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Can GLO Notes Help Find a Sleeping Giant?

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Saturday, January 27, 2018

by Patrick Solomon

River cane (Arundinaria gigantea) is one of three bamboos native to North America. It can often be found growing along the banks of small streams and on the sandbars of larger rivers. As an evergreen, it most likely stands out to the casual observer during the winter months settled against a backdrop of the drearier browns and greys of a deciduous forest. Canebrakes are a unique wildlife habitat and environmental feature consisting of individual stems of river cane growing in such close proximity that they form a dense mass or thicket.

Canebrake habitat once grew in abundance throughout the southeastern portion of the United States, and was a dominate feature on the North American landscape when European colonists first arrived. These dense thickets provided a protective sanctuary for a great number of wildlife. Canebrake rattlesnakes, black bear, wild turkey, swamp rabbits, and white-tailed deer are among the species known to have taken advantage of canebrake habitat. Bachman’s warbler, a species of bird believed to now be extinct, is a particular species that heavily relied on canebrake habitat to make a living.

While river cane can still be found with relatively minimum effort growing throughout the southeast, the great swaths of dense cane thickets are largely a thing of the past. Today, canebrakes are considered to be critically endangered habitat, having been reduced by as much as 98 percent of its original size. For this reason it has become the focus of conservation efforts in Arkansas and across the southeastern United States.

The presence of river cane and canebrake habitat on the North American landscape is well documented by early European explorers and surveyors. As an evergreen with a tendency to grow in large monocultures, cane and canebrakes are something that stood out on the landscape. Cane made for good livestock forage and was considered to be an indicator of good drainage and suitable soil for cultivation. At times, dense cane impeded the progress of surveyors and was recorded as a great nuisance to their work. For these reasons, cane was consistently documented by early explorers and surveyors.

The preponderance of cane and canebrake occurrences recorded in surveyor notes is advantageous for a study of historical canebrake populations in Arkansas. Methods described by ANHC botanist Brent Baker, in his article “Historical GLO Notes Could Help Endangered Pondberry” regarding the search for historical accounts of pondberry (Lindera melissifolia), are commonly employed by scholars looking to better understand the historical context of our present environment. Primary sources, such as the General Land Office Survey (GLO) notes and maps, have already been used in Alabama to map 19th century cane and canebrake habitat. Applying these methods in a search for cane in Arkansas reveals the previous extent of cane within the state and provides data that might be used to better conserve or restore cane and canebrake habitat.

Similar to Alabama, the presence of cane on the landscape in 19th century Arkansas was commonly recorded by government surveyors and their crews. This is especially prevalent in notes correlating with land in and around waterways such as the Arkansas River. In these reports, surveyors regularly recorded cane as being present in the forest’s undergrowth. In the GLO notes for Jefferson County, surveyors often recorded cane in the undergrowth of larger tree species such as oak, hickory, hackberry, elm, and cottonwood. As part of the forest understory complex, it is reported that cane grew alongside other shade tolerant species including swamp bush, spicewood, dogwood, and green briers.

Adjectives used to describe cane in many of these settings include “light,” “little,” or “small,” and likely refer to areas where cane was growing in circumstances similar to what we see today. There are occasions, however, when surveyors record the cane as being "heavy," "thick," "dense," or even "rank" in some cases.

 

 

It is likely that places reported as having thick or dense cane are sites where cane grew in quantities large enough to be considered canebrake habitat. It is important to distinguish between locations where cane was growing heavy and dense compared to places where, according to the surveyor, cane was growing light or thin. The difference between the two cases is likely the difference between areas where a few cane stems were growing relative to locations where cane was growing heavy enough to be considered canebrake habitat.

Combing through the GLO survey notes can be an exciting adventure. You never know what environmental conditions or odd land feature you may stumble upon. Surveyors often recorded sites such as old Native American villages, or places where soil disturbances suggest the historical presence of bison. It is easy to get caught up in the narratives and begin to visualize the land as the surveyors encountered it.

While searching through the GLO notes might be exciting and fun, it can also be a daunting task. The original handwritten notes are in flowery cursive, making them difficult to decipher. The sheer amount of data can be overwhelming as well, for Jefferson County alone there are 3,697 digitized pages of notes.

Obtaining information regarding the locations of historical canebrake habitat, especially in cases where cane grew very dense and over large amounts of land, ultimately lends a hand in the restoration and protection of this rare habitat. Once these locations have been identified, we can examine the specific environmental characteristics that are associated with the habitat. Understanding the environmental trends where canebrake habitat has historically grown, including soil types, elevation, proximity to water, and even proximity to cultural sites, allows land managers and conservationists to predict sites that are inherently equipped to host future restoration projects. While there may be only a little cane to see on the surface now, there may be a sleeping giant within.

Images:

Top right, Plate 1, Wild Turkey, by John James Audubon. Cane plants can be seen behind the turkey in the image.

Middle section: Excerpts from GLO notes. First excerpt describes light cane; second excerpt describes heavy cane.



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