Category Archives: Ecology

Climate Change, Wetlands & Mitigation: A Workshop at Stetson University

Last week I traveled to St. Petersburg, Florida for the first time and walked along the beach in the dark. Moonlight sparkled on the waves, which I couldn’t see because it was pitch-black. The strange sound of chirping birds at my feet caught me off guard because I couldn’t see them; I spun around shining the Assistive Light app on my smartphone to light my path through the dark sand.

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Ed Thomas spoke about climate change adaptation and flood mitigation in a wetlands context

The Environmental Law Institute partnered with Stetson University College of Law to hold a workshop on the legal and scientific responses to a Supreme Court case known as Koontz. Nearly 70 people attended the workshop. For a local radio coverage of the workshop, click here.  I posted live Tweets for @ELI_Wetlands throughout the workshop, while the speakers, including renown wetlands ecologist, Dr. William Mitsch, Director of the Everglades Wetlands Research Park in Florida, and Ed Thomas, President of the National Hazard Mitigation Association, led the discussion. Royal Gardner, a professor of environmental law at Stetson and author of the book, Lawyers, Swamps and Money, framed the issues. (I’m reading his book now, thanks to Ed!) A series of panel discussions rounded out the day, ending with a pool-side reception, where the conversation about wetlands continued. It was a lively discussion enriched by student and audience participation during the small group break-out sessions. In my group, a number of participants discussed the NGO perspective of wetlands implications of the Koontz case. For more information about the Koontz case, see this SCOTUS blog post. (Supreme Court blog)

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Healthy Waters Coalition – What’s on Our Minds, In Our Hearts

At my Healthy Waters Coalition meeting tonight, where we discussed the value of accurate, balanced information about oil spill prevention, I accidentally spilled pink lemonade across the agenda.  (From now on, the incident will be remembered as the “pink spill,” and it can be added to a long list of funny things I have done while leading coalition meetings.) I began to think about what’s really motivating our efforts to inform and educate Sebago Lakes Region citizens and local businesses about watershed issues.

We are a water-based economy here in this part of southern Maine. Boat rentals and recreation-based businesses, real estate and restaurants, florists and landscaping contractors, summer camps for children and accommodations (think: Inn by the Pond), not to mention waterfront property in towns–and property taxes paid to Towns–all bring in millions of dollars in annual revenue for the Sebago Lakes Region. The State of Maine tracks the annual revenue for freshwater fishing and accommodations for several Lakes Region towns. Wetlands are valued for their ecological services, too, and that translates to dollars. Real dollars. Wetlands attenuate flooding and aid in filtering waters to provide good water quality in our groundwater, which produces the drinking water for those who have private wells.  All of the headwater streams (94-100% of streams) in the region are located in Source Water Protection Areas (SPAs), meaning that they directly feed into a public drinking water system. In our region, that system is Sebago Lake, which is so clean, it’s exempt from the federal filtration requirement, an expensive option if ever it were to become necessary for the Portland Water District to put in place.

I want to reach out to other groups engaged in an open dialogue about the possible transportation of oil sands through New England and the importance of protecting our local watersheds, local economy–as the two are interconnected.  While the HWC already has members in 8 Lakes Region towns, representatives from local government boards and committees, watershed organizations, local businesses and other interests, such as Saint Joseph’s College, and we have partnered with some fantastic environmental and conservation-oriented nonprofit organizations already, I’d like to connect the Healthy Waters Coalition with a broader network.  I’m interested in connecting with folks at ConservAmerica, town and city revitalization committees, regional Chambers of Commerce, and the business community. We have so much invested in our waters. While pondering this, I scribbled some thoughts and turned it into this info-graphic (below). I like how it came out. Let me know what you think.

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Afflicted Bats Need Avengers; Bat Counters Needed

Lots of people are talking about “Batman.” Why did the “dark knight” choose bats as a symbol for his vigilantism?  In the comics, Bruce Wayne creates his ‘Batman’ identity when he conquered his childhood fear of bats. He created the illusion of having the speed, agility and nocturnal instincts of the only mammal able to sustain flight: the bat.

Although some people readily see the value of bats—including wetlandkeepers—other people are afraid of bats. Myths about bats, such as that bats carry rabies, are unfounded. Less than 1% of bats carry rabies. An individual is more likely to come across a skunk or domestic dog with rabies, than to encounter a bat with rabies. However, it is likely nowadays to find a bat infected with another disease. That is, if you can find a bat at all. Bats are sending up their own “bat-signal” of distress and need our help.

