Autumn 2011 - In This Issue
Maryland is often referred to as America in Miniature – within a few hours one can travel from wave swept shores to rolling farmland to high elevation forests. Maryland’s unique habitats, ranging from hemlock-lined gorges to serpentine barrens, support a diverse range of species that depend on these habitats. Unfortunately, much of the habitat that makes Maryland unique, and that wildlife and humans depend on, is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Climate change is expected to bring warmer temperatures, stronger storms, drier summers, more wind, and rising seas to Maryland. All pose a threat to many of Maryland’s terrestrial and aquatic species and habitats.
Maryland’s wildlife already experiences stress from development, invasive species, pathogens, and pollution. Because of this, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR) has listed over 500 species of plants and animals as Endangered, Threatened, or In Need of Conservation. Climate change will worsen the effects of existing stressors. Shifting temperatures and changing streamflows will force less tolerant species to migrate from current habitat; fragmentation of that habitat acts as a barrier to migration. As Maryland begins to experience these impacts, it will become increasingly more important to reduce the impacts of existing stressors, grow smartly, and value the services that nature provides.
Shifts in habitat due to climate change will alter the distributions of many species. Populations of species at the northern extent of their range may become more abundant or colonize new habitat, whereas those species at the southern extent of their ranges may migrate away from intolerable conditions or die off locally. Existing barriers will hamper the ability of some species to migrate in search of suitable habitat. More than 700 existing blockages to fish passage (e.g., dams) in Maryland slow or prevent fish from reaching critical spawning areas. Natural barriers and coastal development may limit the ability of tidal wetlands to migrate inland, reducing the extent of these wetlands as sea level rises.
Many species simply cannot move on. Habitat needs, structural barriers, and life history may result in climate casualties. More droughts may further decrease the sedge/tussock meadow wetlands in central Maryland, home to the endangered bog turtle, or threaten the mountain peatland wetlands in western Maryland, such as the Cranesville Swamp Preserve home to the southernmost tamarack, or eastern larch, forest worldwide. Vernal pools may dry up earlier, eliminating habitat for wood frogs and marbled salamanders. Increasingly saline waters from sea level rise may place endangered species such as the globally rare dwarf wedge mussel at risk of local extinction as they are pushed to the very upper reaches of the small headwater streams they inhabit.
Not all is lost. Throughout time, species have had to adapt to a changing climate and loss of habitat, both natural and human caused. To ensure that Maryland and the region’s wildlife can adapt to a changing climate, MD DNR is working to: 1) assess species vulnerability and habitat shifts; 2) target land protection efforts; 3) break down barriers to habitat migration; and 4) coordinate development of response strategies at a regional level.
Climate “survivors” will be those species and habitats that are the least vulnerable, able to adapt to changing conditions, and those that are vulnerable, but receive ample support from local, state, and federal agencies to reduce external stressors. At MD DNR, Dana Limpert is currently leading the way to conduct a vulnerability assessment of Maryland’s species of Greatest Conservation Need (GCN) to climate change. The results of her work will ultimately provide managers with a roadmap to understand the impacts of climate change on wildlife and inform the development of targeted adaptation strategies. (See Dana's article "Back to the Future).
In 2010, MD DNR issued a new policy, “Building Resilience to Climate Change”. This will guide its investments in and management of land, resources and assets in order to better understand, mitigate and adapt to climate change. The policy directs MD DNR to proactively seek the protection of lands that enhance the resilience of bay, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Over the past several years, MD DNR’s Chesapeake and Coastal Program has been working to identify and prioritize wetlands at risk from sea level rise and storm surges with an eye to protecting wetland transition zones (See Maryland’s Coastal Atlas for more information). This work and the Vulnerability Assessment being completed by Dana Limpert will, together, provide the necessary guidance to the Department to implement its new policy.
It is likely that the Vulnerability Assessment will unveil additional barriers to species migration, including dams, watersheds with high impervious cover or higher elevations that prevent inland migration of marshes affected by sea level rise. This information will be extremely useful to the Department, as it will inform the implementation of on-the-ground restoration strategies aimed at helping ecosystems to recover from disturbance, reducing existing stressors, and removing barriers.
