health are concerned the voluntary agreement will not go far enough.

The Center for Biological Diversity has long urged the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Georgia aster as an endangered species, offering it more legal protection.

"There's not a lot concrete in some of these plans, and it will be hard to measure whether they are effective," said Noah Greenwald, the center's endangered species director. "I think the Fish and Wildlife Service tends to want to avoid conflict. They essentially want to keep their heads down."

Federal officials, however, see the agreement as taking practical steps that could head off the need for larger interventions.

"I think if these conservation measures are taken we will not need to list the species," Alexander said. "There are a good number of populations. If we can abate the threat through these conservation measures, there should not be any reason to list it."

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