Only a few miles from the North Carolina-Tennessee border, Big Yellow Mountain is an open, grassy bald with spectacular views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. The bald has stayed bald in different ways throughout the years—prior to European settlement, elk and bison grazed the area. Perhaps before that, mastodon. Climate and fire have done their fair share of management on Big Yellow, too.
The Nature Conservancy acquired 426-acres of Big Yellow in 1975 from the Avery family, who had owned the land for nearly two-hundred years. Adam Warwick, our Southern Blue Ridge Stewardship Manager, currently maintains the bald alongside local families who bring their cattle to graze the area. In many ways, we are continuing the management that this land has always known. But we’re not shying away from asking new questions.
While standing on Big Yellow, you can make out the faint outline of a barbed-wire fence along the outer edges of the bald. It is the first aspect you’ll see of the camera trap work that our Director of Science Dr. Liz Kalies is doing in collaboration with Warwick to monitor local wildlife populations on the mountain. The fence line keeps cattle from grazing across the whole bald and allows for denser understory in some spots, which may prove to be better habitat for small mammals. That is what our camera traps are there to find out.
“Cameras provide some measure of occupancy of indicator species, like eastern spotted skunk and rock vole,” explained Dr. Kalies on a recent trip to Big Yellow. Indicator species are exactly what the name expresses—plants or animals that demonstrate the health of an ecosystem with their presence. On Big Yellow, we’re holding out for a spotted skunk sighting. Although incredibly elusive, spotted skunks enjoy good ground cover and their presence would affirm the need for more groundcover.
Our camera trap work is less about quantitative results—animals aren’t tagged—as it is about getting more eyes on the ground. “It’s fun being at TNC because it gives me the freedom to play around with the tools and not worry about statistical significance, which would be overkill in this case,” Kalies mentioned while switching out memory cards on one of the traps. Camera traps at Big Yellow take three photos and a ten-second video with audio when their motion-sensor is triggered. We have staff and volunteers who upload the footage collected and identify animals recorded.
Warwick installed the fences in 2015, and we are already seeing change to the landscape. What used to be grazed in totality is growing rich with native grasses, forbs and legumes. With these changes, our management is changing, too. As the richer groundcover welcomes a growing midstory outside the fence line, our Chapter is keeping tabs on trees to ensure that rare plants—like three-toothed cinquefoil and mountain oat grass—are given enough room to thrive.
Over the next few years, we will continue our work at Big Yellow alongside our local partners. We recently transferred some land to the U.S. Forest Service and are managing the remaining 400 acres alongside the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. More than ever, we rely on the support and generosity of the surrounding community and of the families who have remained faithful to Big Yellow throughout the years.