Collaboration and coordination across state boundaries will be necessary to ensure that species have access to shifting conditions and habitats as a result of climate change. Maryland is working with federal agencies and surrounding states to develop regional species protection and landscape conservation strategies to protect both potential incoming and departing “climate refugees.” Close coordination with the other mid-Atlantic states will ensure that compatible regional approaches for species and habitat migration are implemented effectively.
MD DNR’s new climate change policy also requires the agency to incorporate climate change into any new or updated resources management assessment and strategic plans. We encourage other state and local agencies also to incorporate climate change into their planning efforts. This will foster a coordinated and collaborative approach to ensuring that Maryland’s wildlife and ecosystems can be resilient in the face of climate change and that human and natural ecosystems can thrive in the balance.
The Department welcomes the opportunity to work with local jurisdictions to prioritize protection and restoration areas important for climate change adaptation. By prioritizing climate change adaptation in local planning efforts, multiple benefits can be achieved and risks reduced. While protecting climate adaptation corridors, communities can benefit from cleaner water, more sustainable development, and a higher level of preparedness. More information can be found on our climate change website or by contacting Marcus Griswold or ZoŽ Johnson with MD DNR’s Office for a Sustainable Future
It’s not always easy being a Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) butterfly. Despite their esteemed status as Maryland’s state insect, they still have a number of problems to contend with and have seen their distribution shrink over the last few decades. Some of this decline is attributed to development of their wetland habitat. In other instances, forest succession has occurred; trees and shrubs have naturally moved in and covered up the open wet meadows where Baltimore Checkerspots had once bred and foraged. Deer are another problem. They enjoy eating the caterpillar host plant, and likely consume many of the caterpillars right along with the plants. Throw climate change into the mix, and the situation becomes even more precarious.
Granted, many aspects of climate change can be incredibly difficult to predict. And because so many other factors can influence the distribution and success of a species, it is difficult to say for sure whether or not climate change has had or will have an impact on Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies. There is however, mounting evidence that we should consider climate change as another threat to our state insect.
NatureServe, a non-profit organization that works closely with state Natural Heritage Programs throughout the country to promote species conservation, recently initiated an effort to come up with a Climate Change Vulnerability Index. This index is a calculator of sorts that estimates how vulnerable a species is to climate change. It measures two things: exposure and sensitivity. In the case of Baltimore Checkerspots in Maryland, for example, the index first considered the distribution of the species within the state and estimated how much of their range was likely to be impacted by a long-term change in climate. Then it looked more specifically at the Baltimore Checkerspots sensitivity to climate change. In other words, are there aspects of the Baltimore Checkerspot’s habitat or ecology that might make it more or less vulnerable to climate change? Do Baltimore Checkerspots require a specialized habitat to survive? Are their host plants declining in number? Are their nectar plants flowering earlier? How far can they disperse? Are they dependent upon snow cover or ice? Sensitive to drought? Threatened by sea level rise? Based on the answers to these and many other questions, the model calculates how vulnerable the species might be to a changing climate.
How did the Baltimore Checkerspot fare? In Maryland, it fell into the most critical category and was ranked as “Extremely Vulnerable.”
Since many aspects of climate change are difficult to predict, the vulnerability index is not meant to imply that a species is doomed. Rather, the index can serve as an early warning system. It allows biologists to single out those species considered to be the most vulnerable and take a closer look not only at the potential impacts of climate change, but at possible strategies to mitigate those impacts. If we examine some of the questions that helped determine the final vulnerability score for Baltimore Checkerspots, we can start to piece together why they are considered to be so vulnerable.
First, let’s review what we know about Baltimore Checkerspots. In Maryland, the adults are active in June and July. They live in open, wet meadows or marshes that have an abundance of host plants and nectar plants. Adult female butterflies lay eggs on the caterpillar host plant, white turtlehead (Chelone glabra). The eggs then hatch into masses of tiny caterpillars. They will remain on the host plant until late in the fall, at which point they bury themselves in the leaf litter and remain there all winter. The following spring, these still-tiny caterpillars will emerge and continue feeding until they are large enough to form pupae. The adults emerge and the cycle repeats itself.
