When Nancy Baker was in sixth grade, she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up: a forester. She had spent every Christmas, summer and most weekends visiting her family’s land in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, and would follow in her father’s footsteps—literally—as they roamed the woods.
But when a guidance counselor asked her what she wanted to be, “forester” turned out not to be an acceptable answer. “She said, ‘Nancy, girls can’t be foresters,’” Baker remembers. “And I was crestfallen—I was just crushed.”
“I went home and I told my dad… that I couldn’t be a forester,” Baker recalls. “And he said, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’”
So that’s exactly what she did. Baker is now a forest ecologist, and for close to 40 years she has owned the 163 acres she grew up visiting (the land has now been in her family for more than 150 years). She’s the former president of the Bradford-Sullivan Forest Landowners’ Association, part of Pennsylvania’s Forest Stewardship Steering Committee and one of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Chesapeake Forest Champions. She’s also a leader in the Women and Their Woods initiative: a program to connect women forest landowners in northeastern Pennsylvania and teach them the skills and confidence they need to care for their forests.
According to the most recent National Woodland Owner Survey, 21 percent of forest landowners are women. Whether through outliving their spouses, inheriting property or outright purchasing land, more and more women are becoming primary owners of forests. But a study by the National Association of State Foresters showed that, while 83 percent of women who inherit forestland were interested in managing it, only 34 percent felt they had enough knowledge to make informed decisions.
That’s where Women and Their Woods comes in. Whether the women have received their land through the passing of a husband, by inheritance or after purchasing it themselves, participants can access the knowledge and resources to feel confident in caring for their forests. At meetings, women forest landowners can connect, share knowledge, meet with experts and ask questions. The program also hosts four-day retreats full of hands-on activities that teach the women how to manage their forestland.
“I think there are a lot of women who—the window sort of opens for them, and it’s no longer just a green place out there,” Baker says. “It actually begins to make sense to them.”
It’s the hands-on experience that Baker feels the women might not get enough of otherwise. “Gentlemen are so nice to do things for us that we never learn ourselves,” she laughs. “As soon as you say, help me cut this off, the guy will just—not being intentionally mean or anything—they’ll just pick up the chainsaw and be very nice to you and cut it right off. And you’re standing there and you don’t get the experience.”
But chainsaws, herbicide sprayers, ATVs and even propane torches (“We almost took the eyebrows off somebody,” Baker jokes) are all fair game at the Women and Their Woods meetings. Attendees also learn how to identify plants and trees, how to measure a tree and how to talk to a forester: what questions to ask and what different terms mean.
Although some participants may be looking to learn how to garner the most income from their forests, research has shown that women tend to be far less interested in the economic value of their land. Instead, they tend to focus on its aesthetic, recreational and peace of mind values. Women and Their Woods teaches them how to care for their forest land as an ecosystem, giving them the skills they need so that, should they decide to focus on its economic returns, they can do so in a sustainable way.
Since Women and Their Woods began in 2008, about 80 women have gone through the program. Funding and support comes from several partners, including Delaware Highlands Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service at Grey Towers, Penn State University Natural Resources Extension and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
On her own land, Baker works with her consulting forester to manage the health of her forest. A few fields, once cleared by her grandfather and great-grandfather, she keeps open. Otherwise, with Baker keeping a careful eye and stepping in where needed, the forest is free to take over. The two streams running along her property—Crane Creek and Panther Lick—have buffers growing alongside them that haven’t been cut since the late 1800s.
Slowly, the makeup of her forest has changed, whether through Baker’s careful management or through circumstances beyond her control, like disease, pests and climate change. Areas once home to ash trees have fallen prey to the invasive Emerald Ash Borer, leaving only a smattering of the trees standing. And while Baker could salvage and sell what timber is left, she prefers to let nature take its course: “My neighbors say, ‘Nancy, it’s all going to waste!’ No, it’s not going to waste. It’s being recycled.”
Years ago, Baker traveled to a conference on fire ecology—the study of wildland fire and its relationship to the environment. In attendance: 171 men and her. Today, Pennsylvania is home to a small but growing professional group of women foresters, many of whom lend their expertise to Women and Their Woods.
To Baker, this network of support is one of the most vital pieces of the program. “That’s the major thing that comes out of it, is that they do not feel alone anymore,” she says. “They have somebody that they can reach out to.”
To see more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Photos by Will Parson
When Mike and Laura Jackson wanted to restore wildlife habitat on their slice of a forested Pennsylvania mountainside, they did something you might not expect. The husband and wife, who live on 114 acres in Bedford County, started cutting down trees.
The Jacksons were motivated to drastic action in part by a small gray bird with flashes of yellow on its head and wings.
“We’ve always been birders, so we keep track of what we see,” Laura said, while she and Mike followed the trails that wind through their land. “And we’ve had golden-winged warblers on our property—but the last one we saw or heard was in 2009.”
The golden-winged warbler is a migratory bird that breeds in the Upper Midwest and Appalachian Mountains and winters in Central America. Its population has declined by roughly two-thirds in the past 50 years, in pace with the decline of the early successional habitat it needs—a young forest.
After becoming Pennsylvania Forest Stewards through a program at Penn State University in 2000, Mike and Laura began to recognize why the forest on their own land wasn’t healthy.
“That really opened our eyes to forest management—things that we could do to help the property because we saw that we were getting invasive species,” Laura said.
The Jacksons worked with a service forester from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) in 2002 to develop a ten-year forest stewardship plan for their property. Their goals were to improve forest health, control invasive species, increase native plant diversity and manage for wildlife.
Meanwhile, the golden-winged warbler was listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2004.
Though Laura was still teaching, Mike took advantage of his retirement to implement what they were learning at the many classes and workshops they were attending. He built trails and wildlife amenities such as brush piles, bird houses, squirrel boxes and owl boxes. He removed invasive species like multiflora rose and Japanese barberry, and he planted native shrubs, trees and wildflowers. He applied a technique called crown release, which thins out vegetation to give valuable wildlife trees like wild cherry, oak and hickory more sunlight and room to grow.
“Then, in 2010 we donated an easement to Western Pennsylvania Conservancy so the land can’t be developed,” Laura said. “They don’t accept just any property but they liked our property because of its good wildlife value—we have a lot of box turtles on it, a lot of birds.”
Laura said it also helped that the land is part of a roughly 9,000-acre stretch of forest that includes Pennsylvania state game lands and Tussey Mountain.
“Even though [golden-winged warblers] nest in very young forest, they take their young after they’ve fledged, and they spend time in mature forest feeding and trying to teach them what to do as survival techniques.” Laura said.
In late 2011, the Jacksons attended a workshop for land managers to learn about best management practices for the golden-winged warbler. They were the only private landowners at the meeting.
“And we thought, ‘Wow, if we can work with people who know what they’re doing and who will try to help us with our invasive species control, we could get a healthy forest again,’” Laura said.
“Which meant cutting some trees,” Mike added.
A few months later, the Jacksons invited experts from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, DCNR and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) Research Institute to look at their land. They determined it was a good fit for a golden-winged warbler habitat restoration project.
With support from the Game Commission, a forester returned to mark which trees to keep inside a 27-acre area, then invasive plants were treated with herbicide on all 108 acres of the Jacksons’ forest.
Mike and Laura interviewed a number of loggers before settling on a company that uses low-impact methods to remove trees.
The cut unveiled at least one surprise on the Jacksons’ property.
“We discovered that once we got rid of some of the trees, there are a couple spring seeps,” Laura said. “So we have a nice little wetland to walk through that we could never see before.”
Funding for the logging came from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Working Lands for Wildlife program. NRCS also paid for a fence around the restoration to keep out deer, allowing new plants to flourish.
“I was just surprised it came so fast,” Mike said.
Where the Jacksons had battled invasives for years, Mike said they are mostly gone.
“So as we walk through the area we’re looking for invasive species that still need to be maintained,” Laura said. “And we’re looking at this thick underbrush—and that’s what golden-winged warblers need.”
Monitoring for the project began the year following the cut, looking for regeneration as well as the golden-winged warbler.
“We’ve done [the monitoring] now two times after the logging, and we still have not seen or heard any golden-winged warblers,” Laura said. “But that’s not unexpected because there’s still a lot of regeneration yet to go and they need really thick, really heavy vegetation on the ground, and we just don’t have that yet.”
The Jacksons are prepared to wait, and said it might be another three years before the golden-winged warbler returns to their property. Through surveys they do for the Game Commission, they know that there is an active golden-winged warbler breeding site eight miles away, which puts them in the vicinity, even if it is still pretty far away.
“But what was neat was the very first spring when we were monitoring, we heard cerulean warblers,” Laura said. “And cerulean warblers are also a species of concern.”
Other at-risk birds in the project area include hooded warblers, Kentucky warblers and wood thrush. Monitoring overseen by IUP Research Institute has also identified six bird species present in the project area that benefit from young forest, including ovenbirds, chestnut-sided warblers, common yellowthroats, red-eyed vireos, indigo buntings and eastern towhees.
For their years of effort to restore wildlife habitat in their forest, Mike and Laura were honored as Exemplary Forest Stewards by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay at the 2016 Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, last fall. Nowadays, Mike and Laura also host several tours a year and enjoy answering visitors’ questions about their property.
The Jacksons’ land shows that dealing with nature can be counter-intuitive, that intervening can sometimes help it rebound.
“It’s nice to see people who might think that logging is bad and really a detriment to the woods.” Laura said. “[We can] turn their thinking around a little bit and help them realize that we did something that...even if we don’t get golden-winged warblers, we’ve done something to create a healthy forest. And that’s really the important thing.”
Photos and Video by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Text by Will Parson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page
A small crayfish is found along the banks of the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The thousands of rivers and streams that flow to the Chesapeake Bay are home to many species of native crayfish—also called crawfish, crawdads or mudbugs—which are freshwater crustaceans that resemble small lobsters. But several species of invasive crayfish also call the waterways home, displacing native species of crayfish and reducing the amount and diversity of underwater plants.
Certain species of crayfish are commonly eaten or even kept as pets in freshwater aquariums. But the widespread use of live crayfish by fishermen as bait has led to their introduction in waterways across the region. Unused buckets of live crayfish are often unknowingly dumped into rivers and streams, where they aggressively establish themselves at the expense of native crayfish populations.
Some of the most infamous invasive crayfish in the region include the rusty crayfish (Orconectes rusticus), the red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkii) and the virile crayfish (Orconectes virilis). According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), virile crayfish populations in the state are nine times more abundant than all native crayfish species combined. And because removing invasive crayfish would harm other, native species, prevention is the only effective way to stop the spread. The DNR recommends never moving caught crayfish from one waterbody to another and either disposing of unused bait humanely or saving it for future use.
