Category Archives: Conservation & Restoration

Tar Sands, Pipeline Proposals & Wetlands

In preparing for a conservation commission meeting, I have been learning more about the tar sands crude oil pipelines and the potential impacts they have on water resources. Previously, I had heard about the tar sands and oil spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010 and the crude oil spill in Yellowstone in 2011 (MT), but I did not know much about tar sands extraction and transportation into North America. Lately there has been some press about a New England proposal for an Enbridge pipeline project. For example, I read a NWF blog post last month and came across a number of useful background documents on state, regional and national issues related to tar sands crude oil pipelines on the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s website. Also in April, the National Wildlife Federation published a report, “After the Marshall Spill: Oil Pipelines in the Great Lakes Region,” which assesses the regulatory issues involved in protecting wetlands and waters in the Great Lakes from similar disasters in the future.

Heating oil pipelineFrom local issues to national concerns:  The topic of tar sands crude oil pipeline proposals in my community of Maine is echoed throughout the New England region, and throughout the U.S. all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. In southern Maine, Sebago Lake, the source of drinking water for the city of Portland, Maine and surrounding towns, plays a prominent role in a number of environmental advocacy groups’ efforts to halt proposals for pumping tar sands through the state. The pipeline currently runs from South Portland, Maine through the Lakes Region towns, including Windham, where ASWM is headquartered, crossing Panther Run and the Crooked River, which feed Sebago Lake. This is just one small area of the longer pipeline, which would cross through many other watersheds throughout New England.

After I presented information at my local conservation commission meeting, I ran into a few neighbors and residents who commented on the issue of a tar sands pipeline proposal that could have an impact on Maine’s watersheds and natural resources.  One business owner said, “They’re still cleaning up the spill in Michigan! If that happened here, we’d be done.” Similar views have been expressed at town meetings, on PBS presentations(winter 2012) and at university informational sessions in southern Maine. The Natural Resources Council of Maine has an ongoing project informing citizens about the proposal and its potential impacts to Maine, as well as the Enbridge proposals for tar sands pipelines elsewhere in the country. For a fact sheet on Tar Sands, Keystone Pipeline Project in Maine (2012), click here.

Boreal Forest Before and AfterWhat are tar sands and where do they come from? Tar sands are a mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil.  The process extracts the bitumen from the other materials and requires other treatment before it can be refined.  It is so thick it requires dilution with additional hydrocarbons before it can be transported through pipelines when it can be later turned into conventional heating oil. This process of transporting it in pipelines has many potentially hazardous impacts to water and other natural resources in the event of a spill.  Once the tar sands crude oil is transported, the process of turning it into conventional oil is not cost-effective or ecologically sensible.  The process releases more than double the harmful greenhouse gasses than conventional heating oil does during production. (See Scientific American.) Currently, the bulk of the tar sands originate in Alberta, Canada—where large pools called tar pits have replaced wetlands. These tar pits are big enough to be seen from space. The most threatened habitat are Canada’s boreal forests, which is 1.3 billion acres of wetlands—among the largest in-tact wetland ecosystems on Earth. Unfortunately, most of the wastewater involved with the tar sands production ends up in streams and rivers throughout the boreal forest, contaminating the wetlands and threatening bird and wildlife habitat. For Alberta’s Government webpage on oil sands, click here.

Alberta Oil Sands MapAccording to mining company reports, 64% of the mining landscape is made up of peatlands. (See related study, “Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon.”)  There’s some effort underway to restore the wetlands that have been affected by tar sands in Alberta. Oil Sands Wetlands Reclamation: Syncrude, Suncor Plan To Reconstruct Fens It’s unconventional wetland restoration on a large scale. Essentially they’re hoping to recreate a 50-hectare watershed, not just a wetland, for one project. That’s about 125 acres of wetlands and waters. The University of Waterloo’s department of geography and environmental management is involved with the watershed restoration planning. It’s been called a Tar Sands Wetlands Reclamation. However, some Canadian wetland scientists are doubtful that this will work to restore the wetlands.  They say, “Instead of bogs and fens, the industry will build hills topped by plantation forests and fill large man-made lakes with toxic waste bordered by shrubs and salty marshes.” (Rooney, et.al., 2011)

“It’s a completely different landscape,” says study co-author Suzanne Bayley, one of Canada’s top wetland ecologists and a University of Alberta professor. See Scientists Doubt Fix to Wetlands Damaged by Oil Sands Furthermore, fewer wetlands means drier conditions and more fire hazards. See a related presentation on The State of Oil Sands Wetlands Reclamation and Slow Down Oil Sands to Save Wetlands, Scientist Says –with details from a related study of Canadian wetlands. For an Alberta wetlands fact sheet by Water Matters, click here.

So what about tar sands pipelines in the U.S.? In addition to the discussions ongoing in New England, there’s a lot of information available on the potential impacts and environmental risks of tar sands pipeline projects nationally. See Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks

By Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, et.al. – February 2011

Tar Sands Invasion: How Dirty and Expensive Oil from Canada Threatens America’s New Energy Economy By NRDC, Earth Works, Sierra Club, et. al. – May 2010.

Further reading:

Study Disputes Oil Sands ‘Restoration’ Pledge (NY Times Green Blog, March 2012)
Tran-Canada’s New Permit Still Threatens Nebraska’s Water and U.S. Energy Security 
New Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Permit Rejected by Nebraska Residents
 
In through the backdoor: Is Enbridge Inc. trying to bring tar sands to Central Canada and New England?