Baltimore Checkerspot populations appear to have the greatest stability in the northernmost portions of their global range. In Maryland, the trend is similar. The MD Natural Heritage Program has taken a close look at how the distribution of the Baltimore Checkerspot has changed in our state over the past few decades. While Baltimore Checkerspot colonies were never documented in the most southern regions of the state, they once occurred in 13 counties across Maryland. Today, not only are there far fewer colonies than there used to be, but the remaining colonies are primarily located in the higher elevations and more northern areas of the Checkerspot’s historic range. While the reasons for this shift in distribution include development and other factors, it may also be indicative of warming temperatures or increased drought conditions.
It has been suggested (but not proven) that the western-most populations in Maryland have persisted because of lower temperatures, and it is thought that perhaps there is not enough of a hard freeze in the east for the larvae to successfully overwinter. Snow cover has been demonstrably important in providing insulation for a variety of overwintering species and may be important for Baltimore Checkerspot larvae as well. Snow cover also acts to keep the ground moist, protecting delicate organisms from desiccation (drying out). While there is currently no direct evidence of this assertion for Baltimore Checkerspots, it could be a reason for their relatively high success in the western portion of the state. However, it should be noted that many of the now extirpated colonies have disappeared for a variety of other reasons including habitat succession to closed-canopy woodland and clearing for development. It may be that the lower elevation areas simply experience a faster pace of development. When a variety of factors are known to threaten a species success, it is difficult to ascertain which of those are having the greatest impact. Many times, it is the combined impact of all those threats that create problems for a struggling species.
Researchers in Canada have collected data indicating that climate change
does have an impact on Baltimore Checkerspots, lending credence to the fact
that there is some truth in those vulnerability index scores. In Manitoba,
researchers found that as the average temperature increased, so did the
range of the Baltimore Checkerspot. In a little over a decade, it had
expanded its range 70 kilometers to the north as the temperature warmed.
It is likely that climate change is just one factor of many that threatens the long-term viability of the Baltimore Checkerspot. However, our awareness of the changing climate and the potential impacts on the Baltimore Checkerspot can assist us in making sound decisions as far as where to concentrate our conservation efforts. While we will certainly try to maintain all of our Baltimore Checkerspot colonies, it may be that a greater emphasis should be on protecting and managing the higher elevation colonies. In addition, locating and maintaining habitat corridors that permit the dispersal of Baltimore Checkerspots to higher elevation wetlands may also be important. If we know which way the Baltimore Checkerspots are heading, perhaps we can do the most good by helping them get where they need to be, and securing a suitable habitat for them while they are there.
If you want to liven things up among a group of people, just mention climate change. Then stand back or risk getting burned. It doesn’t take long for the camps to align along a black or white pole: human vs. natural cycle. On the heels of this paralyzing polarization comes the absolute certainty of the proper response: reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or stick your head in the sand.
Biologists are well familiar with the idea that ecology is a science of the continuum. Few puzzles in nature are either black or white. Climate science is complex, as are the places where climate, nature, and humans intersect (or crash). Could it be that climate changes are part of a natural cycle AND something which humans are globally influencing through our collective actions? If so, what then? How much of the process can we actually control? Decision-making is sometimes further complicated by the uncertainty inherent in mathematical models used to predict the future of climate, species, and communities. Conservation biologists must always make management decisions regarding stressors in the absence of complete and perfect knowledge, which does not yet exist.
Doing nothing is not an option. The State of Maryland has been a national leader in addressing climate change. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR) is the lead state agency in formulating strategies to reduce Maryland’s vulnerability to anticipated impacts from climate change. Click here for more information on MD DNR’s climate change policy and comprehensive adaptation plans.
