CAROLINA BEACH — A surge in visitation to the Carolina Beach State Park, coupled with a lack of widespread awareness of protective behaviors, have made the habitat for the beloved, carnivorous flytrap less than ideal.
Loved to death
“(Venus) flytraps are the No. 1 concern,” said Carolina Beach State Park Superintendent Chris Helms. The tiny, carnivorous plants have an exotic allure, attracting invertebrates and humans alike.
Its spiked leaves and ruby red center coated with digestive enzymes trap unsuspecting insects with a quick clamp of its jaw. Well, quick for a plant.
Exclusively native to a 60-70 mile radius of Wilmington, the hometown hero is reportedly being loved to death.
The carnivorous plant is currently listed as a vulnerable species on the North Carolina Protected Plants List. The flytrap’s largest threat is human behavior, by both negligent and malicious action.
“Here locally in our park, I think that sometimes it’s just a case of someone who’s not a ‘criminal’ or a poacher per say, but they say, ‘they won’t miss this one plant’,” Helms said.
In other cases, visitors simply wander outside the designated trail and crush the tiny plant that may have motivated them off course in the first place.
“We want tourists to see the flytrap, but we don’t want them to stomp them,” Helms said.
State park up in visitation
Over 750,000 visitors enjoyed the riverfront park this year.
The park arrived at this large number through a pneumatic system, similar to how the Department of Transportation gathers its information.
In just the past two years, the number of annual visitors has increased by 200,000.
Poaching a single Venus flytrap could result in up to 25 months in prison
At 761-acres, Carolina Beach State Park is small for a state park, but a relatively large amount of natural land among a steadily dwindling stock of green space in New Hanover County.
“I think that as Wilmington is continuing to grow, there are less and less places, green spaces, less and less trails, less and less park-type areas for folks to enjoy,” Helms said.
While the park encourages visitors to enjoy their protected natural acreage, the increased visitation has come with unintended consequences.
To trap a poacher
“It’s very challenging to know for sure to know whether or not they were grown or if they were poached,” said Elizabeth Shirley, program director for the National Center for Outdoor Adventure and Education.
“People come in and try to dig them up and resell them,” Shirley said.
Carolina Beach State Park is one of the few places with a designated trail to view the Venus flytrap, even including weekend tours so that visitors can observe the peculiar plant responsibly.
However, due to an unfortunate trend of negligent hiking habits and periodic poaching, the flytrap trail no longer has any visible flytraps along the walkable pathway.
“I think that there’s enough of a black market on the Internet worldwide of folks that would like to have one from the wild,” Helms said. “There’s a certain element of that.”
To combat the growing concern of poachers and the diminishing number of wild flytraps, flytrap poaching was increased from a misdemeanor to a class H felony in 2014.
Poaching a single Venus flytrap could result in up to 25 months in prison.
“The plants we’ve got here at the park are holding their own, but hanging on,” Helms said.
The hydra effect
Helms sees the problem as multifold – less land, increased visitation, a lack of awareness.
Lesley Starke, plant ecologist for the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, echoes this perspective.
“The greatest threats to this species are poaching, fire suppression, which leads to habitat degradation, and habitat loss due to development or other types of land conversion in their natural habitat,” she said.
Increasingly in demand and rising in value, the natural habitat the flytrap thrives in is becoming fewer and far between.
“They do just grow in this very unique habitat that’s here in southeastern North Carolina in the wetland area,” Shirley said.
“The wetland area is growing and is becoming rapidly developed,” she said. “There’s less space for them to grow.”
The park thinks it’s time to engage before it’s too late.
Partnering with The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, the park earned “hot spot” status from the organization, indicating an increased level of environmental threat.
Leave No Trace specializes in responsibly educating public employees, volunteers and visitors on the impact of recreational use of a natural habitat.
The organization specializes its outreach programs according to the level of threat and highest issues of concern. Trainers arrive onsite for a week of engagement hosted by the park, with free events each day Oct. 6-9.
Jason Grubb, an outreach manager for Leave No Trace, understands the seriousness of the shrinking flytrap population.
Speaking in regard to the efforts of Carolina Beach State Park to combat misuse, Grubb was complimentary.
“We applaud them for their proactive approach in trying to enact some change before these issues become irreversible.”
Throughout the week of engagement, trainers aim to help change the behavioral norms that attributed to the flytrap’s current vulnerable conservation status.
“We are strategic in what we do, so that it carries on and isn’t more than just a one week visit, flash-in-the-pan thing,” Grubb said.
Next week, the park plans to plant flytraps along their designated trail in hopes that visitors can enjoy observing them rather than wandering off path to try and find them.
“We’ve actually have tried to work in-house, collected some seeds and actually did some resprouting, some growing of our own plants,” Helms said.
The seeds are about the size of a poppy seed. “So far, we have had a good regeneration from our seeds,” he said. “Our hopes now is that they will transplant well.”
The events this week are free and open to the public, for people of all ages to attend. For more information visit https://lnt.org/hot-spot-carolina-beach-state-park.
Johanna Ferebee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org