The Greater Smoky Mountains landscape includes much of the southern Appalachians of northern Georgia, southwestern North Carolina and southeastern Tennessee. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the centerpieces of this landscape, but other important areas are lands included in the Cherokee, Nantahala and Chattahoochee National Forests.
There are a number of reptile and amphibian species that characterize this landscape and are of conservation concern. Eastern Hellbenders are found in the rivers and streams, and this landscape contains many of the best remaining populations of this species. Hellbenders rely on the clear, flowing streams that exist within these forested mountains. Timber Rattlesnakes require the mountain balds to provide the appropriate temperatures for gestating their developing young, and the surrounding forest is necessary to provide food for the snakes in the summer.
The Greater Smoky Mountains landscape has the highest diversity of Lungless Salamanders of any place in the world, as they thrive in the small streams, moist forests and downed woody debris of these mountains. The biomass of Lungless Salamanders is so great in these forests that the loss of them would have drastic effects on the food web of the region and would probably negatively affect many species. Finally, Bog Turtles, perhaps the rarest turtle in the United States, also rely on the mountain bogs.
Much of the Greater Smoky Mountains are protected from development through federal or state ownership. However, there are a number of important threats to the landscape, both from development on private lands within the region and from threats that occur despite the protected status of some of the lands. Threats include deforestation, increasing human population, fire suppression, stream erosion, loss of American Chestnut Tree, draining of mountain wetlands and invasive species. Fire suppression, loss of the American Chestnut Tree and invasive species are the biggest threats on protected land.
Combined, these forces lead to a loss of open spaces such as balds and bogs that support threatened species, and the encroaching vegetation is of lower diversity and lower value for wildlife, as invasive species are better suited to colonizing an open area than native species. As the ecosystem has historically been exposed to fire, native tree and other plant species respond well to fire, and so periodically-burned forests will have more native plant species that produce food for the resident wildlife. American Chestnuts disappeared due to disease, and with them were lost an important food source for wildlife.
Although the Greater Smoky Mountains are largely rural, human density is growing and many summer homes are being built in the area. This leads to both a loss of forest and an increase in roadways through the region. Mountain wetlands (including bogs) may be drained and destroyed to support these developments.
Agriculture is prevalent in the mountain valleys, and without proper protections for stream and rivers (such as forested buffers), waterways are degraded through siltation, trampling by livestock and runoff from fields. All of these contribute to rivers that have fewer amphibians, fish and macroinvertebrates.
The Greater Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia is the focal landscape of the Appalachian Highlands Initiative. This region is one of the most herpetologically-diverse regions in North America and has the highest diversity of salamanders in the world.
The Greater Smoky Mountains also contains some of the greatest remaining old-growth forests left in the eastern United States. From Red Spruce and Fraser Fir forests to northern hardwoods to high elevation mountain bogs and mountain balds, the southern Appalachian Mountains contain a level of biodiversity that rivals any other landscape on Earth, with over 10,000 species calling their slopes and valleys home. Black bears, grouse, whitetail deer, beavers—the Greater Smoky Mountains houses them all and is more than just a landscape. It’s one of the true centers of biodiversity found in the world and an important aspect to a culture that prides itself on living in one of the last wild places in the United States.
However, the loss of the American Chestnut, the introduction of invasive species, deforestation, human population encroachment, fire suppression and the draining of mountain wetlands are taking its toll on this ecosystem and the animals that inhabit it. The degradation of this wild ecosystem has caused the decline of many wildlife species, including reptiles and amphibians such as the Hellbender Salamander and the Timber Rattlesnake.