The MD Natural Heritage Program (NHP) has joined other state programs and NatureServe a non-profit conservation organization, in assessing climate vulnerability of rare and endangered plants and animals using NatureServe’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index. Biologists can use global climate models designed, and "down scale" them, inputting regional species natural history information to get an idea how climate will affect species of Greatest Conservation Need (GCN). NHP biologists have run over 400 animal and plant species through the index. This helps biologists integrate climate change with other existing stressors. This process provides the opportunity to focus planning activities and conservation efforts on those species most at risk. In addition to species-climate vulnerability assessments, MD NHP is also involved with regional and state efforts to model habitat vulnerability. By recognizing that climate change will be affecting large regions, we can position ourselves and our neighboring partners to address the challenges more effectively.
But the question remains, how do we adapt and incorporate climate change in our conservation picture for future generations, especially when the only thing certain is change? Examining past climate changes lends some insight on why biologists should consider “no regrets” adaptation strategies. These strategies are developed based on parameters other than climate change. That way, if climate predictions don’t become the reality predicted, science-based choices for conservation were made despite climate. There may be some conservation decisions that are made solely based on climate change, such as sea level rise issues, but in general most decisions should be made with consideration of other stressors and opportunities.
How we prepare for and respond to climate change must also be flexible. One response is to develop climate preparedness activities aimed at “spreading the risk” into networks of conservation reserves. Paleoecological data gleaned from pollen in rock and soil layers of lake sediments show that plant communities in eastern North America are relatively young (4,000-8,000 years old) and not the end products of millions of years of co-evolution. This means that modern plant communities, assemblages of species on specific soils and hydrology, are transitory, proceeding along a continuum from one type to another on a broad evolutionary scale. Another recent study suggests that geologic patterns drive species diversity more than climate. Given this new information, biologists are incorporating this idea of “conserving the stage and not the actors” as a coarse filter approach to conservation reserve network designs. Ensuring that networks of nature reserves include representation and replication of diverse habitats, with different geology and soils in addition to species of Greatest Conservation Need, will help to conserve biodiversity for future generations.
Perhaps more importantly, what we are being called to do includes changing the way we live. Reducing other non-climate stressors where possible - minimizing the tendency for urban sprawl and the resulting habitat fragmentation, waste, and water and air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions - will help. These are "no regrets" strategies that everyone can live with, including the plants and animals that make up Maryland’s natural world.
“Skimmer Island, where’s that?” Well if you’ve driven across the Rt. 50 Bridge into Ocean City and glanced to the north, you’ve seen Skimmer Island. Many O.C. locals refer to the island as “Bird Island” and rightfully so; the low lying sands of Skimmer Island are the most important nesting site for two of Maryland’s endangered bird species, the Black Skimmer and Royal Tern. To tell the story of Skimmer Island fully, we must go back to before most of us were born.
Prior to formation of the Ocean City Inlet in 1933, Skimmer Island and the flood tidal shoal that it is part of, did not exist. After the inlet was opened by the 1933 storm a long slow natural process began that eventually resulted in the formation of Skimmer Island. Tidal flow into and out of the inlet moves tremendous amounts of sand each tidal cycle. As inlets age, shoals form on both the bay side and the ocean side of the inlet where current velocities slow and drop their load of sand. In the over 70 years since the Ocean City inlet formed, a significant flood tidal shoal has grown just north of the Rt. 50 Bridge. By the late 1980s the flood tidal shoal was substantial, but Skimmer Island still didn’t exist as dry land above most high tides. The area was simply a sand flat frequently flooded by high tide that was often used as a party spot by boaters out for an afternoon on the water. Skimmer Island formed on top of the Ocean City flood tidal shoal when the State Highway Administration placed scour protection underneath the Rt. 50 Bridge. This was intended to protect the bridge pilings and help naturally maintain the federal navigation channel at the east end of the bridge. Then in 1985 Hurricane Gloria struck, devastating the beaches of Ocean City and resulting in a project to repair and replenish the beach. That project added extra sand to the tidal flux through the inlet and resulted in the fairly rapid accretion of an island on top of the already existing flood tidal shoal - Skimmer Island was born.
