By Michele S. Byers
How can you tell if an ecosystem is healthy? Take a look at the plants and animals living there. In New Jersey, especially the southern counties, one sign of healthy forested wetlands and headwater streams is the presence of the evergreen lily known as swamp pink (Helonias bullata).
The plants produce a beautiful and unusual looking bloom, a grapefruit-sized cluster of tiny, bright pink flowers with blue anthers atop a long, slender stalk. They are often found together with other sensitive species, including unusual orchids like the southern twayblade, and forest interior birds like Acadian flycatchers and prothonotary warblers.
Swamp pinks were once abundant, but have declined sharply due to impacts from humans and white-tailed deer. The plant was federally listed as a threatened species in 1988, and in New Jersey it is endangered.
Humans dry out swamp pink habitats by drilling too many wells, pave over aquifer recharge areas, and disturb land so that rainfall turns into sediment-laden floodwater. On the New Jersey coastal plain, humans chew through sandy uplands with bulldozers, destabilizing soil and causing headwater streams to become clogged with sand, burying the delicate swamp pink rosettes.
Swamp pinks that survive the onslaught of human-caused habitat damage also must withstand overabundant white-tailed deer. Hungry deer eat the tender swamp pink flower buds shooting up in mid-April, when food sources can be scarce. Deer also munch their evergreen leaves year-round.
Some swamp pink populations that once had hundreds of blooms each April have been virtually eliminated by deer. On Mason’s Run in the Camden County borough of Pine Hill, wire cages placed around wild swamp pink plants proved they can recover and flower when protected from deer.
But swamp pinks just got some good news in the form of a $250,000 federal grant to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to help preserve their habitat. The grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Cooperative Species Conservation Fund will go toward buying land along Cumberland County’s Cohansey River that contains swamp pink habitat.
“This unique and beautiful wetlands wildflower is very sensitive to environmental degradation, so preservation of any land that supports swamp pink also preserves some of our most pristine land,” noted Ray Bukowski, the DEP’s assistant commissioner for natural and historic resources.
“One of the best strategies for protecting swamp pinks is land acquisition,” said Alicia Protus, a biologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s New Jersey field office. “That will certainly help with staving off any development impacts.”
Several projects will also help with deer impacts.
For years, naturalist and photographer Michael Hogan of the South Jersey Land and Water Trust has expanded deer fence protection projects, building wire cages all across southern New Jersey and stewarding a 5-acre fenced swamp pink population.
Protus said two other deer fencing projects are in the works to protect South Jersey swamp pink populations. In addition, her department uses cages to protect individual plants or clumps of plants.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also partners with groups to protect swamp pinks.
“We have one Partners for Fish and Wildlife project in the works in Camden County,” explained Protus.
Biologists plan to install deer fencing and cages around an important swamp pink population and track how the plants fare after installation.
“The population has had a persistent herbivory issue for several years and has declined in number, so we are hoping the fencing will give the plants an opportunity to bounce back,” Protus said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also runs an “Adopt a Swamp Pink Population” program, in which volunteer citizen scientists monitor locations with known swamp pink populations and collect data on the size of clumps and how many plants bloom.
Right now, about 61 percent of the world’s swamp pinks are found here in the Garden State. The southern counties – especially Cumberland, Cape May, Ocean, Salem and Burlington – are strongholds, although swamp pinks are also found in Atlantic, Gloucester, Camden, Monmouth and even small areas of Middlesex and Morris.
Smaller populations occur in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
Kudos to federal, state and private efforts to protect swamp pinks, which truly are “canaries in a coal mine.” By protecting the land around them and safeguarding clean water, we can hopefully restore their populations.
For more information about swamp pinks and how to volunteer for the “Adopt a Swamp Pink Population” program, go to www.fws.gov/northeast/njfieldo ffice/Endangered/swamppink. html
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org