Sulfide Mining Regulation in the Great Lakes Region
 (includes links to series of reports on impacts to water resources in several states –WI, MI, MN, plus Ontario)
Cattle Ranchers, Environmentalists and the Keystone XL Pipeline

Video: Robert Redford and Waterkeeper Alliance on XL Keystone Pipeline Protest
 (2011)
May 2012 Update: The Great Lakes, New Dumping Ground for Tar Sands Oil
http://ecowatch.org/2012/the-great-lakes-new-dumping-ground-for-tar-sands-oil/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related blogs:

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

Huffington Post blogs and videos of Gulf Oil Spill

Response & Restoration (NOAA) blog

8 Gulf coast restoration projects announced

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

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

Destiny of Waters

Is it a lake or a pond or a wetland?

Recently someone asked me about the body of water beyond my backyard—if it was a lake or a pond and what’s the difference? My first answer was that it is a pond by name. A pond or lake may be named as such the way “street,” “lane,” or “road” are often interchangeable. Secondly, a lake and a pond have differences at the ecological level—in terms of aquatic life, and in terms of limnology.  I also explained that the differences had to do with acreage and depth of the water body. Sometimes a “pond” can be bigger and deeper by comparison to a nearby lake, as in the case of Long Pond (113’ deep) and Echo Lake (66’ deep) in Acadia National Park. In that case, Echo Lake is technically considered a “great pond” under Maine state law because it’s a natural pond greater than 10 acres.  But usually lakes are bigger and deeper than ponds. State definitions generally include both lakes and natural ponds as “waters of the state.” Under the Cowardin classification system, ponds are wetlands.

What I did not explain to my friend very well was the natural gradation of lakes into ponds into wetlands, and their evolution as waters.  What made sense to me as an ecologist, that one type would naturally grade into another water type, was harder to explain. What’s even harder to illustrate is the concept of an ecotone—the transitional area between two ecological communities adjacent to one another. As usual, I thought of movies.

The phenomenon of distinct communities existing side by side can be observed in film.  For example, the liminal space between cultures—a cultural transition area—can be viewed as bordercrossings, illustrated effectively in films like “Night on Earth” (1991). Jim Jarmusch’s film took place entirely in taxi cabs in five different time zones throughout the world. The concept is that no matter where you go, at one point in time, there are eerily similar transactions and interactions taking place in taxi cabs—a kind of cultural habitat, if you will—for humans migrating from one place to another. Some water bodies, like taxi cabs, are mobile; some are stationary, like an ‘off-duty’ cab.  And that’s where the changes from lake to pond to wetland, or the line between adjacent ecological communities, can get a little fuzzy to someone standing on the curb, er, the edge of the water.

Over what period of time do lakes become ponds? How long does it take for ponds to become wetlands? For wetlands to become meadows? The short answer is several thousand years, if nothing has interrupted (or accelerated) the natural evolution of these waters. This is called succession. Biology students learning about wetland succession in a classroom can experiment with an aquarium—starting with a mini pond or wetland habitat. For a biology teaching guide written by BioMedia (Russell) that outlines the key ingredients to such an experiment for a year-long study,click here. Limnologists say, “lakes are destined to die,” whereas ponds are the “death of a lake” and the “birth of a marsh.” For an explanation on pond succession, click here.

So how does a pond become a wetland? The first stage, called the ‘pioneer’ stage of wetland succession, starts with the pond without plant life at the bottom. Plankton, which inhabit the pond, and carry miniscule plant and animal life, arrive on the winds or wings of insects.  Over time, plankton die on the pond bottom and create a mucky layer, which is rich enough for water emergent plants to grow, such as water lilies, ancient wetland plants. As water lilies form a blanket over the surface of the water, they cut off the sunlight to the bottom, killing off the submergent plants. These processes can take a variety of timeframes from a matter of years to a matter of millennia. Trees, shrubs and grasses move into the space that was once the pond and a wetland takes shape. This is a dynamic process with many variables. Some wetland ecologists have argued against the idea of wetland succession because of these variables.

Succession is not a sure thing. It does not occur with all lakes in the U.S.. (For instance, there is no scientific concern that the Great Lakes will eventually turn into ponds, or meadows.) There are many factors that can interrupt a “natural” succession process such as a changing climate, soils, drainage, land development, introduction of invasive plants or other aquatic species, phosphorus run-off (causing dissolved oxygen) or other factors.

In addition to the possible succession pattern of pond to wetland, some wetlands can be turned into ponds. In the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Status & Trends of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States 2004-2009, ponds are recognized as a type of freshwater wetland. The report indicates a net increase of 207,200 acres of ponds between 2004-2009, an increase of 3.2% in ponds nationally (FWS).  The trouble with ponds, for example, farm ponds, being created while another type of freshwater wetland is lost, is that there is a difference between constructed ponds and wetlands—including natural ponds, in terms of their ecological functions. According to the Status & Trends Report, the majority of ponds in the U.S. are constructed farm ponds. Only 31% of the ponds in the lower 48 states are natural.

Mankind has a dramatic impact on natural landscapes frequently disrupting succession. This means it’s an uncertain destiny for our lakes, ponds, streams, rivers and wetlands. For those working to protect wetlands, and to harness the power of wetlands to sequester carbon and provide unique and solvent ways to fight climate change’s impact on our planet, this is cause for concern. Save wetlands, save ourselves.