Currently bats in the U.S. are suffering the plight of white nose syndrome, a deadly fungus infection affecting a growing number of bat populations in North America. It started in New York in a bat colony in 2006. The fungus, Geomyces destructans, is considered an invasive species (Lanwig, Frick, et. al. Ecology Letters, 2012). Five years later, the disease has spread to 19 different states.  The death toll of North American bats succumbing to white nose syndrome was 5.5 million as of January 2012.

Myth: Bats will (not) entangle in your hair. Fact: Bats are natural pest control for crops. Myth: Bats suck blood. Fact: You’d have to leave the United States to find a vampire bat. The most common bats in the United States eat insects. Those of us in mosquito-stricken areas of the country, like Maine, are aware of bats’ ability to consume thousands of mosquitoes in a single night. Bats like to swoop through wetlands and riparian areas, and in turn, bat guano fertilizes vegetation. What most people don’t know is that “bat guano is big business” outside the U.S. as a source of fertilizer.  Also see: Effects of wetland network distribution on bat activity.

The most recent studies show that the more “social” the bats are, the tighter the cluster of bats in a colony, the more likely the disease is to spread. The grim reality is that the fungus has wiped out bat populations by the hundreds of thousands throughout the country. It’s in Delaware. It’s in Missouri. It’s in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.  White nose syndrome has been confirmed in Wyoming and Maine, too. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a protocol for treatment and reduction of spreading the white nose syndrome in June 2012. For instance, if you handle a bat with white nose syndrome while wearing gloves, be sure to wash the gloves in hot water afterwards.

What’s strange is that not every bat infected with the fungus is dying. Sometimes a bat infected with white nose syndrome can live for a full year or longer after infection. In other cases, such as the big brown bat, scientists don’t know how the bats are avoiding the white nose syndrome; it might have to do with migrating south as opposed to huddling together in the infected caves, where the fungus is present. The endangered Indiana bat has not been hit as hard as biologists feared (their population is down about 70%).  One of the most common bats in the Northeast, the little brown bat, has taken a nosedive –its population plummeting by 90% due to white nose syndrome. SeeNortheastern Bat Update and Bats on the Brink.  There has been some hope in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire:  some of the little brown bat colonies are surviving and having pups, based on reports from state Fish and Game agencies. State agencies are calling for citizens to count bats and help promote awareness about them. In addition to research in the U.S., this year happens to be ‘Year of the Bat’ for international research and awareness about bats across the globe.

For the FWS’ blog on White Nose Syndrome, visit:http://whitenosebats.wordpress.com/
For information on Vermont’s Bat Program, click here.
For information on New Hampshire’s Bat Program, click here. 
For National Park Service (KY)’s Bat Program, visit:http://www.nps.gov/maca/whitenose.htm
Also see related blog post, White-nose syndrome confirmed in endangered gray bats

Restoring Lost Ecological Connections: Fish Ladders and Dam Removal

Growing up in midcoast Maine I was accustomed to celebrating the return of the alewives, an anadromous, or sea-run fish, each spring. Recently a project to restore the fish ladder for the alewives has neared completion in a stream at Damariscotta Mills. The Maine state legislature called for a fish passage in 1741, which led to the town finally building the fish ladder in 1807 to allow the alewives to return to Maine’s streams, ponds and lakes to spawn. The project to rebuild the old fish ladder began 200 years later in 2007 and has entered a final phase in 2012. One challenge for the restoration crew has been to make sure that the fish ladder was functional for the alewives each season. The running of the alewives just occurred in late May/early June.

Meanwhile, another river in Maine supports the run of alewives, salmon, sturgeon and other sea-run fish: the Penobscot, Maine’s largest river. A major component of a restoration project to restore critical habitat in Maine’s largest watershed is underway this week along the Penobscot River. The Great Works Dam on the lower part of the river is being removed this week. See a video of this dam removal (June 11, 2012). This is the culmination of a lot of planning over the past eight years on the part of federal, state and tribal governments, along with nonprofit and for-profit parties.  These have included the State of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, Penobscot Nation, Maine Audubon, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, Atlantic Salmon Federation and other partners. Together they form the Penobscot River Restoration Trust. This project began in 1999, but an essential agreement formed in 2004 laid the groundwork for the collaborative restoration efforts. This unprecedented agreement set out to accomplish these things:

  1. Restore self-sustaining populations of native sea-run fish, such as the endangered Atlantic salmon;
  2. Renew opportunities for the Penobscot Nation to exercise sustenance fishing rights;
  3. Create new opportunities for tourism, businesses and communities;
  4. Resolve long-standing disputes and avoid future uncertainties over the regulation of the river.

