Sandy Seep: Managing Rare Habitat
Updated: May 16
Almost half of Nan Awaya Farm is made up of an uncommon and threatened habitat type. Known as an acid hillside seep, it's a unique kind of landscape that exists only in the southern half of the Choctaw Reservation. The plant community it supports is considered unique in the state and rare globally. The Nature Conservancy manages Boehler Seeps and Sand Hills Preserve just a few miles from here, and it has a lot in common with the seep on Nan Awaya Farm. Through this post, we'll take you on a walk through this part of the farm and share a little bit about our continuing journey to learn to be good stewards of it.
When we're lucky, rain falls on the rolling hills of the farm’s uplands. Some of it gets taken in by plants and soil microbes, or absorbed by organic material in the soil. The water that doesn't get latched onto by thirsty things percolates down into the soil to reach the water table. The ground water continues to flow down hill and eventually comes to a place where the water table is exposed at the surface of the ground. At Nan Awaya Farm, this happens at the bases of the hills. Here, water seeps out, and feeds into the lowlands.
These lowlands stay wet about 11 months in the average year. Under your muck boots, the ground feels spongy. You can literally bounce on it and go up and down until your feet break through the surface vegetation. Then's it's grey, methane-smelling mud up to your knees. This is because of all of the plant matter that has built up in the oxygen-deprived soil over the years.
The plants in this type of community are unique. When we moved here, of course, the land had been overgrazed for years. It took a few years of different management to start to see what types of plants were surviving in the soil. Because of the soft soils, it had been difficult for past owners to spray, seed, or feed hay in the seep. Arial photos show that back in the 1950s someone even tried to channelize the seep and drain this land. Fortunately, they were unsuccessful. As a result, it's still full of native plants that have been living on this land since time immemorial. To date, Snakemouth orchid, swamp thistle, and blue flower eryngo have been documented growing in the seep. All three of these plants are rare in Oklahoma and had never been recorded in our county before.
Towards the center of the seep, a foot-deep, soft-bottom creek flows under the ferns, headed towards the deeper beaver ponds further downstream. The seep also includes areas with slightly higher elevation. Just a couple of feet makes a big difference in terms of how wet the soils are. Some of these elevated areas have plants more like what you find on the uplands.
The seep is home to a lot of life. Deer like to use it as a travel corridor. Last fall, I harvested two in the seep within 10 minutes of each other. Amy’s Dad harvests them here almost every year. Stone tool debris, left by Native people over the past 6,000 years on every hillside on the farm testifies that this seep has been a good place to live along and to hunt in for a very long time.
Figuring out how to best manage the seep continues to be an experience in learning about the land. We certainly aren't going to be driving a tractor across this seep most months, but what beyond that? We fenced it into several paddocks and have been grazing it on a rotating basis, just like our other pastures. The buffalo and horses love to eat the sedges and prairie cordgrass that grow here. We thought that with their small hooves they might have a tendency to get stuck in the much (think La Brea Tar Pits), but somehow the animals get around on it better that we do with our big, human feet. Because of its dampness, even in the D-4 drought that hit last summer, the plants in the seep kept growing. Although we can't graze our herd in the seep indefinitely, it does give our forage a buffer against drought.
As the seep was coming back from over grazing, it provided increasing forage for a while, but then that started to decline. This was because areas of the seep began growing up in young trees, many of then so tightly spaced that you can't walk through them. One day, we had a bon fire get away from us. We fought it hard on the upland side, thinking the seep would act as a fire break…As if!..When the flames hit the sedges in the bottomlands, the fire only intensified and swept across standing water. The next year, we had an explosion of sun-loving native plants, like swamp sunflower. That fall, monarch butterflies were all over the seep.
From the way that the plants combusted and responded after the fire, the seep is clearly a fire-adapted system. We’re building the infrastructure to be able to regularly burn the seep in a controlled way, but that takes time and the little trees are rapidly invading. In the summer of ’21 I started hand-clearing the brush out of a patch of the seep to see what would happen. The days I could get off work happened to be 96 degrees. Down in the seep there is no wind, and with the vegetation and open water all giving off water vapor, the summer humidity is extreme. I drunk 3 1/2 gallons of water each of the days I was working there. I didn’t know it was humanly possible to drink that much! After four days, I had a quarter of an acre cleared of underbrush. The results were positive, but hand-clearing in the summer was definitely not the way to go.
Later that summer, we hired the Bushwhackers to come mechanically clear several acres of the densest thickets (not where the rare plants were growing). They cleared more acres last summer. We had them remove the underbrush but leave blackgum, ash trees, and button bush here and there. We left all of the dense trees that cover the springs and that grow along the open water at the center of the seep. The idea was to bring the seep and its surrounding environments back to something more like how it might have looked had range fire not been suppressed for the past century. Clearing patches of brush would also create more diverse habitat, produce more forage, and make it easier to do controlled burns moving forward.
The results have been pretty striking. We’re seeing an explosion of sun-loving native plants that had been suppressed by over grazing and then by tree encroachment. This post’s title image has white-flowered plants in the foreground. This is 3ft tall White Wild Indigo. These native plants sprung up when the brush was removed. Another example is Foxglove beard tongue. This crazy-named plant is important ecologically, being a favorite of native long-tongued bees, like the bumble bee. In the time since we first visited this land in 2015, we’d seen maybe 10 of these plants total. This very moment, there are hundreds of them blooming throughout the areas of the seep that were cleared two years ago. We’re also seeing lots more spiny thistle. This plant produces the pollen of choice for at least 13 native species of bees, and the fluff on its seeds has long been used by Choctaw people to fletch blowgun darts. We’re also seeing a bunch of mountain mint come up. As I walk through the seep, I love to chew on its leaves, enjoying the cool, lemony mint flavor.
To me, the fact that these suppressed plants are sprining from the soil suggest that we’re on the right track to bringing the seep back to how it was long ago. We’ll be getting advice from credential conservationists as we go along, but if they continue to agree that we’re headed in the right direction, we’ll continue with some clearing. The plan is to end up with a combination of patches of open ground with a few trees and bushes interspersed, as well as some remaining patches of dense brush. Then, we'll start burning different portions different years. That should maximize habitat diversity.
Years ago, when we first walked into the seep, we saw it as a place with some potential, but also some drawbacks for starting a bison farm. Today, it is a productive piece of land that helps feed the herd. If properly managed, it’s also a place that supports all kinds of native life that is on decline almost everywhere else across the country. Yesterday, as we took the pictures you see, there were butterflies, pollinators, and birds everywhere out on a landscape of native plants. We’ve gone from being a little unsure about this part of the farm to being proud to call it a part of our home.