Helpful Resources:

Massachusetts Lake and Pond Guide

Wisconsin’s Natural Communities

Michigan DNR: Succession – Changing Land, Changing Wildlife

Wetland Ecosystems by William J. Mitsch, James G. Gosselink et. al. (2009)

Wetland Ecology: Principles and Conservation, 2nd Edition by Paul Keddy, (2010)

ASWM’s Wetland Science web resources

Other recent blogs on wetland succession:

Conservation Maven: Study finds post-restoration wetland succession highly variable

Ian Lunt’s Ecological Research Site: There’s a wetland in my grassland

Constantine Alexander’s blog: Artificial wetlands can provide benefits over the long haul(on Bill Mitsch’s work on wetland creation and succession)

A Land Ethic 60 Years Later: Growth of the Land Trust Movement

A recent article in The American Spectator highlights the impressive accomplishments and growth of the land trust movement in the U.S. over the last 60 years. Census data collected by the national Land Trust Alliance indicates significant growth in land conservation by these private—and usually small—nonprofit land trusts since 2000. See Tocqueville Would Be Proud. There are more than 1700 land trusts in the U.S. that have conserved 37 million acres of land.

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) and his other writings were highly influential to the conservation movement in the 1950s-1970s. Last week was Aldo Leopold Weekend in Wisconsin. His idea of a land ethic, a guiding principle for the actions of people and their relationship to land, evolved into some of the early visions of land trusts, now considered conservation leaders, beginning in the 1970s.

One example, Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), established itself as a conservation organization in 1970.  Through its “municipal program” (1975-77), the statewide land trust determined that conservation commissions were very important but local land trusts were also needed to perform the necessary land protection work throughout the state. “Local land trusts (LLTs) can provide response flexibility, confidentiality and credibility that is often lacking on the part of town government,” wrote Earl Ireland in an early planning committee memo to the Land Trust Program.  MCHT began to list “assistance to local land trusts” as part of its services in 1978. A number of other state-wide land trusts formed using that model in other parts of the country.

Ten years ago I conducted a research project on land trust collaboration, which continues to be a topic of discussion at the Land Trust Rally, an annual training event hosted by the Land Trust Alliance. The Land Trust Alliance is a national, nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that provides leadership to the local, regional and state wide land trust communities across the country, as well as some international land trusts.

While I focused much of that 2001-2004 study on Maine land trusts, I traveled to meet with land trust and conservation professionals in Wyoming, California and Maryland, and attended the Land Trust Rally to learn about land trust work nationally. I also gained first-hand knowledge by working with Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

What struck me then was the difference in how people thought about “collaboration.” I had assumed that collaboration was a good thing but learned that some people saw it as “giving up” or “giving in,” while others defined it as “working together.” In success stories about local land trusts in Maine that collaborated by merging with neighboring trusts, a regional land trust could take on larger conservation easements, raise more funds, hire more staff, update/digitize maps, etc.  The Land Trust Alliance encouraged this mode of professionalizing land trusts throughout the U.S.. In success stories about local land trusts (LLTs) that collaborated in other ways—through partnerships, shared staff or shared GIS, peer-mentoring programs or regional coalitions, LLTs maintained their local identity and protected more land using ‘whole-place’ planning or a watershed approach and the benefits of working with conservation partners.

Since then, land trusts have turned collectively to the development of state conservation easement statutes and to new challenges, such as addressing climate change. LTA conducted a 2007 survey among land trusts and found that 60% of responding land trusts were incorporating climate change into their conservation action plans and 30% were engaged in influencing climate policy. Learn more about the developments of land trusts and climate change issues on LTA’s website.

ASWM posted a list of land trusts working to protect wetlands and provided a number ofpublications relevant to land conservation work on its website. In addition, visit ASWM’sLocal Wetland Programs page and its “I am a Landowner” page for related information about local governments, local land conservation programs and general information about wetlands protection for landowners.

Sons & Daughters of the Nature Study Movement

Over the past few weeks, a number of tweets on Twitter have related to the topic of women in science—with posts about equality, so-called “science kits for girls,” and fighting stereotypes. While reading a biography on Rachel Carson, a daughter of the “Nature-Study Movement,” I became curious about this educational movement that drew young women to science during the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  In Carson’s case, it was her mother, Maria, who shared an interest in natural history with her daughter, Rachel, from a very young age. It is clear from Rachel’s writings that her mother was influenced by the nature-study movement. How did this movement come about? What engendered it? For those of us studying and working in the natural sciences, I wondered:  Are we daughters—and sons—of the nature-study movement?

Cornell University became one home to the nature-study movement.  The university at one time received state funds to teach ‘nature-study’ in rural New York schools.  During the depression of 1893, the state of New York established a Committee for the Promotion of Agriculture. It grabbed onto the ideas of Liberty Hyde Bailey, a Cornell professor, “who believed that children should grow up appreciating nature.”  He wrote some of the first leaflets on “nature-study,” promoting new classes and a whole program at Cornell during the summer of 1897. Bailey founded the American Nature Study Society, the oldest environmental organization in the U.S., in 1908. But Bailey did not act alone—he hired Anna Botsford Comstock, who ran the program in New York.

Other writers and naturalists such as Gene Stratton Porter, Louis Agassiz and Wilbur S. Jackman were early members and founders of the nature-study movement.  ‘“Nature-study” attempted to reconcile scientific investigation with spiritual, personal experiences gained from interaction with the natural world.” (Armitage, 2009)  Naturalist Louis Agassiz coined the phrase “study nature, not books,” which meant that the emphasis was placed on learning from tangible things outside of the classroom.