Learn more about invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Image by Will Parson
Dr. Bill Harman, Director of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oneonta Biological Field Station in Cooperstown, New York, holds a flip-flop recovered from Otsego Lake and covered with invasive zebra mussels.
Zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) are freshwater bivalves found in lakes, rivers, streams and reservoirs. Native to Europe, zebra mussels were found in the Great Lakes region in 1988 and later discovered in the upper Susquehanna River in 2002. Since then, the invasive mussel has spread further into the Chesapeake region’s rivers and streams. In 2011, the mussel was spotted for the first time in the Eastern Shore’s Sassafras River. And in 2015, two watermen found zebra mussels colonizing on their fishing gear in the Susquehanna Flats.
Efficient filter-feeders, zebra mussels can remove a lot of plankton—an important food source for other critters—from the water. They also attach themselves to native mussels and to manmade structures, clogging intake pipes and encrusting boat hulls and buoys. Scraping, power-washing and chemical treatments can be used to control zebra mussels, but once a population has been established, it can be almost impossible to eradicate.
To prevent the spread of zebra mussels and other invasive species, make sure boat hulls, trailers and other equipment are thoroughly cleaned before moving them to a new body of water.
Image by Will Parson
Zach Bruce, center, and fellow Maryland Conservation Corps members, from left, Taylor Lundstrom, Kevin McNamara and Rachel Werderits, remove invasive trees of heaven and garlic mustard plants at the site of a wetland restoration on Church Creek in Annapolis, Maryland.
Many wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay region have been severely altered by the presence of plants and animals that have been introduced there, whether accidentally or on purpose. Invasive species like the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) can cause harm when they establish themselves at the expense of native plants, encroaching on their habitat.
Once an invasive species is established, it can be incredibly difficult to eradicate; controlling invasive species takes resources, cooperation and commitment, which is why it’s crucial to prevent them from being introduced in the first place. Native trees, shrubs and flowers play a vital role in a healthy ecosystem, in part by serving as food and habitat for native critters and insects.
Learn about how you can choose native plants for your own backyard to provide food and habitat to native insects & critters.
Image by Will Parson
Less than 15 years ago, an exotic green beetle was discovered in southeastern Michigan. In the years that followed, the metallic insect that is no more than half an inch long spread into 24 more states—including five in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—and now threaten millions of native ash trees that fall sick and die when the insect’s larvae feed on the tissue underneath their bark.
The emerald ash borer likely arrived in the United States on wood packing material carried on airplanes or cargo ships from its native China. While the insects can fly at least half a mile from where they emerge as adults, it is the movement of larvae-laden wood that is thought to be the cause of many emerald ash borer infestations. As a result, the shipment of ash trees and logs is regulated, and transporting firewood outside of quarantined areas is illegal.
Such precautions are necessary because of the impact the emerald ash borer can have on forests. As larvae feed on the nutrient-rich inner bark of ash trees, they disrupt the trees’ ability to move food and water from its roots to its leaves. Once a tree is infested with emerald ash borer larvae, one-third to one-half of its branches may die within a year. Most of its canopy may be dead within two years, with the entire tree dead in three to four.
Ash trees can be found in almost all parts of the United States. All North American ash trees are susceptible to infestation, which means countless forests are susceptible to the loss of a species that supports the ecosystem’s protection of clean air, water and wildlife habitat. While native trees could fill the gaps left by dead ash, invasive plants could also spread in response to new light levels. Even the makeup of the surrounding soil may change, as ash trees are “dynamic accumulators” that gather calcium from the soil around them.
The economic impacts of the emerald ash borer are significant. First, there are costs to losing trees. The U.S. Forest Service estimates the eight billion ash trees on U.S. timberlands to be valued at $282.25 billion. Then, there are costs to mitigating the damage the insect has done. The Forest Service has predicted that an expanding infestation through 2019 will warrant the treatment, removal and replacement of more than 17 million ash trees, with an estimated price tag of $10.7 billion.
But the Forest Service has also explored an impressive number of emerald ash borer control and management methods. Experts have searched for effective predators, parasitoids and pathogens that could act as biological controls, evaluated the efficacy of insecticides injected into trunks of infested trees and explored the development of genetic hybrids that would integrate the resistance of Asian ash tree species into those native to North America. Experts have also conducted research into ridding trees of larvae by submerging infested logs under water, treating infested logs with chemicals and removing the bark of infested logs that could otherwise be sent to sawmills and manufacturing plants to be used for lumber, railroad ties and other value-added products.
In light of the extensive research that has been done in the years since the emerald ash borer was first found in the United States, the most important thing for individuals to remember is to follow regulatory guidelines for moving ash trees, logs and firewood and to report potential infestations to your local Cooperative Extension Service office. According to the Forest Service, making a large investment in understanding and controlling the spread of this invasive insect now could slow the expansion and postpone the ultimate costs of the emerald ash borer.
Imagine you are going about your day as usual when you encounter a foreign creature. It injects something in you, but does not kill you. Over the next few weeks, you notice a growth in your abdomen. A network of tube-like threads spreads throughout your circulatory system. Soon, you start losing control of your motor functions. You adopt defensive postures and develop maternal instincts to care for the growth instead of caring for yourself. Then, the mass begins to expel larvae, which seek out and infect anyone nearby. Your behavior is forever changed and your reproductive system destroyed.
This scenario may seem like something out of a science fiction novel or the latest zombie thriller. But for many black-fingered mud crabs, the parasite Loxothylacus panopaei, or loxo, has made this situation a reality.
Loxo was discovered in the Chesapeake Bay about 50 years ago. Scientists believe it was carried from its native range in the Gulf of Mexico on oyster shells during early restoration efforts. Since then, researchers have found sites throughout the Bay where the parasite is highly prevalent, with infection rates as high as 30 to 50 percent.
“This is huge, especially because this parasite is a castrator, so infecting crabs means they can no longer reproduce,” said Carolyn Tepolt, Biodiversity Genomics Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institute. “[The crabs] are still alive, but essentially dead as far as genes are concerned, because they are not contributing to the next generation of crabs.”
The Chesapeake Bay Parasite Project was established as a means for scientists to develop a better understanding of loxo by both monitoring infection rates in the wild and making observations in a lab, where research can be done in a controlled environment.
“In 2013, I had the idea that it should be a citizen science project,” said Monaca Noble, Biologist at the Smithsonian Institute. “This isn’t a project that has its own grant money. It’s a project we do because we love it, so it’s always collateral duty for somebody. We thought it would be great to bring on volunteers.”
Through studying the prevalence of the parasite in both its native and invasive range, researchers now understand that loxo is much rarer along the Gulf Coast and up to Cape Canaveral, Fla., where one to five percent of crabs are infected. Tepolt and her colleagues are working to understand if reproductive pressures have affected these numbers over generations. “Say you’re a crab and you have some little mutation that makes it a little harder for the parasite to infect you, you may have a huge evolutionary advantage if 50 percent of your peers are getting taken out of the gene pool,” said Tepolt.
Citizen science has proven to be a valuable method for studying loxo’s reach and the population of affected crabs. Noble and her team have seen a steady increase in volunteer numbers, with 89 participants this past summer compared to 50 in 2014.
“I love [The Chesapeake Bay Parasite Project] as a citizen science project,” explained Noble. “It’s an opportunity to share an exciting story about science with people who are interested and get them excited about science, and also tell them about invasive species.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Text by Jenna Valente
Images by Will Parson
Invasive species, or plants and animals that have been introduced to an area, can cause harm when they establish themselves at the expense of native wildlife. These invaders pose a threat to native species by outcompeting them for resources like food and habitat that are necessary for survival. Often, these species expand their range and population numbers at such a rapid pace that landowners and wildlife managers struggle to contain their spread.
Brian Knox is President of Sustainable Resource Management, Inc., a natural resource consulting firm based out of Davidsonville, Md., that deals primarily with managing forest vegetation. Knox has seen success in combating invasive plants by implementing outside-the-box tactics. “A lot of people these days are getting more conscious about their herbicide usage,” said Knox. “As a very small company, we’re not afraid to try anything.”
In 2007, Knox began unleashing a herd of goats—referred to as Eco-Goats—on areas overrun by invasive vegetation. The goats have proven to be a viable option for these problem areas, because they can go many places that people and machinery cannot reach, like steep slopes and hillsides. Additionally, because of the goats’ mouth shape and digestive system structure, they are able to grind up seeds in a way that ensures seeds are not returned to the soil to resprout at the end of the digestive process.
A herd of about 30 goats can work through about a half-acre of dense vegetation in 3 to 4 days. “Goats are very good at biomass reduction,” explained Knox. “Typically, a goat can eat about 25 percent of its bodyweight a day in green material. If you figure an average of 100 pounds, that’s 25 pounds of vegetation going into every goat that’s out there.”
Although the goats are fond of invasive species like kudzu, porcelain berry, wine berry and mile-a-minute and are undeterred by thorns, they do not discriminate against native species. So before committing his goats to an area, Knox surveys each site to make sure the vegetation is appropriate. “A misapplied goat is every bit as bad as a chemical spill,” said Knox. “You can do damage with a goat... I look for native species and ask, ‘Is there more here to save than there is to get rid of?’ If so, that’s a terrible place for a goat.”
Spending your day with a herd of goats may sound like fun, but managing the goats is hard work. “A lot of people think it’s just sitting around and watching the goats, and boy, that would be a great job. And then you talk to them about how it took me two days to get the fence up and I’m soaked through to my socks by eight in the morning,” said Knox. “But clearly there’s something that I really love about this. And it’s the educational aspect of it, seeing people’s eyes light up while watching the goats.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and video by Keith Rutowski
Text by Jenna Valente
As one of the most vulnerable regions in the nation to the effects of climate change, all aspects of life in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—from people and critters, to habitat and infrastructure—are at risk from its effects. Warming air and water temperatures, sea level rise and extreme weather events are expected to have a significant influence on the Bay region in the coming years, but many changes are already being documented. With recent record-breaking high temperatures, including last year and the first quarter of this year, some species are feeling the heat.
1. Cherry blossoms. Thousands of iconic cherry trees surround the Tidal Basin and national monuments of Washington, D.C., and their blossoms bring countless visitors to the area. Over the past 90 years, cherry blossoms have been blooming earlier, due in part to increasing average seasonal temperatures. Since 1921, Washington’s average March temperatures have warmed more than two degrees Fahrenheit, leading “peak bloom” for the cherry blossoms to shift five days earlier.