The agreement further laid out a plan to remove two dams on the lower part of the river, including the Great Works Dam removed this week, and to construct fish bypasses by a third dam and to improve fish passage at four other dams. In 2007, the Penobscot River Restoration Trust and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the project, and added that it would have far-ranging benefits on the Gulf of Maine, protecting endangered species, migratory birds, as well as riverine and estuarine wetlands. It would also enhance recreational activities, such as paddling and fishing and watching wildlife.  The riverine habitat is home to osprey, kingfishers, otters and bald eagles. The project has been widely known as one of the most innovative river restoration projects in the nation.

Some members of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust have made comparisons to the 1999 dam removal on the Kennebec, which was among notable dam removal projects that set a trend throughout the country. The two rivers share some of the same ecological communities. Those involved with monitoring the Kennebec since 1999, have noted a return of more birds, namely osprey and bald eagles, due to the increased number of alewives present, a food source for the birds of prey. “It’s restoring some of the lost ecological connections in the river. First, we’ve seen the rebuilding of the herring run. And now we’ve seen the building of the eagle and osprey populations,” according toAndrew Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

The Penobscot River and its tributaries flow through the Maine North Woods to Penobscot Bay, in midcoast Maine. Scientists began collecting baseline data for monitoring wetlands, rare plants, invasive species, geomorphology, water quality, smolt telemetry (tagging and monitoring the actively migrating young salmon), tracking fish movements and fish communities, including sturgeon, salmon and other species, in 2009. See monitoring poster. For more information about the monitoring work with sturgeon,click here.

Dam removal, fish passage and river restoration projects are happening in other parts of the country, too. Trout Unlimited has recently blogged about the legacy of “Making rivers whole again” and what’s considered the largest dam removal project in the country is underway in the Olympic wilderness of Washington state. The Elwha Dam removal project began last fall to restore the Elwha River and ecosystem. It’s managed by theNational Park Service. A recent look at case-studies on dam removal and legislation in the U.S. from an energy perspective was provided in “Exploring the Reasons behind Dam Removal.” In addition, the Connecticut River has become the first National Blueway thanks to the efforts of over 40 local, state and federal government agency and nonprofit and for-profit coalition members. The designation will improve recreational opportunities for boating, canoeing, trail-building and conservation along the river in four states: CT, NH, MA and VT. The idea originated out of President Obama’s “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative. For a snapshot of other ideas in the Great Outdoors initiative, click here.

Updated: April 4, 2013: Blocked Migration: Fish Ladders On U.S. Dams Are Not Effective

Dating Season for Toads

I am glad I don’t suffer bufonophobia, a fear of toads, because a gang of American toads (Bufo americanus) live under my deck. They come out at night and sit, fat as golfballs, one of them the size of a baseball, in the moonlight. Their posturing reminds me of the T-birds and the Pink Ladies in “Grease” at the drive-in.

Careful not to step on them when I stand in the yard, I let my dog enjoy a few minutes of midnight sounds, smells and shadows, with caution. The toads barely budge if she sniffs their bumpy bodies. She doesn’t like toads, luckily. I’m nervous about taking a step, worried I might squish one, anticipating the inevitable movement—but a toad’s test of wills (or staying power) beats mine every time.

Some toads, including the American toad, have paratoid glands that can secrete a white poison to would-be predators (if bitten or handled, for instance). The poison is toxic inside a mouth—or if after a human handles a toad, touches the eye or mouth.  It can cause nausea, inflamed mouth or throat, irregular heart beat and in very severe cases—death. They can be a danger to pets for this reason. When you think about it, batrachophobes, who fear any reptiles or amphibians, have probably had an incident that caused a symptom, or knew of someone who did. I never believed one could get “warts” from a toad, but perhaps this myth originated from the handling of toads causing undesirable symptoms. National Geographic busted that myth for kids, here.