Anna Comstock explored the idea extensively in her 1930 book, Handbook of Nature Study: “Nature Study is for the comprehension of the Individual life of the bird, insect or plant that is nearest at hand.” Comstock described “nature-study” as both an aesthetic and as a discipline. She writes, “But it should not be thought that nature-study is not a science. The promising science of ecology is merely formalized nature-study; indeed it might be said that nature-study is natural science from an ecological rather than anatomical view.” To critics of “nature-study,” especially male scientists, some of whom considered ‘nature-study’ to be romantic or sentimental, Comstock argued that nature-study was more than a science—that it was “not merely a study of life, but the experience of life.” Her book spelled out a philosophy of life.  Many of those who joined the nature-study movement shared this philosophy.

The nature-study movement inspired a change in school curricula for children in many of areas of the country, according to Nature, not books: scientists and the origins of the nature-study movement in the 1890s by Sally G. Kohlstedt (2005), and because of this shift, it allowed young women to study and prepare for scientific vocations, and more importantly, to find jobs. Rachel Carson, and other female scientists, benefited from this major shift in thinking about the way science was taught—in both the lab and field.  Kohlstedt’s more recent book,Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in North America, 1890–1930, (University of Chicago Press, 2010) examines this phenomenon more closely. For example, in the state of Wisconsin, from 1915-1920, the number of female biology teachers increased by 50-67%. (Tolley, 2003) Moreover, the movement influenced male and female environmental leaders alike, including Aldo Leopold. For more information, look for The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America’s Conservation Ethic by Kevin C. Armitage (2009).

For related blogs on the Nature-Study Movement, visit:

William Temple Hornaday and the Progressive Era Nature Study Movement
http://gregshistoryblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/william-temple-hornaday-and-progressive.html?showComment=1323277806846#c5029543604266133864

Darwin, Schoenberg, and Sibley: A New Dawn for Nature Study?
http://blog.aba.org/2011/12/darwin-schoenberg-and-sibley-a-new-dawn-for-birding.html

Anna Comstock: http://drkv.wordpress.com/2011/09/10/anna-comstock/

So Excellent a Fishe ~ Sea Turtle Conservation History

Last week I received a publisher’s copy of the newly released 2011 edition of Archie Carr’s book, So Excellent a Fishe, A Natural History of Sea Turtles (University of Florida Press) with a new forward by Karen A. Bjorndal. She is the current Director of the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida. Bjorndal muses on her mentor’s good humor and the invaluable legacy that world-renowned ecologist Dr. Archie Carr left to the field of sea turtle research and conservation. She outlines the progress that scientists have made since Dr. Carr’s book was originally published in 1967, when sea turtle populations were very low.  Sea turtles continue on the endangered species list, but in the case of green turtles, the populations have somewhat recovered since Carr’s field work in the Caribbean in the 1950s and ‘60s. Carr cites the work of his predecessors, offering insights on the improvements and changes over decades of marine and coastal conservation. But what does it have to do with wetlands?

Sea turtle conservation work used to be done solely on shore. This required slogging through creeks and swamps to observe turtle nesting sites. This meant studying the behavior of wetland-dependent predators, including swamp pigs, lizards, wild dogs and jaguars in the coastal scrub, as researchers observed the success rates of the female green turtle and her nesting rituals. It included studies of sea grasses.  It also meant that sea turtle scientists worked in remote, challenging coastal landscapes, self-marooned in the jungles of islets and islands of the Caribbean and off of South America forever waiting for a locally-operated plane to pick them up, transport hundreds of baby turtles, or bring supplies. At least, that was before the U.S. Navy got involved in the mid-1960s, when a naval officer took interest in the unparalleled navigation abilities of sea turtles. Then Carr and his colleagues had assistance—including more dependable planes, provided by the Navy. The adventures and challenges presented by sea turtle conservation work may be partly why Carr uses the word “swamped” on nearly every other page to emphasize the obstacles that both the researchers endured on the landscape and sea turtles faced in their steadfast quest for survival, e.g. “swamped by predators,” which happened to descend from “swamp forests.”

What’s remarkable in reading about Carr’s field work certainly pivots on his ability to postulate and pose theories—many of which were proven true with corroborating data decades later—but notably his sense of humor. Readers learn of all sorts of fascinating experiments. For example, one scientist puts a pair of glasses with colored lenses on a sea turtle to test her preference for colors in the journey between shore and sea. Further, Carr describes the rarely-witnessed violent, near-impossible feat of the male green turtle courting with the female and maneuvering onto her smooth, wet carapace in the waves, surrounded by competing males. These observations led to changes in monitoring programs, in which researchers had previously tagged the carapace, not fully understanding the violent nature of courtship and the likelihood of the male sea turtle removing the metal tags from his mate. In other observations, female green turtles drag logs and marine equipment to shore. Anything that happened to a turtle offshore remained a mystery for the time being. This brought about a new tagging program to help sea turtle conservation researchers gather clues.