2. Chickadees. Two strikingly similar types of chickadees are common in backyards through the United States: in the Southeast, the Carolina chickadee is most common, while the black-capped chickadee dominates the northern states. A narrow band of overlap, called the “hybrid zone,” is where the two chickadees meet and interbreed—and it has been steadily moving northward as temperatures rise. According to one study, the zone has been shifting nearly 0.7 miles each year, moving a total of 7 miles in the past ten years.
3. Migratory waterfowl. The Bay region is a key stop for millions of migratory waterfowl during their seasonal flights. But milder winters have caused several bird species to visit in smaller numbers. Many canvasbacks have been stopping short along their migrations due to warming temperatures; one report shows the number of wintering canvasbacks in the Bay region declined from nearly 250,000 in the 1950s to 30,000 in recent years. Some tundra swans have been wintering on open rivers in Canada rather than the shallow waters of the Bay. These changes in waterfowl migrations can take a particular toll on recreational hunters, who are seeing fewer birds migrate through the region later in the season.
4. Fish. Nearly 350 species of finfish swim through the rivers, streams and open waters of the Bay region, and many of these species are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature. Research suggests that the temperature at which native and migratory fish begin to spawn or migrate (typically 15 degrees Celsius) is occurring nearly three weeks earlier than it did in 1960. In particular, the black sea bass has been rapidly moving its range northward; communities in North Carolina who have typically caught a majority of the black sea bass catch have recently been traveling as far north as New Jersey to meet their quotas.
5. Bay grasses. Underwater grasses are a critical part of the Bay ecosystem, providing food and shelter for some of the Bay’s most iconic species, including young blue crabs. Bay grasses are particularly sensitive to excess rainfall and changes in temperature, meaning warming temperatures and more frequent, more extreme weather events are impacting their health. High temperatures during a 2005 heat wave are blamed for a massive die-off of eelgrass in the Bay, and while many areas have rebounded from the collapse, some eelgrass beds have not yet recovered.
6. Pine beetles. A changing climate doesn’t just affect the iconic, treasured species of the Bay region—it also make it easier for invasive species and pests, like the southern pine beetle, to move in. No bigger than a grain of rice, these beetles burrow under a tree’s bark and consume a layer of the tree, which disrupts the flow of nutrients and typically kills the tree in less than four months. Historically, the beetles were unable to survive north of Delaware. But warming temperatures, especially in the winter months, have allowed the pest to migrate northward along the East Coast, reaching as far as New York.
As environmental conditions continue to change, even more species will be threatened by rising seas, warming temperatures, extreme weather and habitat loss. Under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Bay Program partners are committed to building the climate resiliency of the animals, plants, habitats, infrastructure and communities throughout the region.
For more on what you can do, Take Action.
Nearly 18 million people reside in the Chesapeake Bay region, with more moving to the area each year. Growing disputes over land use have conservationists working hard to protect the robust natural resources that can be found within the Bay region. A significant part of these efforts include developing and improving public access points as means for people to experience, explore and develop connections to the land, water and wildlife.
Nestled in between Accokeek Creek and Potomac Creek, Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve in Stafford, Virginia serves as one of the state’s highest land conservation priorities in the past 10 years. “This is a priority site because it’s such a large intact ecosystem. You have thousands of acres of mature hardwood forest on the coastal plain in Virginia,” explained Michael Lott, Crow’s Nest Manager and Northern Region Steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
In addition to around 2,200 acres of mature hardwood forest, the site boasts 750 acres of nearly pristine wetlands and more than 10 miles of hiking trails, and it acts as a safe haven for wildlife and countless viewing opportunities for critters such as migratory waterfowl, white-tailed deer, river otters and beavers.
The preserve and those who manage it have faced many obstacles over the past few decades, including population growth and development encroaching on the area. “In the 1970’s, there were around 30,000 people in Stafford County; a few of the subdivisions were vacation homes for people in D.C. Now, the population is about 130,000. This is the best remaining tidal marsh in Stafford County, so our priority here is conservation,” said Geoff Austin, Northern Region Operations Steward with DCR.
Despite the vastness of the preserve and the great potential it holds for environmental education and recreational opportunities, the property is largely closed to the public until further operational resources can be effectively implemented.
The dynamic duo of Lott and Austin dedicate 90 percent of their working hours toward maintaining the preserve and trying to make it accessible to the public, but one major hurdle stands in their way – a mile-and-a-half long access road. “The big obstacle is the access road to the [completed] parking lot. We need to raise the money to fix that road. That road has been there since the colonial era, it’s been dug down and needs a lot of work before it’s passable for cars,” explained Austin. The team – with help from volunteers - keeps the trails clear, maintains the parking lot and plans to install proper trail signage once the road is completed.
Lott and Austin measure their success one victory - no matter the size - at a time, their latest being the installation of a handicap-accessible boat ramp to be opened to the public within the next couple of months. The ramp overlooks acres of tidal marsh, provides access to Accokeek Creek and lays adjacent to a half-mile trail complete with benches for wildlife observers. “It’s a great birding spot,” said Austin. The launch is part of a larger plan to connect a water trail system along the Potomac River.
DCR wants the public to be able to experience the preserve’s natural wonder. “In the past, this landscape did not lend itself to farming very well, and so a lot of the soil we have out here is still very much intact. Researchers have said that throughout the mid-Atlantic and East Coast, you can’t find soil like this in very many places anymore, which is why the forest out here is so productive," explained Lott. “A lot of the forest, particularly in the ravines, hasn’t been logged intensively since the Civil War, so it’s trending back toward mature forest. [For this reason] we keep the trails clear and have been holding open houses twice a year for five years now, so people have had the opportunity to see it and enjoy the trails.”
Tending to nearly 3,000 acres of forest and wetlands is no simple task for two people, but the work is done out of a place of deep caring and passion for protecting and sharing the special places in life with the public. “I grew up in this area and it’s nice to have an intact piece of hardwood [forest] that is going to be preserved in the area for years to come. It’s great to be able to walk out there when I’m working or hunting and see the big trees; you don’t see that in many other places in this area. As stewards of the land year-round you spend a lot of time here – it means a lot to be able to take care of this place.” said Austin.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Every once in a while, one is struck by the power of a new idea. At a recent event held by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to kick off a public education campaign about invasive catfish in the Chesapeake Bay, I learned about an initiative called the Wide Net Project. The concept of the Wide Net Project is elegant in its simplicity and its brilliance.
Image courtesy Virginia Sea Grant
Neither blue nor flathead catfish are native to the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, the invasive species have become apex predators that feed voraciously on other fish and shellfish. In some areas of the watershed, they represent a significant percentage of a tributary’s total fish biomass. But they are also a good source of lean protein.
In this invasive catfish problem, Wide Net Project co-founders Sharon Feuer Gruber and Wendy Stuart saw a solution: the catfish could be fished out of local tributaries and used to provide low-cost protein to hunger relief organizations.
Wide Net Project staff work with J.J. McDonnell, a large seafood company, to process and distribute the catch from area anglers. Staff sell the fish to restaurants, grocers, hospitals, universities and other institutions at market price. A significant portion of these sales is used to lower the price of the fish staff then sell to hunger relief agencies, which normally can’t afford healthy, local foods. To address the health concern related to the potential accumulation of toxins in older and larger fish, the Wide Net Project markets and sells only younger and smaller blue catfish. J.J. McDonnell also recycles fish waste produced during processing into pet food.
At the DNR event, which was held at Smallwood State Park on the Mattawoman Creek, chefs cooked up samples of blue catfish. While I enjoy eating fish, I don’t think I had ever tasted catfish before that day. I tried some, and found it had a flakey white meat and a light and delicate taste. I thought to myself, one should never underestimate the power of a great idea or the ability of a few dedicated individuals to get things done. Sharon and Wendy connected the dots and inspired us all.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
An economic analysis from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) shows that federal investments in on-the-ground restoration can stimulate local economies, creating jobs and supporting small businesses.
With a focus on two of its habitat restoration programs—the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and the Coastal Program—the USFWS determined that for every federal dollar spent, $7 to $9 of restoration work happens on the ground and almost $2 of economic activity is gained by the state in which the work takes place.
Both of these nation-wide programs use federal and private funding to implement on-the-ground habitat restoration projects on public and privately owned land. According to the USFWS, the programs' impacts cut across two dimensions: first, their understood expertise and stable funding pulls in additional funding from other partners; second, the programs’ spending creates work, generates tax revenues and stimulates local economies through paid wages and subsequent spending.
Image courtesy Margrit/Flickr
In Maryland, for instance, the Coastal Program has directed $1.4 million toward the eradication of nutria from marshes and wetlands. Introduced to the region in the mid-1940s, the invasive nutria has destructive feeding habits, pulling up plant roots that would otherwise hold valuable marshland in place. The Maryland Nutria Project, which is administered by the USFWS and brings federal, state and private partners together to trap and manage nutria, has created more than 55 jobs and generated $2.5 million in spending on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“The Partners for Fish and Wildlife and Coastal programs are important drivers for creating employment,” said USFWS Director Dan Ashe in a media release. “The benefits reach far beyond the local communities where these projects take place to provide national economic stimulus. At the same time, this restoration work provides benefits to all Americans by creating healthy natural areas, including shorelines, streams, wetlands and forests on privately owned lands.”
I enjoy eating fish. I also enjoy catching them. And after learning about the impact that a couple of recent invaders have had on the Chesapeake Bay, I’ve added two new fish species to my catch list.
About a year ago, I sat in a meeting (which I do a lot) and listened to a presentation on yet another threat to the Chesapeake Bay’s aquatic environment. This threat came in the form of the blue and flathead catfish, the finfish equivalent to the invasive zebra mussel that has upset the aquatic ecosystem of the Great Lakes.
Blue catfish are considered “apex predators”; they sit at the top of the food chain. They consume not only other finfish, but shellfish as well. They have no predators. Introduced to Virginia’s James, Rappahannock and York rivers as a sport fish in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, they have multiplied and extended their reach into other parts the Bay. Apparently, they are here to stay.
Recently, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) launched a public awareness campaign to promote a “catch and cook” movement in place of the usual “catch and release” program. The agency is working with restaurants and fish processors to market these catfish. During the campaign’s April kick-off event, we were treated to samples of what these demons of the deep might taste like. I went back for seconds (several times). This is a great source of protein for those who rely on fishing for both sustenance and subsistence. And while catfish are bottom feeders, I’ve been assured that, as long as we eat fish that are smaller than 32 inches, there shouldn’t be any concern about the bioaccumulation of toxins. Good to know.
