Seepage slopes key in Florida ecosystem
If you come across an open grassy area surrounded by higher elevations, moist and filled with thriving colorful flowers, such as trumpets, pitcher plants and orchids, you may have come across a seepage slope. In Florida, seepage slopes are found predominantly in the Panhandle area, the northern part of the peninsula and in parts of St. Mary's River in Northeast Florida. They play an important role in our state's ecological health. Seepage slopes are also known as pitcherplant bogs, hanging bogs, seepage bogs and herb bogs. They are actually wetlands on the side of rolling hills. The slope from the top of the hill to the seepage slope is generally about 30-50 feet. The soil existing in the slope itself is often sandy and saturated with water. During the wet season, sometimes there are streams cascading from the top of the hill down; however, during a drought, a seepage slope may dry out. Like many areas in Florida, a seepage slope is a unique ecosystem that is important to preserve. "When seepage slopes are degraded or lost, which can be due to development or conversion into ponds, we lose many endemic plants (plants found nowhere else), and animals as well," said Megan Brown, graduate student at the University of Florida, with Debbie L. Miller, professor of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation, UF.Seepage slopes are sometimes drained or used as borrow pits, which is just as damaging. The quality of water in nearby streams can be also be adversely influenced by negative impacts to seepage slopes. "Part of the degradation is due to past fire suppression, fire breaks and hog damage," said Brown and Miller, who explained that on private property, all-terrain vehicles can cause damage as well, as the vehicle tires tear through the slopes. Feral hogs trample and root the vegetation, particularly in the lower, wetter areas of the slope. Roads, ditches, right-of-ways and fire plow lines have also disturbed the hydrology of many seepage slopes. According to UF, "Only 1 percent of seepage slopes that originally existed along the Gulf Coastal Plain are still intact." Rare and endangered plants that are found in seepage slopes include flowers like panhandle lily, hummingbird flower, primrose-flowered butterwort and yellow fringeless orchid and plants like naked-stemmed panic-grass. Reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals also make their homes in the seepage slopes. The Florida bog frogs, southern coal skinks, bog dwarf salamanders, Louisiana waterthrush birds and even white-tailed deer and Florida black bears are just some of the animals that inhabit the seepage slopes and the surrounding areas. Luckily, in areas where seepage slopes are located on public land, such as Blackwater River State Forest and Eglin Air Force Base, effort is being made to manage and restore these slopes, as they are protected areas. Public education plays an important role in assisting, as does prescribed burns and feral hog control.. Lastly, it's important to leave what Mother Nature has provided. "Rare plants, such as pitcher plants, should be bought from horticultural enterprises that propagate and grow these plants commercially, not taken from the wild," Miller said.