In a chapter entitled, Señor Reward Premio, it’s a delight to read the letters Dr. Carr received by fishermen who found tagged sea turtles that were part of a monitoring program. The sea turtles had metal tags with return instructions (in Spanish and English) with the promise of a $5 reward—paid by the U.S. government. The $5 reward program for collecting the tags was very successful, returning far more tags to Carr and his colleagues than prior tagging programs that did not offer a reward. Because of the language barrier, fishermen misinterpreted the directions on the tags and directed letters to Señor Reward Premio, and the University of Florida’s mail system had to get used to Carr’s new alias.  What’s neat about the letters and the eager response of the fishermen is that the value of a sea turtle, especially when poached, at the time exceeded the $5 reward, and yet the fishermen who returned tags wrote of their great interest in the project. They seemed rather proud in participating. The $5 reward program, in essence, swayed the behaviors of some fishermen and sea turtle poaching activities decreased as a result. In general, the presence of sea turtle researchers on Caribbean islands and off the coast of South America (especially Columbia) in the 1950s and ‘60s made poaching less popular, or more readily observed and therefore, less convenient for poachers.  In fact, the title of Carr’s book, So Excellent a Fishe, is a phrase borrowed from a sea turtleconservation law passed by the Bermuda Assembly in 1620.  Considering that sea turtle conservation had been ongoing for over 300 years by the time Dr. Archie Carr and his colleagues began researching green turtles and hawksbills, among other species, it’s fair to say that Carr’s work was groundbreaking.

But he would have put it differently.  He admits that sea turtle conservation researchers are an insecure bunch, especially when asked about the number of sub-species of sea turtles.  Sure, there are seven species of sea turtles: the Loggerhead, the Green Turtle, the Leatherback, the Hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, Olive ridley and the Flatback.  But the jury is still out on the number of sub-species.  The reader will enjoy Carr’s sense of humor and humility, even when he makes remarkable discoveries. In one discussion on the magic number of eggs that a female green turtle lays—100 eggs, not more, not less, Carr says this number is “packed with ecology and evolution.” He further ponders why natural selection did not build “child care” into the ancient sea turtle, as the adult neither cares nor knows the fate of her offspring, to the single-mindedness degree that wild dogs will stand around a nest and eat the eggs as the female is laying them. Perhaps among the most fascinating descriptions in the book is an experiment in which Carr and his colleague set up a glass pane on one side of a sea turtle nest and observed baby green turtles erupt from their shells and climb to the surface in a synchronized phenomenon that Carr calls a “brotherhood” acting as a survival group. They proved that a sea turtle nesting by itself had a dismal fate—and would not make it to the surface. But a hundred eggs in a nest meant dozens of sea turtles used each other instinctually to guide each other out of the nest and to the surf.

Carr credits many of his colleagues with their contributions to sea turtle conservation. Fused with the natural history of sea turtles is the evolution of certain conservation groups, such as the Brotherhood of the Green Turtle, which later became known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (founded in part by Dr. Carr), and is now called the Sea Turtle Conservancy. This group and several others work to protect sea turtles, including protection of nesting sites on shore. In particular the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, a 20-mile stretch of beach on Florida’s east central coast, was established in 1989. For more information about the book, visit the Wetland Bookshelfor the University of Florida Press.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries just announced new populations of sea turtles (namely the Loggerhead) under the Endangered Species Act:http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/turtles/loggerhead.htm

Mating sea turtles in the Pilbara (Australia Dept. of Conservation)http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-09-02/mating-turtles-in-the-pilbara/2868086

Fact sheet on the Green Turtle:http://www.fws.gov/northflorida/SeaTurtles/Turtle%20Factsheets/green-sea-turtle.htm

Update: NOAA Designates Critical Leatherback Habitat Along West Coast

On January 23rd, NOAA announced the designation of additional critical habitat to provide protection for endangered leatherback sea turtles along the U.S. West Coast.  NOAA is designating 41,914 square miles of marine habitat in the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. The regulation, formally published in theFederal Register on January 26th, will become effective on February 25, 2012.

Tortuguero:Epicenter for Sea Turtle Conservation

Sleuthing Out the Truth About Snapping Turtles (Part 1)

As a kid spending summers on Little Sebago Lake in southern Maine, I was used to seeing snapping turtles. My brother, Tad, and I liked to hang out under the dock,—and we stared down the snapping turtles. Their trapezoidal heads poked up out of the water, nostrils flaring. When the snappers, or mud turtles, weren’t swimming in the lake, they hid in the marshy grove beside our camp. Neither my brother nor I were ever bitten by a snapper, but the possibility was there, under the dock—a thrill that propelled us a little faster through the water some days. Until this summer, I had not seen a snapping turtle at the lake since the early 1990s. One snapping turtle is back in our cove this summer, making a home near Fish Rock. We recognized its dark brown shell and distinctive-shaped head and hooked beak-like snout, used for capturing prey and self-defense, as it periodically inspected the surface, hiding beneath a mat of weedy reeds.  Since the arrival of the snapper, the ducks and their babies have not made their usual pass through our cove.

So far, the snapper is alone, which makes sense since snapping turtles are not social creatures.  She or he has made a home along a reef beside a peninsula that points to the Sand Bar, a favorite destination of boaters in the three-basin lake. Little Sebago is on the state’s top ten list for “most threatened by development,” and there has been a milfoil problem due to increased boat traffic after the town’s approval for a public boat launch. A number of local nonprofit organizations, such as Lakes Environmental Association and the Little Sebago Lake Association, have led projects to improve water quality and educational efforts about algae and wildlife habitat in the lakes region of southern Maine.