The Bay has become home to other invasive fish, as well. We all remember the northern snakehead! While this critter isn’t as pervasive as the blue catfish, it is another species that has pushed portions of the Bay ecosystem out of balance. But let me recommend a snakehead ceviche. If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em! Bon apetit!
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has launched a state-wide campaign to teach citizens about the impact of blue and flathead catfish and encourage anglers to remove the invasive species from local rivers and streams.
Native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins, blue catfish were introduced to the James, Rappahannock and York rivers in the 1970s and ‘80s as a sport fish. Flathead catfish were introduced to the James in the 1960s for the same reason. Over time, the natural movement and purposeful introduction of the fish into new waters have hastened their establishment in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
This concerns scientists, who fear the fast-growing and long-lived blue catfish, in particular, could impact the region’s ecologic and economic resources. Because of its opportunistic feeding habits, the blue catfish has become an apex predator, disrupting the structure of the Bay ecosystem and eating up critical aquatic species.
Indeed, “gut content analyses” of the fish have found American shad, Atlantic menhaden, freshwater mussels and blue crabs in their stomachs. Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, compared the blue catfish to a Bengal tiger, noting that the fish eats “just about anything.”
“If left unchecked, [blue catfish] could, as top predators, start to impact other parts of our ecosystem,” Robertson said.
But its eradication isn’t feasible, and experts believe the invasive fish is here to stay. So managers hope to mitigate their spread and minimize their impact on native fish.
With support from the Bay Program, DNR has established more than 150 signs at water access points and kiosks around the state to help anglers identify, catch and keep the species, while Maryland Seafood has escalated its efforts to market the fish to restaurants and boost consumer demand.
“[Humans] are great at overfishing things,” said Maryland Seafood Marketing Director Steve Vilnit. “And [the blue catfish] is a species that we want to overfish.”
Every day, non-native plants, pests and diseases are introduced to the United States from around the world. These invaders have the power to out-compete native species, causing damaging effects to ecosystems and local economies, and the Chesapeake Bay is no stranger to these obtrusive critters.
The Bay is a vacation destination, shipping hub and home to more than 17 million people, a combination that puts it at high risk for invasive species introduction. Typically, non-native species travel to new areas by hitching rides on trade ships, travelers’ luggage and recreational vehicles. Although not all invasive species are a threat, it is important to know which ones can and have caused widespread damage. Use the list below to identify 10 invasive species in the Bay watershed.
Image courtesy rbairdpccam/Flickr
10. Blue Catfish. The blue catfish is a large, smooth-skinned fish with a bluish gray body and whisker-like barbells around its mouth. It is native to the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio river basins but was introduced to the James, Rappahannock, and York rivers during the late 20th century. Blue catfish are considered invasive because of their active reproduction rates and large appetite for native fish and shellfish species. The fish feeds mainly on shad, menhaden, blue crab and river herring and has few natural predators that can prevent it from out-competing native species. Blue catfish can grow up to 100 pounds, live up to 20 years and are thought to make up 75 percent of the fish biomass in some portions of the Bay.
9. Mute Swans. The mute swan is a large, aggressive bird that is native to northern and central Eurasia. It was introduced to North America in the mid-1800’s to add ambiance to parks and ponds, but individuals quickly escaped, set up nesting territories and the population spread. A single mute swan can consume up to 20 pounds of submerged aquatic vegetation daily, threatening important native aquatic plants. Mute swans are one of the most aggressive waterfowl species in the world, especially when nesting or brooding. They have been known to chase off, injure and even kill native waterfowl species.
Image courtesy of Chrisdetmer/Flickr
8. Zebra Mussels. The zebra mussel is a tiny bivalve with zebra-like stripes and a triangular shell. It lives in freshwater lakes, rivers and reservoirs in parts of the Bay watershed. It was introduced to the Great Lakes region in the 1980s, most likely via ballast water from a European ship, and quickly spread throughout the United States. Once introduced to a waterway, the zebra mussel attaches itself to hard surfaces and can produce millions of offspring annually. Zebra mussels compete with native bivalves, fish and invertebrates for plankton and are responsible for the drastic decline of native clam, mussel and oyster populations in some areas.
Image courtesy of Bernd Loos/Flickr
7. Nutria. The nutria is a large, brown, semi-aquatic rodent that looks like a beaver and lives in marshes and wetlands on the Delmarva Peninsula and other parts of the Bay watershed. Native to South America, the nutria was introduced in Maryland to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in 1943 for fur farming. Escaped animals soon began to reproduce, bearing up to three litters of four offspring each year, spreading rapidly. In Maryland, nutria is the greatest threat to salt marsh habitat because it eats sediment-holding plants and causes significant erosion.
6. Phragmites. Phragmites is a perennial plant with feathery plumes at the top of tall, stiff stalks. It grows in wetlands, along roadsides and along shorelines throughout the Bay watershed. Although its origin is unclear, it is widely distributed across Europe, Asia, Africa, North America and Australia. It was introduced to North America inadvertently in the 19th century from the ballasts of Eurasian trade ships. Phragmites crowd out native plants by creating tall, dense stands in wetland habitats.
Image courtesy of Lisa Roukis/Flickr
5. Purple Loosestrife. Purple loosestrife is a perennial plant with spikes of bright purple flowers that bloom in mid-to late summer. Native to Europe and Asia, the plant was both accidentally and intentionally introduced in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ship ballasts unintentionally carried the tiny seeds to North America while others planted it for its aesthetic value and healing properties. The plant is considered an invasive because it quickly establishes itself in wetlands, crowding out native plant species and producing up to 2 million seeds per year with no known natural predators.
Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr
4. Emerald Ash Borer. The emerald ash borer is a green, shiny beetle that lives on ash trees in certain parts of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Native to Asia, the emerald ash borer was discovered outside of Detroit in 2002 and made its way to the Bay watershed in 2003 when a Michigan nursery shipped ash trees to Maryland. Adult beetles cause little damage to ash trees but larvae feed on the inner bark, disrupting the dispersion of water and nutrients throughout the tree.
Image courtesy of Smithsonian Environmental Research Center/Flickr
3. Chinese Mitten Crab. The Chinese mitten crab is a light brown crustacean with a distinctive pair of hairy, white-tipped claws. Native to East Asia and a member of LaFondation’s top 100 worst invasive alien species list, it has recently been found in small numbers in the Bay. In abundance it not only competes with native species for resources and threatens populations through predation but also damages fishing industries by feeding on fish in nets and damaging nets and other equipment. It is also known to erode soft sediment banks, dykes and costal protection systems through excessive burrowing.
2. Veined Rapa Whelk. The rapa whelk is a large, predatory marine snail that inhabits the lower Bay. It is native to the Sea of Japan and the Bohai, Yellow and East China seas in Asia. It was first discovered in the Bay in 1998 by a trawl survey group from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and is believed to have been transported in larval form through ballast water from trade ships. It poses a threat to the Bay because it preys on native bivalves like clams, oysters and mussels, which are vital to the region’s economy and ecosystem. It feeds by wrapping itself around the hinge of its prey’s shell, then feeding between the openings.
Image courtesy of Sergey Yeliseev/Flickr
1. European Gypsy Moth. The European gypsy moth is one of the most destructive pests that has ever been introduced to North America. Moth larvae gorge themselves on the foliage of shrubs and trees, leaving the plants bare and susceptible to disease and damage from other pests. The gypsy moth was accidentally introduced to the United States in Medford, Mass., in 1869, by a professor conducting silk research. It has been established in parts of eastern North America for more than a century.
Growing up, Carol McDaniel spent a summer or two playing in northeast Ohio’s streams. Catching salamanders and crayfish helped her develop affection for the outdoors. After working 30 years as a nurse in Baltimore, McDaniel is now reliving her childhood in western Maryland, where she monitors streams, searches for macroinvertebrates and mobilizes volunteers with the Savage River Watershed Association (SRWA).
“We were always into the outdoors even though we didn’t work outdoors,” McDaniel says. Her husband, Joe, is a retired scientific computer programmer. “When it got to the point where we were trying to retire, we wanted to pick a place that our kids would want to visit.”
The place they chose was a home on top of a ridge in the Youghiogheny River watershed. The Youghiogheny is not part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed (the “Yough” – pronounced yah-k – flows to the Mississippi River), but it borders the Savage River watershed, one of the most pristine corners of the Chesapeake region.
The Savage River watershed is the largest natural remaining native brook trout habitat in the Mid-Atlantic. Brook trout are able to live in the majority of the 30-mile-long Savage River and its tributaries because the water is highly oxygenated and stays cool (below 68 degrees) year-round. Because brook trout have such steep habitat requirements, they are used as an indicator species. More brook trout in a stream tells scientists that the water is healthy.
But the watershedmay not be healthy much longer. What McDaniel describes as the “inevitable” Marcellus Shale drilling poses a threat to the region. One spill, she says, and the brook trout would be gone.
Another constant issue is landowner habits, such as allowing cows to defecate in steams. Such actions spread beyond private property and into the river system. This problem is particularly serious in rural areas such as Garrett County, where residents may own large parcels of land.
Fortunately, residents involved with SRWA are working together to mitigate and monitor the river system. Since the organization first began (in 2006, with an ad in the local paper calling for “stream monitoring volunteers”), members have grown to include trout fishermen, professors and students at nearby Frostburg State University, part-time residents who vacation in the region, farm landowners, and interested streamside property owners. These diverse perspectives are a tremendous benefit to the organization, as input from every one of watershed's 1,500 residents is essential if the Savage River is to remain healthy.
“We're trying as an organization to walk a delicate line, and not be perceived as a radical tree hugging group,” explains Annie Bristow, SRWA treasurer. “We really want landowners to be on board and for us to be perceived as an organization that can help them.”
Most recently, a couple came to a SRWA meeting asking for the group’s assistance. Their property along the Savage River had begun to rapidly erode due the massive snowmelt during the winter of 2010. SWRA received a grant, and restoration is to begin in spring of 2013.
(Image courtesy Savage River Watershed Association)
“I try to have hope, but everyone keeps telling me that this is going to happen.” Bristow is referring to natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale region in western Maryland. “I guess it is inevitable.”
The Marcellus Shale is a sedimentary rock formation in the Appalachian province that contains deep underground deposits of natural gas. Its use is fairly widespread; according to USGS, in 2009, 25 percent of the energy consumed for electricity, cooking and heating the United States came from natural gas.
As the demand for affordable energy sources increases, energy companies have begun to drill through the rock to extract natural gas. Widespread concern about the environmental effects of this “fracking” process has led to regulations against it in Maryland. Although this protects Maryland's water resources, the bordering states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia have fewer natural gas drilling regulations.