Toads are nocturnal. During the day the amphibians hide under the deck. I’ve wondered what they do all day—eat insects, sleep, burrow underground, intimidate baby garter snakes? The child in me imagines Toad and Frog riding around in their small motorcar. The ecologist in me wants to set up candid cameras under the deck and film the toads’ daytime activities.  This is their breeding time (March-July), when they emerge from their burrows to eat at night and mate. It is more likely that the underside of my short deck is dull by day and hoppin’ at night. Along patches of my seep, nicknamed “Fern Gully,” I’ve observed toadlets, baby toads, crawling along the muddy wooded floor. They are small, about an inch long in body, not counting legs. What’s amazing to me is that toad eggs can hatch in a matter of days (3-13 days) and the toadlets grow to adulthood in about a month. In Pennsylvania, there is an organization looking for volunteers to help with a program called “Toad Detour,” that seeks to help toadlets cross roads and get to safe habitats. Their website has some great photos and a recording of toad sounds. More about their work with toads is posted on the Philly Herping Blog.

My poem, “Romancing the Toad,” was published in a summer issue of the international literary magazine, Off the Coast. 

The American toad’s large range extends as south as Georgia, as west as Wisconsin and as north as Canada. There are other toads of concern throughout the U.S. For example, the endangered Arroyo toad in California depends on adiminishing wetland habitat. The Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance for Spring Amphibians kicked off its programs in Maine earlier in May, teaching people about the 9 species of frogs and toads in the state.

In other blogs, spadefoot toads have received some attention lately. Volunteers in different areas gather to help toads and frogs cross busy roads during their breeding season. A headstart program in Massachusetts visited the Cape Cod National Seashore this month to learn about vernal pools and amphibian habitat, includingspadefoot toads. According to Mass Audubon, the spadefoot is neither true toad or frog—it’s a primitive amphibian. A segment of a Hands-On Wetland Creation Workshop for Professionals, led in part by Tom Biebighauser, with the U.S. Forest Service, addressed the topic of spadefoots at the Long Pasture Sanctuary on Cape Cod. ASWM’s Executive Director, Jeanne Christie, attended.

The State of the Gulf Coast Wetlands—Two Years After the B.P. Oil Spill

Since the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, dolphin strandings have occurred at an unprecedented high level—over 500 stranded dolphins—one indicator that there is still a major problem in the Gulf (NOAA). Another strong indicator is the accelerated rate of coastal wetland loss in the Gulf as direct result from the impacts of the spill. Prior to the 2010 spill, the state of Louisiana already faced significant coastal wetland loss—about the area equivalent to a football field’s worth of wetlands every hour. Over 1,000 miles of coastal wetlands were contaminated by the oil spill, and despite restoration efforts, the rate of coastal wetland loss is now made more complex by the spill and clean-up process. Efforts to clean up the oil in the marshes, in some areas, depending on the extent of the contamination, have caused further damage to the wetlands. (NWF) A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation, “A Degraded Gulf of Mexico: Wildlife and Wetlands—Two Years into the Gulf OilDisaster” assesses the impacts to sea turtles, dolphins, pelicans, other wildlife and coastal wetlands affected by the B.P. oil spill.

NOAA announced this month that eight Gulf coast restoration projects will begin this year with $60 million earmarked for the work to create marshes, improve coastal dune habitat, restore oyster beds and reefs, and other projects related to the boat industry.  The first phase of the projects will take place in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. There is more information about these restoration projects atwww.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov and www.doi.gov/deepwaterhorizon

Specific project fact sheets on each restoration project involved in this first phase of the Gulf Coast Restoration, called “Early Restoration,” an effort to get the natural resources back to the state prior to the spill, are available on NOAA’s website.  To learn more about the Gulf Coast Early Restoration efforts underway, go to:http://www.gulfspill
restoration.noaa.gov/
restoration/early-restoration/

As part of the response to the spill two years ago, a number of organizations and agencies have worked hard to address the critical needs of wildlife that depended on the coastal wetlands that were contaminated or destroyed by the spill. For example, a shorebird habitat enhancement project provided alternative habitat in Mississippi for waterfowl. A sea turtle project improved nesting and hatching on the Texas coast.

The Gulf coast’s diverse shoreline includes mangroves, cypress swamps, fresh and saltwater marshes and mudflats. What’s really at stake here? More than half of the coastal wetlands in the lower 48 states are located on the Gulf coast, which is also where the majority of coastal wetland loss has been occurring.  About 40% of these are in Louisiana. (NOAA) There is an important link between the healthy coastal marshes, their ecological role in serving as a nursery for invertebrates and small fish, and the larger fisheries and their health—which in turn, have a big impact on both the economy and well-being of people along the Gulf coast. In a healthy coastal marsh, the wetland soils and vegetation protect the land from storm surge, reduce flooding and improve water quality in the surrounding watershed. In a coastal marsh that has been contaminated by oil, the vegetation dies and the soil no longer has the ability to hold its position; it becomes more likely to erode during storms and even day-to-day tidal activity. Coastal wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate, becoming open ocean.