But common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are not unique to Maine; in fact, Maine falls within the northeast part of their range, including Nova Scotia. Snappers are found in the Gulf of Mexico—in Florida (along with a different species, the Florida snapping turtle) and the Texas coast, all along the Atlantic/east coast, and as far west as the Rocky Mountains. These turtles have been paddling in and out of North American wetlands for 80 million years. Adult snapping turtles prefer marshes, swamps, muddy still water, shallow lakes and ponds, while the hatchlings and juveniles live in small streams. Juveniles have small toothy ridges on their carapace called keels. When snapping turtles are young, they are easy prey for predators, including herons, bullfrogs, snakes, alligators and fish like bass or pike. Once a snapper is an adult, nothing messes with it, besides a human. The mobility of the turtle’s neck, which never fully retreats into its shell, allows it to reach out and snap—surprisingly fast.

Because they are poor swimmers, snappers do not like deep water, and can drown if they can’t reach the surface, or get to land easily. They need a combination of wetland habitat types to thrive, but can be found in both urban and rural areas. Oddly enough, they can gowithout water for a couple of weeks and even swim in the ocean while they are migrating from a stream or river to a pond or marsh. Large males are territorial and choose a fixed spot for their home but females tend to move around, possibly going back and forth between “homes” along the shoreline of lakes, ponds and marshes or swamps. For some amazing photos of snapping turtles in Virginia wetlands, visit:http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/
common_snapping_turtle.htm

When wetland habitat dries up and there is less water, a snapping turtle will be forced to move to another location to live. Sometimes this involves crossing roads, which explains why we sometimes see a crushed turtle on the side of the road, and wonder, “why did the turtle cross the road?

Despite their intimidating reputation, snappers are omnivorous, eating mostly aquatic vegetation. If ducklings are readily available, a snapping turtle might take one, but it’s incidental. Snappers may eat frogs and other amphibians, small mammals (like a mouse), mollusks and other invertebrates, and rarely—small birds. Snapping turtles may be poor swimmers but they are clever.  When a wetland is matted with algae, snapping turtles use the cover to hide beneath and grab shorebirds by the feet. The turtles’ effect on game fish and shorebirds populations is minimal. For more information about their interactions with waterfowl, visit:http://www.tortoisetrust.org/articles/
snappers.htm

Next week, I will uncover the Legends of Snapping Turtles.

Further reading on blogs about common snapping turtles:

“Detroit Wildlife: Common Snapping Turtle” by Laura Sternberg, July 2011
http://detroit.about.com/b/2011/07/12/detroit-wildlife-common-snapping-turtle.htm

“Snapping Turtle Expresses Displeasure at Being Plucked from Pond” by Mark Frauenfelder, July 2011 http://www.boingboing.net/2011/07/12/man-grabs-angry-snap.html

“The Secret Life of Snapping Turtles” by John Marshall, January 2009
http://www.grit.com/Animals/The-Secret-Life-of-Snapping-Turtles.aspx

“The Snapping Turtle” by Ted Levin, Vermont Public Radio, October 2008:http://www.vpr.net/episode/44552/

To read Part 2: Legends of the Snapping Turtle, click here.

The Gastropods That Restore Us

“Sometimes these animals are crushed seemingly to pieces,
and, to all appearance, utterly destroyed; yet still they set themselves
to work, and, in a few days, mend all their numerous breaches…
to the re-establishment of the ruined habitation.”
-Oliver Goldsmith, 1774

As a little girl, I loved picking up periwinkles and humming to persuade them out of their shell. Even after a painful incident with a blue mussel that heldfast to my toe in the Sheepscot River, I have always held a fond regard for mollusks. But slugs? Not so much. Gardeners might feel some frustration during the wet part of early summer when the slugs invade. My mother puts sharp sea shells in the soil because the slugs don’t like to crawl over them. Gastropods—slugs, snails and whelks—are particularly sensitive to their environment. Just as gardeners will insist that not all soil is the same, so will snails help wetland managers to monitor the success of wetland restoration sites. The slow-moving creatures are the time-keepers and monitors. They keep us in the know. They have the power to restore wetlands. They restore us.

I just finished reading Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s natural history/ memoir The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010), which moved me to tears of joy. In the vein of Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams’ nature-inspired narrative, Bailey’s voice is both clear and magical.

While she is bedridden with a strange illness at the age of 34, a friend brings in a pot of violets to put on her bedside table along with a snail from the woods. Bailey admits she “couldn’t imagine what kind of life a snail might lead,” but grows more and more fascinated with its nocturnal trips up and down the pot of violets, where it nibbles tiny holes in her letters and makes a meal of a wilted violet petal. Bailey’s bedroom window looks onto a saltmarsh and she longs to walk in the woods with her dog but her illness has trapped her into an uncomfortable stillness. When a friend freshens up the soil in the pot of violets, Bailey observes that the snail is unhappy about this—until the garden-enriched soil is replaced with humus from the Maine woods where the snail had lived.