“There are sections of Garrett County where there are only nine miles between Pennsylvania and West Virginia, so Maryland (in between) is still affected greatly,” explains Bristow. “There's drilling sites in West Virginia and Pennsylvania that affect our tributaries, and those streams are already being monitored.”
SRWA seeks to monitor the health of streams before drilling occurs to develop a “baseline” for post-drilling comparison. After undergoing rigorous training by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Bristow and McDaniel trained SRWA volunteers to measure water quality indicators such as temperature, pH and conductivity on 13 sites along the Savage River and its tributaries.
While SRWA and Maryland DNR have been monitoring streams long before the Marcellus Shale debate began, the potential effects of natural gas drilling serve as a new incentive to keep an eye on the Savage River.
“I think when they do begin drilling, we are going to see people concerned about the watershed coming out of the woodwork,” says McDaniel.
One reason the Savage River's water temperature is cool enough for brook trout is the shade provided by eastern hemlock trees along its banks. But these dense hemlock forests may not survive much longer; a tiny insect known as the hemlock woolly adelgid is sucking sap from hemlock trees and killing them. Just as SRWA is preparing for the inevitable Marcellus Shale development, volunteers are also expecting streamside hemlocks to disappear due to this invasive sap-sucker.
To avoid eroding soil, increased water temperatures and other perils that come with bare stream banks, SRWA has planted 4,000 red spruce trees along the Savage River’s shoreline. This spring, they plan to plant 500 more.
(Image courtesy Savage River Watershed Association)
If you drive on Interstate 68 into Garrett County, you'll see a number of farms, each with its own accompanying man-made pond.
“When this area was turned into farmland after it was logged at the turn of the last century, every farmer dug a pond,” explains McDaniel.
Ponds and other unshaded, open areas quickly heat up in warmer months. When these ponds are attached to the Savage River and its tributaries, they dump warm water into the system. This affects water quality, water temperature, and consequently, brook trout.
“One of the things we would like to start doing is to take these ponds off the stream at no expense to the farmer or landowner,” explains McDaniel.
SWRA supported a project that rerouted a pond belonging to the City of Frostburg. “We turned the pond into a three or four acre wetland and re-routed the stream,” says McDaniel. “Within two or three months, there were baby trout in the stream!”
Fisheries scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program will develop a Chesapeake Bay-wide management plan for blue and flathead catfish, two invasive fish species that pose a significant threat to the health of rivers in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
(Image courtesy USFWS Headquarters/Flickr)
Invasive species are animals and plants that are not native to their current habitat and harm the ecosystem they invade. Invasive species are able to thrive in new areas because they lack predators, diseases and other natural controls that keep them in check in their native environment.
Although they are valuable recreational species, blue and flathead catfish are harmful to the Bay ecosystem for several reasons. They grow to enormous sizes, have massive appetites, reproduce rapidly and live for many years. As top-level predators in the Bay food web, blue and flathead catfish prey upon important native species such as American shad and blueback herring.
Both catfish species have been present in Virginia rivers since the 1960s. In recent years, anglers have caught these fish in the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers, as well as the upper Chesapeake Bay. The spread may be due to people moving fish from one river to another, even though this is illegal in Maryland and Virginia.
Scientists will consider a variety of actions to control and lessen the harmful effects of these invasive catfish. For more information, read the Bay Program fisheries team’s Invasive Catfish Policy Adoption Statement.
The Bay Program fisheries team includes experts from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Potomac River Fisheries Commission, D.C. Department of the Environment, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As the sun rises, bald eagles swoop from tree to ground; Canada geese honk happily in a nearby field; and a crew of scientists, boaters and trappers begin a day’s work at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland. The mission? To keep the marshes that fringe the shoreline along this part of the Chesapeake Bay from disappearing.
Although wetland degradation can be attributed to a variety of factors, the field crew at Blackwater is focusing their efforts on one cause they believe can be easily controlled: an invasive rodent called nutria. Native to South America, nutria were introduced to the United States in the early 20th century for their fur, which was thought to be valuable at the time. These 20-pound animals with the build of a beaver and the tail of muskrat may seem harmless, but their effect on marshes across the United States has been devastating.
An overindulgent diet of wetland plants, a lack of natural predators and ridiculously high reproduction rates are characteristics that have led nutria to be labeled as an “invasive species.” Simply put, this means they aren’t originally from here, and they harm the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.
Nutria eat 25 percent of their body weight in marsh plants per day. Let’s put that into perspective: if you’re a 120-pound woman, you’d have to eat 30 pounds of plants each day to eat like a nutria. And since marsh plants don’t weigh all that much, you’d find yourself eating a lot of vegetation.
To make matters worse, nutria tear up the roots of marsh plants when they eat, making it impossible for new plants to grow. As a result, large areas of marshland erode away to open water.
“One property owner on Island Pond had a 300-acre marsh property. Now there’s about 30 acres left,” describes Stephen Kendrot, who works on the Nutria Eradication Project for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS).
Aerial photographs of Blackwater depict a similar scenario. The refuge has lost 50 percent of its wetlands since nutria were introduced in the 1940s. The photos below depict Blackwater in 1939 (left) and 1989 (right.)
Certainly, this loss is a tragedy for Eastern Shore landowners. And while residents may be disappointed that they can’t look out at a beautiful marsh view or help their children find frogs in their backyard wetland, loss of marshland also results in irreversible ecological consequences.
Marsh plants are incredibly beneficial to the environment because they:
In the early 1990s, U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff fenced off random quarter-acre plots in Blackwater’s marsh, excluding nutria but allowing other animals to enter. After several growing seasons, the marsh plants inside the enclosure began to grow, while the vegetation outside the fencing declined. This finding proved that nutria was the direct cause of marsh loss.
Like most rodents, nutria are prolific breeders. This means that those areas with just one or two nutria won’t stay that way for long. Female nutria are fertile as young as six months old, and they can become pregnant again just 24 hours after giving birth. (Essentially, a lifetime of being pregnant.)
“Sometimes we miss a couple animals and they might find each other and start a new population,” explains Kendrot.
As the nutria problem grew serious, federal and state agencies, universities and private organizations partnered to form the Nutria Eradication Project. The project team is made up of academically trained biologists and Eastern Shore natives who have been trapping nutria since they were kids.
Although nutria have been eradicated from Blackwater since the project took off in 2002, there are still substantial populations in other, less densely populated areas. These are the spots the Nutria Eradication Project is now targeting.
Today, Kendrot and I tag along with the field team to survey for nutria on the Wicomico River, an area where residents have reported nutria.
Mario Eusi, who has been trapping nutria for years, drives our boat down the Wicomico River and turns into a narrow inlet. This area is privately owned, but the landowners have granted the team permission to access their property. This type of support is critical to the project’s success.
“About half the nutria we find are on private property,” Kendrot explains. “And almost all the property on the Wicomico is privately owned.”
Consequently, the team dedicates lots of time to public outreach. Kendrot and other team members make phone calls and sit down at kitchen tables across Wicomico and Dorchester counties to explain the harmful effects of nutria. The team must assure landowners that if they grant access to their land, they are preventing their property from disappearing. From this perspective, the federally funded Nutria Eradication Project is actually a public service to waterfront landowners – the team does their best to prevent residents’ marshland from sinking into the Chesapeake Bay.
Today we are tracking nutria, which means looking for signs such as scat, paw prints, chewed plants, flattened grass beds – anything to prove “a nutria was here.” A good tracker must have both a keen knowledge of what nutria signs look like and the sharp senses to catch them, regardless of weather conditions or the speed of the boat cruising down the river. The team also tracks nutria through other methods, including dogs, radio collars and hidden video cameras.
Finding the “nute” is the bigger half of the battle. “Trapping is the easy part,” the field team assures me. Team members must first find signs of nutria before they can decide where to set traps in the spring. I admit: I’m relieved I won’t have to see any nutria in traps today.
The tide is rising, so we have to be quick; soon, the water will wash away paw prints and make it difficult to identify nesting areas. Eusi points out the difference between nutria and muskrat scat. His eye for detail and ingrained awareness of the great outdoors makes him an excellent tracker.
Suddenly, we find a nesting site: an area of flattened grasses that looks like someone has been sitting in the marsh. The signs multiply, and soon the team is out of the boat, bushwhacking through twelve-foot high cattails. I try to catch up, but my foot gets stuck in the mud, and soon I am up to my hips in wetland!
As we continue through the marsh, we find one of the most conclusive signs of an active nutria population: a 10-foot-wide “eat-out,” or an open area where nutria have eaten all of the grasses and their roots. These bare, muddy areas, stripped of all vegetation, eventually erode away into open water.
When we spot a larger “eat-out” not a few steps away, it occurs to me that the two areas will likely merge into one giant mud flat. The cattails I just bushwhacked and the mud I sank into will soon disappear forever into the Wicomico River.
Since we have successfully tracked nutria on the Wicomico today, the team can now think about how to trap the animals.
When a nutria is trapped, it drowns quickly. Team members record the age and sex of each nutria to determine if it is newly born or if it was missed during the previous round of trapping. One way to estimate a nutria’s age is to weigh its eyeballs, because the lenses grow at a fixed rate throughout its life.
Dead nutria have another benefit: carcasses left in the wild provide food for bald eagles, turtles and other wildlife.
While the term “eradication” may conjure up images of ruthless killers, the field team does not seek to conquer these rodents. Rather, the goal is to preserve the wetlands that support the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and define the culture and economy of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The team’s work also benefits the region’s economy as a whole. It’s estimated that nutria cost Maryland $4 million in lost revenue in 2004 alone. The Bay’s crab and oyster fisheries are just two of countless industries that depend on coastal wetlands. The natural filtering capabilities of marsh plants cost millions of dollars to imitate with wastewater treatment plants. Nutria eradication doesn’t just save our wetlands; it also saves our money.
Nutria are often confused with beavers and muskrats, two native and ecologically important mammals. The Fish and Wildlife Service offers a nutria identification page on its website to help you distinguish the difference between these three similar-looking species.
If you think you may have nutria on your property, you should contact the Nutria Eradication Team.
In Louisiana, the nutria infestation problem is even worse. The current generation is carrying on the traditions of fur-bearing trappers thanks to the state’s Nutria Control Program, which pays trappers per nutria they collect. The state even promotes nutria trapping by providing recipes for dishes such as smoked nutria and nutria chili!
Real fur may no longer be a faux pas for the environmentally conscious fashionista. Coats and hats made from nutria fur are considered by many to be “green and guilt-free.” George Costanza thought so, anyway: in an episode of Seinfeld, he replaces Elaine’s lost sable hat with another made from the fur of this invasive rodent.