One would think that cleaning up the oil during the response to the disaster would have solved the problem of contaminated marshes. But it doesn’t work that way. The vulnerable wetlands were threatened by the clean-up response methods intended to save them. The tools used to prevent oil from contaminating shorelands, including booms, got stuck in the wetlands.  Other techniques used to remove the oil disturbed and killed vegetation and other living things. Oily mats smothered mudflats and sand removal disturbed the beach habitat. These unintended impacts have been monitored and a number of contaminated marsh studies will help the response teams to evaluate these impacts and clean-up methods. For more information, see this Status Update: Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NOAA, April 2012).

Related blogs:

Gulf Restoration Network (includes photo slide show): Bird’s Eye View: An Earth Day Reflection In Photos Of The Last 2 Years Of The BP Drilling Disaster

Huffington Post blogs and videos of Gulf Oil Spill

Response & Restoration (NOAA) blog

8 Gulf coast restoration projects announced

Environmental Defense Fund blog: ASFPM Agrees: Some Gulf oil spill fines should go to Gulf restoration (Feb. 2012)

For background information on the impact of the oil spill on wetlands and related media over the past two years, visit ASWM’s Gulf Oil Spill Impact on Wetlands page I put together.

Legends of the Snapping Turtle (Part 2)

There are many old myths about the snapping turtle. Folks warn, “If a snapping turtle bites you, it won’t let go until it thunders,”and in places like Alabama, snappers are nicknamed “thunder turtles.” One colorful story about a New York fisherman was published in the New York Times, July 1885 –“Fighting a Snapping Turtle” http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=
F20C16FC3B5D10738DDDAF0894DF405B8584F0D3
 It’s interesting how the farmer’s wife manages to leap from the lakeshore into the man’s boat, which was presumably at a distance while he was fishing, to save him from the “pesky critter.”

Some of the legends are partly true. For example, snappers sniff out carrion and rotting flesh—so police have (occasionally) benefited from following snapping turtles, which have led law enforcement to human remains.http://www.strangecosmos.com/content/item/141325.html But usually if a snapping turtle shows up on a police log, it is because someone called the Animal Control Officer, as happened last month in Boston: http://www.boston.com/yourtown/
news/norwood/2011/06/the_police_log_stolen_tires_an.html

It is also commonly believed that snapping turtles are fearless and aggressive to the point of attacking swimmers. Having swum among snapping turtles in a lake for many years as a curious child, who probably got too close on many occasions, I can say that I have never been attacked by a snapping turtle (nor was my brother ever bitten). Snappers aren’t fond of deep water, so it would be rare to come across one while swimming in deep freshwater. But there are probably rogues or circumstances that lead a turtle to bite a human. Here is a video of a researcher rescuing a snapping turtle from a net, in which the turtle is prompted to bite the scientist, who has just explained that snappers are usually safe to swim around (Some expletives are edited out): http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=a81_1273383345&comments=1 One take-away message: do not attempt to save/rescue a snapping turtle that’s been caught in a net unless you are a professional with pliers on hand in case of a bite.

Amidst snapping turtle lore, there is often confusion in associating the alligator snapping turtle with the common snapping turtle but they are not closely related. The alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) is a large freshwater turtle that lives primarily in southern U.S. waters. It looks like a plated dinosaur and is the sole living member of the Macrochelys genus. Very quickly, it can be identified as an alligator snapping turtle by the three rows of spikes on its carapace, which the common snapper does not have, instead having a smooth carapace. The alligator snapping turtle is endangered, in part due to fishing and the exotic pet trade.

One snapping turtle truism is surrounded in a fog of foul musky odor, which a snapper releases if it is threatened, or about to defend itself, e.g. bite. All turtles in the musk family, most famously—the Stinkpot—give off a foul odor, released from musk glands, when bothered. However, it is a misconception that the safest way to pick up a snapping turtle is by the tail—this can injure the snapper! For a fascinating video that sets the record straight on how to safely move a snapping turtle, see this expert pick up a snapper (“Easy, fella”): “How to Move a Snapping Turtle off the Road” July 2011 (The young man making the film says of snapping turtles, “They’re kind of like shotguns. If you don’t have experience with them, you probably shouldn’t play with them.”)http://neveryetmelted.com/2011/07/16/how-to-move-a-snapping-turtle-off-the-road/And for a funny video of a PA-based “Turtle Derby” see:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrhfhfbZtT4&feature=player_embedded