Rare animals thrive beneath TVA power lines

Published: Oct. 22, 2019 at 5:30 PM EDT
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Hundreds of years ago, the Cumberland Plateau looked a lot different than it does today. There were bison, elk, and open prairie.

Now it’s forest, rivers and highways except in one surprising place.

The Tennessee Valley Authority owns 16,000 miles of power lines. Those rights of way, many less than 150 feet wide, are home to some of the southeast’s only remaining prairie.

"We found literally hundreds of threatened and endangered species, both on the state and federal level, on the TVA rights of way," officials said.

TVA teamed up with Austin Peay and Mississippi State to search these strips for more than just endangered plants and animals.

"These southeastern grasslands harbor lots of species we haven't even discovered yet," scientist Jovonn Hill said.

"Everything's tied together."

Scientists like hill are 'swishing' the bug net as part of three-year study.

Many of these power lines have been here since 1940. Before that, the Plateau was "covered over as far as the eye could see with vast herds of deer elk and buffalo," Hill said.

Austin Peay’s Dwanye Estes said only 1% of that former savanna is left.

"We think there's very important plant and pollinator habitats on these rights of way, and some cases found only on the rights of way, and not on adjacent lands."

If they can prove that, they can protect the pollinators and the plants they help. Hill said they need each other.

"They can't use just any flower in the yard, or out in nature. They have to have a certain plant to go to."

As the forest grew up around the 150-foot-wide prairies, these animals, once numerous, are now fragile.

"Whether you're a conservationist or not, or you consider yourself an environmentalist or not, a lot of people can rally around history."

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