Natural Resources Specialist Paul Carlson reaches up a red oak tree, his eyes fixated on the 3-inch-diameter vine that has wrapped itself around the oak’s trunk.
The vine is known as Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and its effect on the red oak is comparable to a boa constrictor’s on a human: it strangles the tree and prevents the bark from receiving sunlight, which all trees need to survive. Sometimes the bittersweet vine’s weight will even uproot the tree.
In other words, if this vine is left alone, it’s very likely that the red oak will die. Along with it will disappear the wildlife habitat, forest cover, carbon absorption, erosion control, shade and other important benefits the tree provides.
“Once you recognize it, you’ll see it everywhere,” Carlson says, in reference to the bittersweet vine. He pulls out a pruner and a folding saw and slashes away at the bittersweet. I can almost hear the red oak take a breath.
You may not realize it, but not all plants are good. Oriental bittersweet is one of dozens of non-native weeds, trees, shrubs and grasses that are aggressively invading the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s delicate ecosystems.
As their name suggests, non-native weeds are not originally from this region. Therefore, they do not have any predators, parasites or pathogens here to limit their spread. Invasive weeds:
It’s estimated that invasive weed damage and control costs the United States $138 billion annually.
Ecologists, conservationists, gardeners and park maintenance staff across the Chesapeake Bay watershed are constantly looking for cost-effective ways to control these plant invaders.
Carlson and Montgomery County Parks Forest Ecologist Carole Bergmann – who can provide the name and origin of any plant I point to without consulting a field guide or iPhone app – have found an economically feasible and environmentally effective solution to the non-native weed invasion in Montgomery County, Maryland.
It’s called “Weed Warriors”: a county parks volunteer program that trains and certifies volunteers to identify and remove invasive weeds. Since the program began in 1999, Montgomery County’s Weed Warriors have put in more than 40,000 hours of volunteer service.
As the forest ecologist for all 36,000 acres of parks in Montgomery County, Bergmann realized she needed volunteers if she wanted to make a dent in the problem. “I knew that I couldn’t possibly do all the things I wanted to do without getting more people involved and giving them more responsibility and control.”
Last month, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay named Bergmann a 2011 “Chesapeake Forest Champion” for her work engaging more than 800 volunteers through the program.
At the final Weed Warrior training of the year in early November, volunteers follow Bergmann and Carlson through the forest surrounding Rockville’s Meadowside Nature Center, where the program is headquartered. Bergmann instructs her new volunteers to focus on vines during the winter season, and Carlson wrestles with the fall foliage to demonstrate correct vine removal tactics. The group passes around each vine and shrub, touching the bark, counting leaf lobes, and even smelling berries. It’s essential for Weed Warriors to correctly identify these plants.
“If you don’t know, don’t pull,” Bergmann implores. A plant may look like an invasive weed at first glance, but it could be an important native species that birds and squirrels depend on.
While removing all of the invasive weeds in Montgomery County is not feasible, Bergmann insists that isn’t her goal.
“The benefit of Weed Warriors isn’t just technical assistance. It’s that these volunteers understand enough to tell their neighbors, ‘Don’t buy English ivy.’”
The aggressive nature of invasive weeds requires that entire communities get on board with their extermination. In high-traffic and urban areas, such as Montgomery County, seeds of invasive plants such as kudzu and Japanese barberry often enter parks on the soles and bike tires of families and recreationists. Home owners are usually unaware that the exotic ornamental plants in their yard can invade parks and forests, overwhelming native vegetation and wildlife habitat.
“What’s really important is getting people to understand these things,” Bergmann says. “And in a way, to love the natural world.”
Bergmann knows that a sense of attachment to the natural world is what drives many Weed Warriors to volunteer. She has designed her program to foster this connection. Once volunteers complete a one-hour interactive computer training and attend a two-hour field workshop, the new Weed Warriors receive leather gloves, a hat and a “green card” that allows them to remove weeds at any Montgomery County park, whenever they want.
“People don’t always want to work in a group on the third Saturday of the month in a park across the county from where they live,” Bergmann explains. “They want to work in their park, the park that they watch their kid play baseball in every Saturday.”
Vincent Bradley of McKenney Hills decided to become a Weed Warrior after he participated in his neighborhood’s biannual cleanup this fall.
“At the cleanup, I saw this plant, porcelainberry, just taking over all of the others,” Bradley recalls.
Like many other invasive weeds, porcelainberry was planted by millions of unknowing gardeners because of its pleasant, ornamental beauty: berries ranging in color from deep purple to brilliant turquoise. But to Bradley, the plant’s destruction in his neighborhood park was anything but beautiful.
Bradley began to pull on the bittersweet vines that elevated the porcelainberry. One day, a cleanup supervisor stopped him to explain that he was using the wrong technique: tugging on the vines instead of simply cutting them. Bradley decided he had more to learn if he wanted to make a difference.
“I always appreciated nature,” he says. “My father taught me about trees when I was a kid, and ever since, I’ve been interested.”
Bergmann advises Bradley and other Weed Warrior volunteers to maintain this sense of curiosity. “Come back every season,” she says. “You need to keep learning about your surroundings. It will make you happier.”
As invasive weeds continue to spread, policies are catching on. Many invasive plants are no longer sold in garden stores. Some municipalities, cities – even entire nations – are enacting legislation to limit their distribution.
For example, England has outlawed the cultivation of Japanese knotweed since 1981. In 1990, the UK classified the plant as a “controlled waste,” meaning that even the soil that once contained the plant must be disposed of at a licensed landfill.
Bergmann has some simple advice for all Weed Warriors, certified or not.
Want to get involved?
You can help stop the spread of invasive plants by signing up to become a Weed Warrior. Training takes place on the last Wednesday of the month from April to October. If you can’t make the commitment to become a certified Weed Warrior, you can still make a difference. Special Project Weed Warrior events offer community members the chance to learn about and remove invasive plants in their local county parks.
No matter where you live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, you can still help stop the spread of invasive weeds. Here are a few invasive plant resources that can help you do your part:
(Porcelainberry image courtesy Steve Guttman/Flickr)
Four projects and individuals in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia have been recognized as Chesapeake Forest Champions for their contribution to Chesapeake Bay restoration through the promotion of trees and forests.
The inaugural Chesapeake Forest Champion contest honored recipients in four categories: most innovative, most effective at engaging the public, greatest on-the-ground impact and exceptional forest steward/land owner.
The "most innovative" award went to Adam Downing and Michael LaChance of Virginia Cooperative Extension and Michael Santucci of the Virginia Department of Forestry for their Virginia Family Forestland Short Course program. The team tackled a critical land conservation challenge: intergenerational transfers of family farms and forests, and the need to educate land owners on how to protect their land. Through the land transfer plans developed in this program, more than 21,000 acres of Virginia forests are expected to remain intact, family-owned and sustainably managed.
The "most effective at engaging the public" champion was ecologist Carole Bergmann from Montgomery County, Maryland. Bergmann created the Weed Warrior program in response to a significant invasive plant problem in the county's forests. To date, approximately 600 Weed Warriors have logged more than 25,000 hours of work removing and monitoring invasive weeds.
The "greatest on-the-ground impact" award went to David Wise of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for his leadership in restoring riparian forest buffers through the Pennsylvania Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) partnership. Since 2000, Pennsylvania CREP has restored more than 22,000 acres of forest buffers -- more than all the other Chesapeake Bay states combined.
The "exceptional forest steward/land owner" champion was Susan Benedict of Centre County, Pennsylvania, for her work running a sustainable tree farm. Benedict has implemented many conservation projects on her family's land, such as planting habitat to encourage pollination in a forested ecosystem.
The Chesapeake Forest Champion contest was sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay as part of the International Year of Forests. The four Chesapeake Forest Champions were honored earlier this month at the 2011 Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Visit the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay's website to learn more about the Chesapeake Forest Champions.
Image: (from left to right) Sally Claggett, U.S. Forest Service; David Wise, Chesapeake Bay Foundation; Michael LaChance, Virginia Cooperative Extension; Susan Benedict, land owner, Centre County, Pa.; Carole Bergmann, Montgomery County, Md.; and Al Todd, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Image courtesy Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
The invasive zebra mussel has been found for the first time in the Sassafras River, a tributary of the upper Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
A citizen found a single adult zebra mussel attached to a dock and reported it to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The mussel was discovered in the lower Sassafras River near Turner Creek.
Although the discovery does not necessarily mean that zebra mussels have established themselves in the Sassafras River, it is very unlikely that this single mussel is the only one in the river, according to DNR biologist Ron Klauda.
Biologists believe that unusually low salinity levels in the upper Bay this summer may have allowed zebra mussels to expand beyond the Susquehanna River, which is the only other river in Maryland where the species has been discovered. This means that zebra mussels could have spread to other rivers in the region, such as the Bohemia, Elk or Northeast rivers.
Tiny zebra mussels have caused significant ecological and economic damage in North America. They are extremely efficient filter feeders that significantly reduce the amount of plankton available to native aquatic life. Massive clumps of zebra mussels can also encrust boat hulls, damage power plant intakes and disrupt municipal water systems. Since they were introduced in the Great Lakes in the 1980s, zebra mussels have caused more than $5 billion in damages and losses in North America.
Zebra mussels spread mainly by attaching themselves to boats, boat trailers and other watercraft. Recreational boaters can unknowingly carry zebra mussels and larvae in bilges, bait buckets, coolers or on aquatic vegetation clinging to boat props and trailers.
If you think you’ve found a zebra mussel in a Maryland waterway, you should report the discovery to DNR by calling (410) 260-8615. For more information about the discovery, visit DNR’s website.
Image courtesy John Tolva/Flickr
Hurricanes, earthquakes, a freezing cold winter and a blistering hot summer – 2011 has been an interesting year for weather in the Chesapeake Bay region. Scientists with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have written some preliminary thoughts about the bizarre weather and its link to conditions in the Bay in a post on SERC’s blog, Shorelines.
While SERC tends to focus on the long-term picture rather than brief snapshots, this year has prompted more than a few raised eyebrows among our scientists. What does it mean for the environment? What does it mean for Chesapeake Bay? And can any of it be linked to climate change?
Visit SERC’s blog to read more about the link between 2011 weather and the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy Iris Goldstein/Flickr
The northern snakehead – an invasive fish native to Asia – has been discovered for the first time in several Maryland and Delaware rivers that flow to the Chesapeake Bay.
This month, a team with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center found a mature, egg-bearing snakehead in the Rhode River, just south of Annapolis. It was the first snakehead ever found in the Rhode River.