Bailey writes that they were “both living in altered environments not of our choosing.” After a few months of co-habitation with the snail, a friend brings a glass terrarium and fills it with many types of moss, lichen-covered birch, rotten sticks, a mussel shell filled with water and ferns. The snail investigates her new forested ecosystem and dines on mushrooms. I was struck by Bailey’s breathtaking observations, at once emotional and ecological, the way she confused time: the ticking of the clock and the “unfurling of a fern frond” in the small slow world of the wild snail. She writes, “the snail kept my spirit from evaporating,” as she watched it drink from the mussel shell. The book is rich in wetland description and the science of gastropods. http://www.amazon.com/Sound-Wild-Snail-Eating/dp/1565126068/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1309460437&sr=1-1

Bailey’s wild snail went onto lay eggs inside the terrarium once surrounded by the right vegetation and fueled by bits of mushroom, its favorite meal. In the wild, certain species of snails may be used as indicators of success in wetland restoration sites. If the native snails reestablish communities, it is one sign of success, however, sometimes invasive snails migrate into a restored wetland, which is a different story. For example, nonnative gastropods may pose a threat to endangered lichen as explored in a recent issue ofCanadian Field Naturalist in a study by Robert Cameron:http://www.canadianfieldnaturalist.ca/index.php/cfn/article/viewFile/697/697

While much of coastal wetland restoration falls back on the “field of dreams” assumption: built it and they will come, the richness and diversity of species that return naturally to a restored wetland are not always as wetland managers had hoped. In some cases, wetland managers will try reintroducing certain species to reestablish a community, for example, gastropods in a restored marsh in coastal California. A 2004 EPA study evaluated the restoration of benthic invertebrate communities, specifically the California horn snail, in a marsh.http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/wetlands/upload/2004_8_18_wetlands_
MitigationActionPlan_performance_ArmitageandFong2004.pdf

Whereas in a 2009 study of invasive apple snails, the gastropods are observed to feed on both native and invasive aquatic plants at the Great Lakes Center (Buffalo State College in New York). One of the findings was that apple snails should not be considered a bio-control in wetland restoration sites. While they ate the invasive aquatic plants, such asEichhomia crassipes, the snails also ate the native vegetation, e.g.  Ruppia maritima, at an even faster rate.  http://www.buffalostate.edu/greatlakescenter/documents/
burlakova_et_al_2009.pdf
 Ironically, the same apple snail—native to the Florida Everglades, is the sole preferred food source for the endangered Everglades snail kite. This means that apple snails are critical to the successful restoration of Everglades habitat for the bird. http://fl.biology.usgs.gov/sofla/apple_snail.pdf (See Strange Wetlands: http://aswm.org/wordpress/strange-wetlands-endangered-species-day-the-first-list/)

As part of a large 2004 wetland restoration project in the Klamath Basin in Oregon, over a dozen species of endemic snails were identified as at-risk invertebrates and priority species http://www.oregon.gov/OWEB/GRANTS/docs/acquisition/Acq
Priorities_Klamath.pdf?ga=t
 For more information on the Klamath Basin Restoration work in Oregon, visit: http://www.oregonwild.org/waters/klamath/a-vision-for-the-klamath-basin/the-klamath-basin-restoration-agreement

Wetland scientists look to even smaller organisms, trematode parasites, which occur in gastropods, as indicator species for biodiversity in managed wetlands. Some studies have shown that the richness in diversity among trematodes increases after coastal wetland restoration. For a brochure published by the Pacific Estuarine Ecosystem Indicator Research Consortium, go to: http://www-bml.ucdavis.edu/peeir/
brochures/Parasites.pdf

For further reading and enjoyment, here are some interesting recent wetland blog posts on gastropods in wetlands with some great images, too:

Gaunt and Glimmering Remains of Gastropods
http://www.evilmadscientist.com/article.php/wetlandsnails

Some gastropod humor at Southern Fried Science blog
http://www.southernfriedscience.com/

Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project’s Photos
http://www.flickr.com/photos/ballonarestoration/5716284945/in/photostream

Poem: Persuading Periwinkles
http://aswm.org/wordpress/53-2/110-2/persuading-periwinkles/

When Wetlands Call for the Firefighters

I was in the Wetlands this morning, just exploring
around, and on my way back I saw this strange sight.
Everything was on fire.
-Halidorn, World of Warcraft game forum

The popular multi-player video game, World of Warcraft, which I’ve never played, makes regular appearances on my Googlesearches for wetlands because it has a zone called “The Wetlands.” I came across the above quote about wetlands on fire and it reminded me of a past Compleat Wetlanderpost on the role of fire in wetlands http://aswm.org/wordpress/wetlands-and-fire/. As a follow-up to that post, here are some additional areas of research—of particular interest are three ways that prescribed burns are used to manage wetlands: water quality, restoration and mitigation.

The Joseph Jones Ecological Research Center in Georgia published a journal article on “Effects of Prescribed Fire on Wetland Water Quality,” based on data that the research team, including Dr. Stephen Golladay, collected 2000-2001. This is now posted on the ASWM webpage for wetlands and water quality here: http://aswm.org/wetland-programs/water-quality-standards-for-wetlands/1276-prescribed-fires-impact-on-water-quality-of-depressional-wetlands-in-southwestern-georgia Prescribed fire as a tool for wetlands restoration has been used throughout the nationhttp://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/58825/1/2.4.Robertson.pdf and is documented in the 1988 FWS biological report, on file at the USGS North American Prairie Wildlife Research Center http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/literatr/firewild/.

There are three general types of prescribed burns in wetlands: 1) surface/cover burns are cool fires used to remove organic material; 2) root burns, hotter fires that are used to control certain species; and 3) peat burns—used to create open water areas. The Phoenix Fire Department worked with wetland managers in Arizona on research related to prescribed burns in wetlands in 2004:http://phoenix.gov/TRESRIOS/research.htmlFor other examples of prescribed burns in wetland management areas, see photos from the Leopold Wetland Management District http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmidwest/sets/72157626293502556/ and from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge:http://www.fws.gov/lacreek/fire.htm

More recently prescribed burns have been applied as part of wetland mitigation, such as the burn held this past April at the new airport site in Florida: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xi5cmg_wetlands-mitigation-prescribed-burn-at-the-new-airport-site_news and this fire managed on a wetland mitigation site in Arkansas back in March 2011: http://www.fayettevilleflyer.com/2011/03/17/prescribed-burn-on-broyles-avenue/ These prescribed burns on wetlands require a collaborative team usually involving a wildland fire division (whether state or federal), state wetland managers and wetland consultants, such as the Kevin L. Erwin Consulting Ecologist firm (KLECE) in Florida, which was involved with the Little Pine Island Mitigation Bank project in March 2011 http://environment.com/index.php/tag/prescribed-burning/ .