By the mid 1990s, Skimmer Island had become an important breeding site in Maryland for several species of colonial nesting waterbirds, especially Black Skimmer, Common Tern, and Royal Tern. At its peak Skimmer Island was 7 acres in size and supported about 1,000 or more breeding pairs of terns and skimmers. Skimmer Island is the most important breeding site in Maryland for waterbirds species that require barren sand beaches, a very rapidly disappearing habitat. At peak use Skimmer Island supported over 600 breeding pairs of Royal Tern, 500 pairs of Common Tern and 175 pairs of Black Skimmer. During the mid 1990s life was good for these rare Maryland birds and Skimmer Island was a real wildlife spectacle. Skimmer Island and the surrounding sand flats also attract many other species of birds. It is a destination for many bird watchers and wildlife observers.
At the turn of the 21st century, things began to change for the worse as the size of Skimmer Island declined. Competition with nesting gulls made life hard for terns and skimmers breeding at this unique natural area. By 2006, Black Skimmers and Royal Terns abandoned Skimmer Island as a nesting site. The causes were the increasing size of the gull colony which had reached over 500 breeding pair, and the erosion of Skimmer Island. By 2010 Skimmer Island had declined to an area of less than 2.5 acres.
The reasons for the decline in the size of Skimmer Island are complex and relate to human management of the physical structures that maintain the Ocean City Inlet, the hardened shorelines in the vicinity of the Rt. 50 Bridge, and the ever present and continuing rise in sea level. Sea level rise is continually claiming the small island habitats used by colonial nesting waterbirds such as skimmers and terns. A recent study shows that island loss between 1985 and 2006 was greatest in the northern coastal bays and lowest in Chincoteague and Sinepuxent Bays. In addition to direct island loss, sea level rise over the past 25 years has claimed most of the small barren sand beaches on small islands in the coastal bays. This is the specific habitat that terns and skimmers require for nesting each summer. These habitat losses have greatly increased the importance of the newly accreted habitat at Skimmer Island. Unfortunately that habitat is proving to be very temporary.
Something needed to be done or Maryland would lose two species of breeding birds and a valuable wildlife resource. Management actions were taken to disperse the gull colony so that they would not prey upon nesting terns and skimmers and otherwise compete with the two endangered bird species. Once the gull problem was solved and under control, the more serious issue was how to regain nesting habitat lost to erosion over the years. Skimmer Island needed sand!
It just so happened that the nearby Sunset Marina had been dredging their approach channel for several years and placing the dredged clean sand in upland areas, primarily Gudelsky Park in West Ocean City. However, after dredging in spring 2009 the park could no longer accept sand – it was full! So during late 2009 Sunset Marina, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and the MD Natural Heritage Program began working together to use the clean dredged sand from the approach channel to Sunset Marina to nourish and restore Skimmer Island. While this sounds like a relatively simple idea, the wetland permitting process of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and MD Department of the Environment was daunting and took two winters to complete. After much hard work by many people, numerous permits were obtained. During March of 2011 sand from the approach channel to Sunset Marina was placed on Skimmer Island to nourish and improve nesting habitat conditions for Black Skimmers, Common and Royal Terns. In the end, without the involvement of all of the partners and assistance from Senator Cardin’s office, Skimmer Island nourishment might still be a dream on the horizon.
Skimmer Island nourishment and restoration is a great example of win-win wildlife habitat enhancement through beneficial use of dredged material. The MD Natural Heritage Program would be hard pressed to find the funds to restore Skimmer Island on its own and Sunset Marina needed to find a place for the sand dredged from its approach channel. The State of Maryland had a need for sand to nourish Skimmer Island and Sunset Marina covered the cost of dredging and placing the sand on Skimmer Island. The winners? Black Skimmers, Common and Royal Terns. The permits are now in place so that this "design with nature" adaptive management approach can place sand on Skimmer Island for several more years to improve habitat conditions for two endangered bird species. As sea level rise continues, the ability to nourish Skimmer Island with clean sand dredged from nearby channels will allow managers to maintain the critical barren sand habitats that are present on Skimmer Island. Skimmers, terns, horseshoe crabs and a myriad list of other species can take advantage of the benefits that the flood tidal sand flats and Skimmer Island provide to them.