After the discovery of the Rhode River snakehead, officials with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) confirmed that another snakehead had been found in the Northeast River in Cecil County this spring.
Also this month, a Delaware angler caught a snakehead in Marshyhope Creek, a tributary of the Nanticoke River. According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), this was the second snakehead found in the Nanticoke region. Last fall, DNREC staff found a snakehead in Broad Creek, near Laurel.
The northern snakehead was first discovered in the Bay watershed in a pond in Crofton, Maryland, in 2002. Since then, it has become established in the Potomac River and several of its tributaries in Maryland and Virginia. Snakeheads have the potential to be invasive because they breed rapidly and prey on native fish.
Snakeheads are freshwater fish, so the Bay’s brackish waters usually prevent them from leaving the Potomac River. But scientists believe it is possible that unusually low salinity in the Bay this summer allowed snakeheads to travel to new rivers.
It is illegal to move, possess or release snakeheads in Maryland and Delaware. It is also illegal to transport snakeheads across state lines without a federal permit. If you catch a northern snakehead in Maryland or Virginia, you are required to kill it. These laws are intended to help prevent this potentially invasive fish from spreading.
For more information about snakeheads, visit Maryland DNR’s website.
Biologists with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) are mapping phragmites along the York River as part of a strategy to control the invasive marsh plant.
The agency will use the phragmites location data to develop a web-based mapping tool. Landowners along the Mattaponi, Pamunkey and York rivers can use the map to see if phragmites is growing on their property. The map should be available on DCR’s invasive species page by winter.
“DCR is developing an improved web-based phragmites mapping application that will allow landowners to assess phragmites invasions on their own land in order to make plans for its control,” said DCR Project Manager Rick Myers.
Phragmites is a tall, perennial grass that grows in marshes. The non-native form of phragmites dominates other plants, forming monocultures that do not provide good habitat for wildlife. Although Virginia has treated thousands of acres with approved herbicides, phragmites is spreading fast because too few landowners are controlling it.
For more information, visit DCR's website.
It takes a lot of work to protect the critical land that borders the Chesapeake Bay and its streams, rivers and wetlands. Mary Owens, conservation and education coordinator for the Maryland Critical Area Commission, takes us through a typical day in her job in our latest “From the Field” feature.
The calendar tells me that it is spring, and I am looking forward to a day in the field. As a natural resources planner for Maryland’s Critical Area Commission, my days are varied and involve a combination of tasks and activities that frequently have me outdoors. I love this part of my job!
The Critical Area Program is a natural resources protection and conservation program. Through the Critical Area Program, Maryland works cooperatively with local county and municipal governments to regulate land use and development activity within the state’s “Critical Area.” The Critical Area includes all land and water within 1,000 feet of tidal waters and tidal wetlands. Because of the Chesapeake Bay’s irregular shoreline, as well as the Atlantic coastal bays and all of the tidal rivers and creeks that feed into the bays, this “strip” of land includes about 680,000 acres -- about 11 percent of the state.
After stepping outside and realizing that the weather has turned back to a wintry chill, I get a fleece vest, scarf and gloves (just in case). In this line of work, you soon realize that it is always colder and windier near the water. While this is great in August, it can be a little rough in early April. It’s difficult to review a proposed development project or evaluate a forested buffer when all you can think about is being cold.
My first task for the day is to talk with my boss about a problem with a development project in southern Maryland. The project I am reviewing is an 11-lot subdivision that involves clearing a mature forest, which has been identified as Forest Interior Dwelling Species (FIDS) habitat. This type of habitat is very important to Maryland songbirds. Many songbird species have experienced significant population declines in the last several decades. The dwindling numbers are largely due to fragmentation of the large forested tracts (usually 50 to 100 acres) that songbirds need to nest and breed. To offset the impacts associated with clearing FIDS habitat, developers are usually required to plant and protect similar habitat on another property.
The problem is that a suitable FIDS mitigation site has not been identified for this project. So we have to notify the planning staff that the project cannot proceed without addressing this requirement. We agree to send a letter to the planning director to request a meeting to resolve this issue before any additional permits are issued.
My next activity is also related to FIDS mitigation, and it involves a FIDS Mitigation Bank that we have been working on for over a year. Over the last two years, Commission staff have worked very closely with several local governments and the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage to develop FIDS Mitigation Banks throughout the Critical Area. This effort is essential to the successful protection and conservation of FIDS species.
I have just obtained updated survey information, aerial imagery and a forest management plan for a proposed bank. I meet with DNR Heritage staff to go over the information as we move toward “certifying the bank” as suitable for FIDS mitigation. The meeting goes well, and it looks like we have just over the necessary 100 acres that we hoped to protect on this property. Hopefully this “bank” will be “open for business” in the next month or so.
After these two meetings, I finally get on the road and head out to a site visit in Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC). It’s rainy, windy, and cold, so I am glad I have extra clothes in the car. The purpose of my field trip is to meet with a horticulturist and other HSMC staff to explore the possibility of using goats to remove invasive plant species. Yes – goats! Low tech perhaps, but highly effective, since they eat undesirables like poison ivy and multiflora rose.
Within the Critical Area and particularly within the buffer (the first 100 feet adjacent to tidal waters, tidal wetlands and tributary streams), maintaining natural vegetation is very important. Unfortunately, this is the area where most people want to clear all of the vegetation so they can have a panoramic water view. Massive clearing, grading and bushogging are not allowed in the buffer because they remove natural forest vegetation, which is extremely important to water quality and habitat. These activities can also create severe erosion and sedimentation problems in tidal waters and wetlands.
Fortunately at Historic St. Mary’s City, they aren’t proposing to “clear” large buffer areas to create a view. Rather, they are looking at creative ways to address a serious invasive species problem. We walk around several areas of the property to look at the condition of the landscape and assess topography, soils, vegetation, and existing uses and access. In various areas, the invasive species have literally taken over the natural forest. Without eliminating these undesirable species, it is impossible for the buffer to function optimally. Often, removing invasive species and judiciously pruning trees can create a great view without compromising the value of the forested buffer. This type of work requires a Buffer Management Plan to ensure that the work is properly managed and that mitigation, in the form of supplemental planting, is provided if necessary.
The meeting with the owner of Eco-Goats goes well. It seems like using the goat herd may be a cost-effective and ecologically friendly method of addressing the invasive species problem. The owner tells us that the goats especially like many of the species that are present. The goats can also get to steeply sloping areas that are generally inaccessible to equipment and dangerous for humans. Using the goats is definitely preferable to applying herbicides, especially close to streams, wetlands and waterways. In the roughly one-half to 1 acre area that is identified as a good test site, he estimates that it would take 30 goats less than a week to munch the invasive species down to stems.
After this meeting, the HSMC staff wants to show me a site where they are proposing to construct a special events pavilion. The proposed location is outside the 100-foot buffer, which is good. Unfortunately, it is located in an area where there is an existing stormwater management facility, so that facility will need to be relocated. Fortunately, there are many new stormwater treatment technologies available, so it is likely that we well be able to use several smaller practices such as rain gardens, submerged gravel wetlands or infiltration practices. It’s really beneficial to have the opportunity to discuss various options at the beginning of the design stage, because planning is very important when you are proposing projects in the Critical Area.
My day wraps up in a good way as the sun finally comes out, and it feels like spring. I’ve driven quite a few miles, walked a couple of miles, and learned a lot about goats! As I head homeI drive past the St. Mary’s River, and the sun sparkling on the water is absolutely beautiful! It reminds me that it often does take many small efforts to accomplish things. Small steps, taken together, can eventually take you somewhere. It’s always good to not just focus on the destination, but to enjoy the journey as well.
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question came from Katherine, who asked, “What problems are invasive species causing in the Chesapeake Bay, and what is being done about them?”
Invasive species can be very harmful to the ecosystems they invade. Many invasive species thrive in their new habitats because they lack the natural predators and diseases that may threaten them in their native habitats. Without these things keeping their populations in check, invasive species are able reproduce and thrive.
However, invasive species seriously threaten our native plants and animals by encroaching on their food and habitat, often leaving native species without food or shelter in their natural environments. For example, mute swans can destroy bay grass beds while feeding. Without bay grasses, many other animals have nothing to eat or nowhere to take shelter, and the health of the Bay suffers as well.
It is estimated that about 42 percent of the native plants and animals listed as threatened or endangered in the United States are at risk for further decline due to invasive species.
Once established in a new habitat, invasive species are very difficult to completely eradicate. Controlling invasive species can be very expensive and requires a lot of time, cooperation and commitment among multiple agencies and jurisdictions.
A variety of control tactics are used, depending on the species and the state where the problem exists. In Maryland, mute swans have been successfully controlled to the point where only 500 were estimated to be present in the state in 2009. Water chestnut, an invasive aquatic plant, is controlled by hands-on removal. Scientists and volunteers remove the plants by hand, pulling them from where they grow in rivers and creeks so the plants are not able to spread their seeds. Water chestnut was thought to have been eradicated multiple times but has come back repeatedly, so the struggle to control it continues.
The best way to control invasive species is to not allow them to be introduced in the first place. Zebra mussels are one invasive species that you can help to control. If you boat in freshwater areas, make sure you wash your boat off thoroughly and let it dry completely so the mussels can't "hitchhike" to another water body.
If you spot an invasive species, notify the appropriate agency so that the proper measures may be taken to deal with it.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events.
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question came from Katherine, who asked, “What invasive plants and animals exist in the Chesapeake Bay and how were they introduced?”
Invasive species are animals and plants that are not native to a certain area and harm the ecosystem they invade. There are as many as 200 invasive species present in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that are causing some serious issues in an already-stressed ecosystem.
Invasive species can be introduced in many ways. Some travel accidentally through human trade and tourism, while others are deliberately introduced.
Mute swans were introduced into North America in the late 1800s, mainly for the purpose of “decorations” for zoos, parks and private estates. The Chesapeake Bay region’s mute swan population formed when five swans escaped from an estate in Talbot County, Maryland, in 1962. By 1999, an estimated 4,500 mute swans were living in Maryland and Virginia.
Nutria were introduced to Maryland in 1943 to establish an experimental fur station at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, but it proved to be unprofitable. The rest of the nutria from the project were released or escaped, leading to an overwhelming population of the marsh-dwelling rodents at the beginning of the 21st century.
Phragmites is thought to have been introduced from Eurasia in the 19th century by way of dry ballast from ships. Today it dominates many mid-Atlantic marshes.
