Could golf courses actually boost conservation?

There are 18,300 golf courses in the United States, encompassing some 2.7 million acres. University of Missouri, Columbia biologist Mark J. Mackey put it this way: “golf has become an appreciable portion of land use in the United States.” In a new paper recently published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, Mackey and colleagues explain that understanding the impact of intensively groomed golf courses on the surrounding ecology isn’t as simple as “good” or “bad.” Instead, they argue that studies of golf course ecology should focus on particular target organisms, the so-called canaries in the golf course coal mine, whose responses to the altered ecology might help researchers to better understand the impacts of golf landscaping more broadly.

Prior studies have found that golf courses can be beneficial for amphibians, butterflies, pond-dwelling invertebrates, reptiles, birds, and some small mammals. As the human impact on lands surrounding golf courses have intensified, golf courses have increasingly become safe havens for wildlife, urban islands of biodiversity surrounded by cars and concrete.

But each species has its own needs, and where one species suffers another might proliferate. Salamanders, on the other hand, may be particularly useful for understanding the impact of golf courses on the ecological landscape. That’s because they’re what’s called “indicator species” or “sentinel organisms,” at least in eastern North America, where they’re the most abundant stream-dwelling vertebrates. They are better indicators of biodiversity than just about any other species because they’re negatively affected by deforestation and other physical disturbances and by acidification of the streams near which they live. Their complex life history – their reproduction and larval growth happens in the water, while their metamorphosis and maturation occur on land – means that their survival is dependent on the quality both of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. If salamanders are doing well on golf courses, then that means that they are being provided with sufficient habitats of both kinds.

Mackey and his colleagues turned to ten golf courses in western North Carolina in the summer of 2009. They divided the streams within the courses into transects, one third of which were upstream of fairways, one third of which went “through” the fairways, and one third of which were downstream of the fairways. They trapped (and released) a total of 2215 salamanders of nine species during that time.

They found, unsurprisingly, that transects located on the fairways themselves had a lower abundance of salamanders at all life stages (larval, metamorph, juvenile, and adult) than either the upstream or downstream locations. Species diversity, however, did not differ according to the transect location. The researchers say that “the majority of golf course effects are likely the direct results of habitat alteration and maintenance on fairways.” Areas upstream and downstream from the fairway itself did not appear disturbed by maintenance activities on the fairway itself.

They also found that the waters on and downstream from the fairways did not show particularly high levels of pesticides and fertilizers. “Though the contamination of water bodies from golf course maintenance should still be considered a potential concern,” the researchers write, “our findings are consistent with a large-scale review in the United States which found no significant toxicological impacts from golf courses to groundwater and surface water.”

In addition, they discovered that the salamanders’ abundance and diversity were correlated with leaf litter depth and the amount of woody debris in and around the streams. In fact, the leaf litter was 97% shallower on fairways than upstream or downstream. To mitigate the effects of the intentional removal of fallen leaves and botanical debris (which is done for aesthetic purposes), the researchers propose that golf course landscapers build “small woody debris dams to collective leaf litter along streams.” That, they say, would improve the availability of food for salamanders, would increase the habitat for aquatic microorganisms, and would maintain higher water quality along the fairways themselves. Similar efforts could be implemented at other similar sites, like parks, cemeteries, historical sites, and elsewhere.

Taken together, the findings indicate that golf courses are not the blights on conservation and biodiversity that many think they are; salamanders appear to be doing well, and as “indicator species,” that reflects on the broader ecosystems.

But Mackey takes things a step further: rather than simply being conservation-neutral, he argues that golf courses could actually contribute to conservation efforts: “golf course design and management [could] increasingly become an asset in ecosystem management and biodiversity conservation and serve as models for ecological awareness and sustainability.” As a group, the 27.1 million golfers in the United States represents a large target for efforts at communicating conservation concepts and practices to the so-called general audience. “Golf courses can serve as opportunities for demonstration, the translation of scientific understanding into metrics of performance and cost under real world conditions, that is key in the progression of fundamental research to applied science,” he adds. Could golf courses become de facto mechanisms for conservation education and outreach? – Jason G. Goldman | 16 April 2014

Source: Mackey M.J., Connette G.M., Peterman W.E. & Semlitsch R.D. (2014). Do golf courses reduce the ecological value of headwater streams for salamanders in the southern Appalachian Mountains?, Landscape and Urban Planning, 125 17-27. DOI:

Image: Wikimedia Commons/New Brunswick Tourism.