In addition, several other prescribed burns occurred in wetlands this spring: Chequamegon-Nicolet National Foresthttp://ashlandcurrent.com/article/11/05/25/more-prescribed-burns-chequamegon-forest North Carolina (to encourage longleaf pine)http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20110610/ARTICLES/110619991/-1/news05?Title=Work-at-Orton-will-encourage-longleaf-pine-growth and Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge (to control phragmites)http://www.thenewsherald.com/articles/2011/05/26/news/doc4ddeb12fd71a
3362017994.txt

From the wildland firefighter’s perspective, fire management guidelines described by the U.S. Forest Service include proper care and use of equipment in order to protect wetlands and water quality. The guidelines include considerations such as avoiding damage to the hydrology during planned burn operations (prescribed burns) and a recommendation to use natural fuel breaks, such as streams, as opposed to artificial fuel breaks like fire retardant. These guidelines also ensure the benefits of fire—when managed properly—to wetland ecosystems. http://nrs.fs.fed.us/fmg/nfmg/docs/mn/FireMgmt.pdf

Additionally, a recent study published in the Journal of the Ecological Society of America discusses the National Fire Plan and management techniques for forest restoration in the west.

http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/090199 Also in the current issue of Ecological Applications is an article of interest: “Variability of tundra fire regimes in Arctic Alaska: millennial-scale patterns and ecological implications” http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/11-0387.1

Dragonflies – Baby Got Brackish

In many parts of the country, we’re starting to see mosquitoes, especially after heavy rains. Mosquitoes love brackish pools, but so do gators and crocodiles, which mate this time of year…and dragonflies. Over Memorial Day weekend, I delighted in watching an army of dragonflies zip around me at killer speeds. They eat mosquitoes. So it begs the question, do more mosquitoes mean more dragonflies? If so, that would be good news for people heading outside to enjoy the warm weather. So far I’ve only had to wear my DDT-free bug spray once on a walk along the pond.

A recent New York Times article provided news about endangered species (A Coast-to-Coast Guide to Endangered Species) including the bog turtle, ringed boghaunter and the orange-striped dragonfly, which were described as some of the rarest wetland-dwelling species in the U.S. For an amazing montage of rare photos taken at the Texan Cibilo Nature Center of the orange-striped dragonfly in courtship, see: http://www.martinreid.com/
Odonata%20website/odonate37b.html

Dragonflies are generally known as freshwater insects. But recent research has demonstrated that dragonflies are no strangers to brackish environments. What is brackish water? Brackish pools, sometimes called brackish marshes, are saltier (more saline) than freshwater but not as salty as seawater. Typically brackish water occurs where the sea meets freshwater—estuaries, mangroves and saltmarshes. Many species of fish depend on these waters for their migration from the sea to rivers and streams, such as eels and salmon. In addition there are also brackish lakes, e.g. Lake Monroe in Florida and Lake Charles in Louisiana. For a photo of a dragonfly’s exoskeleton at Lake Charles, seehttp://www.flickr.com/photos/atweed/4651677110/

A relatively recent issue of Canadian Field Naturalistfeatured an article by Paul Catling on “Dragonflies Emerging from Brackish Pools of Saltmarshes in Quebec” (CAN), citing his research that showed dragonflies used salt marshes much more often than had been previously understood. For an example of a brackish pool in a saltmarsh, see http://www.sciencephoto.com/media/
175707/view
 The importance of brackish pools as habitat for young dragonflies, called nymphs, has long been observed by naturalists, as noted by Raymond Osburn (The American Naturalist,1906 http://www.jstor.org/pss/2455367) Catling’s research has shown, a century later, that dragonflies do in fact utilize saltmarshes, which contain an abundance of estuarine and marine life.  Either dragonflies have evolved to move into saltmarshes or earlier observations by naturalists have left that distinction out of literature.

One contemporary naturalist photographed a Tawny Pennant (Brachymesia herbida) in a saltmarsh in the Bosa Chica tract of a National Wildlife Refuge in Brownsville, TXhttp://www.duke.edu/~jsr6/Brachyherb.jpg Here’s a dragonfly in a saltmarsh of Daufin Island, AL http://www.flickr.com/photos/littoraria/3639808921/ But a simple Google Images search will reveal that it is rare to find photos of adult dragonflies in saltmarshes. This may be due in part to the challenges of wildlife photography, especially with respect to capturing a fast-moving target, such as a dragonfly, on film. The best advice from our own Compleat Wetlander’s nature photographer, Jeanne Christie: “Wait for the wildlife to come toyou.”

Bonus activity for kids: How to draw a dragonfly. http://www.how-to-draw-cartoons-online.com/dragonfly-drawings.html

Updated April 2013: Dragonflies Drive Dedicated Fans to Refuges
http://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2013/4/2/Dragonflies-Drive-Dedicated-Fans-to-Refuges