Purple loosestrife was introduced to the U.S. from Eurasia in the early 1800s for ornamental and medicinal purposes, as well as via dry ballast dumped by foreign ships. It spread through inland canals, increased development, the sale of the plant for use in gardens and seed generation for bee forage.
Water chestnut was first found in the U.S. in 1859 in Massachusetts, but has since spread to other locations in the northeast. It is believed that water chestnut was introduced as an ornamental plant in ponds and spread from there. It was found in Baltimore County, Md., in 1955 and has gone through several cycles of eradication and reappearing since that time.
Like phragmites, zebra mussels were introduced to the United States via ballast water from European ships traveling from the Caspian and Black seas. The freshwater mussels were spotted in the Great Lakes in 1988 and have since spread to many other water bodies throughout the United States, including the Susquehanna River.
Come back next week to find out about the damage invasive species are causing and what is being done to solve it!
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events.
Image: The invasive plant phragmites dominates many marshes in the mid-Atlantic region.
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question came from John in New Jersey. John has been experiencing problems with mute swans while kayaking in his local waterways. He has seen them before, but never had any issues with them until last year. He and other kayakers were attacked several times last year and the attacks have resumed this year. He asked: “Short of quitting my favorite weekend sport, what can I do to deter the swan from attacking me?"
For this question, we contacted Jonathan McKnight, the associate director for habitat conservation with the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
McKnight said that, unfortunately, mute swan attacks are not uncommon. Mute swans are an invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and other parts of the East Coast (such as New Jersey), causing problems for humans, other wildlife and the habitats where they live. Mute swans are very territorial of their nesting areas and near their young. With wingspans that can reach 6 feet long, mute swans are capable of causing serious injury to humans.
In Maryland, any mute swan attacks or sightings can be reported to DNR, and DNR officials will go out to the site and remove the swans. If mute swans are prohibiting use of the waterways near you, McKnight suggests contacting your state’s wildlife agency.
The best advice McKnight could offer John was to wear a life preserver when out in his kayak and to make his posture taller than the swan.
“If you are smaller than the swan, it will attack mercilessly,” McKnight said.
John had also mentioned an idea of using a bird repellent to ward off the swans, which McKnight said might be successful.
Visit our page on mute swans for more information about these invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events!
Welcome to this week’s installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week we'll take a question submitted through the Chesapeake Bay Program website and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question came from Elizabeth: “What kind of effect does the zebra mussel have on fish like the striped bass?”
This is a great question, and one that can be applied more broadly by addressing how invasive species affect native species in the Chesapeake Bay.
The important thing to remember is that every species that is native to an ecosystem plays an integral role in the food web for that particular ecosystem. So in the Chesapeake Bay, everything from plankton to blue crabs and striped bass are important to the health of the Bay.
When an invasive species is introduced into an ecosystem, it puts additional stressors on the native species that live there. In the Chesapeake, not only do native species have to deal with pollution, they also have to worry about invasive species depleting their food sources.
For example, the zebra mussel is an invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay. It is also a filter feeder. While this could be seen as a good thing – improving the clarity of the water – it is really an issue to contend with when the zebra mussel consumes the plankton that is vital to the survival of many primary consumers in our ecosystem, like Atlantic menhaden and other small fish. These smaller fish are then prey for larger fish such as striped bass.
If there is not enough plankton to feed the menhaden, in turn there will not be enough menhaden to feed the striped bass, and so on. In the food web, every species fluctuation results in a domino effect in the rest of the ecosystem.
Invasive species can take a toll on an ecosystem. Not only do zebra mussels significantly reduce the plankton available to native filter feeders, they also hinder boat navigation and cause damage to the power industry by clogging vital pipes.
While eradication of invasive species is typically very difficult and extremely expensive, there are things you can do to help the problem. Boaters are encouraged to check their hulls, trailers and recreational equipment for zebra mussels before moving them to a new water body. You can also do your part to reduce pollution to the Bay, which will help the Bay watershed's native plants and animals.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and your question might be chosen at the next Question of the Week!
I’m declaring war. No, I’m not assuming some pseudo-political position giving me the power to aggregate our country’s resources in a fight for power, peace or anything else dominating the headlines these days. I, Liana Vitali, am declaring war and all the power I need is the strength in my arms and a Sea Doo GTI with a 130 hp engine and a sleek, ergonomic design. Combine this with my steadfast desire to restore the Chesapeake Bay to its historic and unimaginable beauty and you’re looking at a stealthy invasive species destroyer, equipped to rid the Chesapeake Bay of its exotic aquatic vegetation invaders and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! (OK, that part might be an exaggeration.)
I bet you’re wondering who I used my incredible skills and power to wage war upon . . . the dreaded Trapa natans. Here is its criminal rap sheet:
|Street name: Water Chestnut|
|Continents of Origin: Europe, Asia and Africa|
|Last Known Chesapeake Bay Residence: Bird and Sassafras rivers|
Criminal Record: Convicted on multiple accounts of:
Recently, I joined forces with Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologists to seek and destroy water chestnut in the Bird River, north of the city of Baltimore. We deployed one Carolina skiff and two Sea Doos to scour the shores of the entire main river and creeks. This time last year, we worked collectively to remove what seemed like half a ton of water chestnut from the river. This year, we returned to find that the skills, strategy and no doubt awesome intimidation we imposed on the invader must have struck fear into its very roots. Though their guerilla tactics of hiding amongst beloved native water lilies nearly out of sight might have worked, they clearly misjudged our abilities and dedication to the Bay. One by one, we yanked out less than a quarter of the water chestnut we removed last year. OohRah!
So does this mean that I can now hang a large and lovely banner across the front of the Chesapeake Bay Program building proudly stating “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!”? No. But can I proudly say we’ve set an example of how combining manpower and resources with a loyal devotion for the Chesapeake Bay can result in tangible and positive changes to our creeks and rivers? Absolutely.
Zebra mussels have been found for the first time in the Maryland portion of the Susquehanna River, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Zebra mussels are small, invasive freshwater mussels native to the Caspian Sea. As zebra mussels grow, they encrust boat bottoms and clog municipal drinking water systems and power plant intakes. A study by New York Sea Grant showed that zebra mussels cost the power industry $3.1 billion from 1993-1999.
In addition to economic losses, zebra mussels cause ecological damage by killing native mussels and filtering too much plankton from the water. The presence of zebra mussels has also been linked to declining duck populations.
While zebra mussels spread rapidly with natural river currents, they are most often transferred between water bodies by humans. According to DNR, recreational boaters can unknowingly carry zebra mussel larvae in their bilge, minnow buckets or on trailers.
Boaters can help stop zebra mussels from spreading to other rivers and lakes by:
Read more from DNR about zebra mussels in the lower Susquehanna River.
On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, pollution from development and agriculture are much-debated issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay's health. But one of the region's most destructive forces is unseen by many: a large, beaver-like rodent that digs out and feeds on the roots of marsh grasses.
Nutria are an invasive species that live in the Delmarva Peninsula's marshes and wetlands. Since their introduction in the 1940s, nutria have eaten through thousands of acres of marshland on the Eastern Shore. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County has been especially hard-hit: nutria have destroyed more than half of the marshes there -- nearly 7,000 acres.
Marshes and wetlands are important because they protect clean water by filtering out pollutants and reducing shoreline erosion. They also provide opportunities for outdoor nature activities such as paddling, hiking, hunting and bird-watching.
Additionally, wetland destruction by nutria costs Maryland’s economy $4 million per year in lost environmental services from the degradation of farmland, property, water quality, commercial fisheries and outdoor activities. Recent reports estimate that figure will increase to $30 million per year by 2050 if nutria are left unchecked.
To combat nutria’s destruction of valuable marshland, a group of federal, state and local organizations has come together to eradicate the invasive rodent from the Eastern Shore.
The Maryland Nutria Project began in the late 1990s as the Maryland Nutria Project Partnership, a group of 22 organizations that joined together to investigate the potential to eliminate nutria from Eastern Shore marshes. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received federal funding to develop a strategy to eradicate nutria in Maryland.
Today, the Maryland Nutria Project is one of a small handful of highly successful invasive species programs in the United States. Since its work began in 2002, the Project has removed nutria from almost 150,000 acres of wetlands in Caroline, Dorchester, Somerset, Talbot and Wicomico counties.
The Maryland Nutria Project’s trapping efforts were originally concentrated in a 95,000-acre “nutria eradication zone,” which included Blackwater, the state-owned Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, the privately owned Tudor Farms, and other nearby private lands.
“Except for monitoring activities, the Project is finished in the nutria eradication zone,” said Dan Murphy, program supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office. “We are continuing to expand out of Dorchester County into nutria-infested marshes in Caroline, Somerset, Talbot and Wicomico counties.
Marshes have shown a remarkable ability to recover once nutria are removed from an area. But without a continued effort to eradicate them, nutria will re-infest and once again destroy wetlands. The Project must expand its efforts into the remaining five southern Maryland Eastern Shore counties and the Delaware and Virginia portions of Delmarva -- a total of more than 400,000 acres of wetlands.
“The challenge ahead is for the Project to continue to expand into surrounding marshlands while preventing re-infestation of previously trapped habitats on state, federal and private lands,” Murphy said. “This will require the trapping team to work in much larger areas and expand the trapping zone on a much broader front.”
Based on current staffing, progress and field efforts, the Maryland Nutria Project estimates that it will eradicate nutria from the Eastern Shore by 2013. After that time, Project members will continue to monitor marshes and remove any nutria they find.
The Nutria Management Team, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office, oversees the nutria eradication project. Other members of the Maryland Nutria Project include:
Learn more about nutria and the Maryland Nutria Partnership from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Maryland Port Administration and several other Maryland agencies have joined together to launch the Maritime Environmental Resource Center (MERC), a new research and testing project that aims to help prevent the spread of harmful aquatic invasive species via ship ballast water.
Ballast water is taken up by ships to stabilize weight while underway and later emptied when a ship needs to change its stability or unload its cargo. Along with water, ships can pick up small aquatic species in their ballast. When a ship picks up ballast from one body of water and empties it into another, it can inadvertently release those aquatic species, which may become invasive in their new environment.
There are more than 150 known invasive species in the Chesapeake, most of which are believed to have been introduced through ballast water.
The primary focus of MERC will be to test the effectiveness of systems designed to safely treat ballast water before it is discharged into the Bay and other local waterways. In the future, MERC may also focus on other maritime environmental issues, such as hull fouling, air emissions and gray and oily water treatments.
Testing will be performed aboard a working cargo ship donated by the U.S. Maritime Administration. With this mobile testing platform, MERC will be able to review the effects of temperature and salinity changes on various treatment systems.
Visit the MERC website for more information about the program.