BY GARY PEEPLES
In 1975, the number of nesting pairs of peregrine falcons in North America bottomed out at 344.
In 1999 — after the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked with several state wildlife agencies and nonprofits to release thousands of birds into the wild — the falcon was removed from the endangered species list.
To help ensure this success into the future, each year, the U.S. Forest Service temporarily closes many of Western North Carolina’s tall cliffs used by nesting peregrine falcons because of the bird’s sensitivity to human disturbance. This means rock climbers give up some of their best routes for months, while this rare bird returns to a nest, spruces it up, lays eggs, then hatches and fledges the young falcons. Rock climbers, through their sacrifice, have been key to the peregrine’s continued success.
The peregrine falcon is the world’s fastest bird. It’s charismatic. It has been revered by cultures around the world and through time. When it was taken off the endangered species list, 2,000 people showed up for the ceremony in Idaho, and the Boise State University marching band performed.
On the other hand, spreading avens is a plant most have never seen nor heard of. It was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1990. In the entire world, it lives only at the highest peaks in the Southern Appalachians, where people like to hike. One of its threats? Being inadvertently trampled beneath a hiker’s boot.
Spreading avens is just one of the protected plants in our area that are endangered or threatened. So are Roan Mountain bluet, mountain golden heather and Heller’s blazing star. All imperiled. All found only in the Southern Appalachians. All occurring at popular areas. All impacted by trampling.
Maybe you’ve seen “area closed” signs while hiking at Roan Mountain, Mount Mitchell State Park or at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Craggy Pinnacle. Area closure signs typically exist for one or both of two reasons — to protect you or to protect natural resources. Elisha Mitchell, the man for whom Mount Mitchell is named, fell to his death not far from the peak of his namesake mountain. No one wants anyone else following suit.
On the ecological side, the high peaks that draw visitors are home to habitats found nowhere else in the world, and with these rare habitats come rare species found nowhere else in the world. Those rare plants and animals are part of our natural heritage, and the challenge of stewardship is on us.
Hiking season is erupting for another year. Our natural areas are one of our region’s greatest draws — and with good reason. So, by all means, get out there. Hike your favorite trail. Find a new favorite trail. Take someone who has never been hiking.
But also help us. Help us conserve part of what makes this area unique. Help us make a difference with some of our rarest species by joining thousands of visitors in the simple act of staying on trails and heeding any “area closed” signs. In the great scope of things we can do to make our planet a better place, this is a pretty small ask. But it can make a tremendous difference.
Gary Peeples has 20 years of experience working in endangered species conservation as a biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Asheville field office, which coordinates threatened and endangered species recovery in Western North Carolina.