During the summer of 2011, small colonies of terns and skimmers returned to use Skimmer Island as a nesting site. As natural processes shape the sand that was placed on Skimmer Island this past spring, the habitat conditions will improve and larger nesting colonies of terns and skimmers are expected to return to Skimmer Island in future years.
So the next time that you drive over the Rt. 50 Bridge look to the north to see the most valuable piece of barren sand nesting habitat in Maryland. Hopefully the win-win partnership between the State of Maryland and Sunset Marina will result in good nesting habitat and strong use by Skimmer Island by Black Skimmers, Common Terns and Royal Terns for many years to come.
On March 6th three individuals were caught on State land collecting moss. This might not seem like a pressing matter, but collecting plant materials from State lands without a permit is illegal. This shouldn't scare anyone off from going into the woods and enjoying Nature. We've all been in the woods before and picked up some natural object that we found interesting. Indeed, this is how most of our best known naturalists got started. The moss collecting that took place here was far more malicious and far-reaching than a random collection by a curious individual.
In a coordinated effort that took many hours, these individuals collected 98 horticultural flats of material; this would cover nearly 200 square feet. These flats were stacked with care and placed in plastic bags for transport. The mosses collected were all common upland species, frequently encountered in upland woods on sandy soils.
These individuals were ticketed by DNR Police and forced to appear in court, no small inconvenience given the individuals were from Massachusetts. Though the collectors of this material never specified the reasons for their illegal collecting it was probably for economic gain. The moss species that were collected are commonly used in the horticultural trade in arrangements or as a green base under Bonsai trees.
Collection of plant materials is regulated on state lands to avoid over-collection and annihilation of a population. One child picking a flower for Mom or Dad may not seem like much but if the over-10 million visitors to our State Parks last year picked one flower each, the consequences to the natural communities would be dire. Habitats would change, animal populations would suffer, the overall health of the ecosystem would decline. Even the visitors' park experience would be affected. Individuals wishing to collect plants or animals for scientific or educational purposes must first obtain a Scientific Collection Permit.
Plants with only One Known Occurrence in Maryland are called OKOs for short. An effort to update and survey for certain OKOs has been undertaken with some excellent results. Two highlights from this effort are the discovery of the second populations for both the flatstem spikerush (Eleocharis compressa Sull.) and Short’s hedgehyssop (Gratiola viscidula Pennell). Both species are considered Endangered. These recent discoveries will do nothing to change their current level of State protection for these species, but from a conservation stand point it is always good to have all your ecological eggs in more than one basket. Additional populations may allow for genetic diversity, tolerance to slightly different environmental factors, and provide a back-up plan. Another way to think of this is that if something unpreventable happened at one site there is at least one other location where each of these species is known.
October 14, 2011 - Fall MD Home and Garden Show.
MD Wildlife and Heritage Biologist Kerry Wixted will present Wildscaping: Creating and Maintaining Backyard Wildlife Habitat. 11:30am at the Home and Garden Theater.
October 17 & 24, 2011 – Project WILD training at Oregon Ridge Nature Center.
11:30 am – 1:30 pm.
Learn how to integrate lessons on the environment and conservation into existing curricula. This 2-day training is free and comes with a Project WILD manual.
October 24, 2011 – A Tour of Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay.
Sponsored by the Society for Ecological Restoration International Mid-Atlantic Chapter, this field trip explores the newly restored island that has become "a national model for habitat restoration". Take a brief boat ride to the island and tour this 1000+ acre site as it is restored to tidal wetlands and upland forests and meadows. Tour guides include restoration staff from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the MD Environmental Service. Space is limited. 9am – noon. Registration fee required ($10 for members, $25 for non-members). For more information on the trip, email Megan D'Arcy or call 410-827-9756 ext. 163. For more information on the restoration effort, click here.
MD Natural Heritage Program
Green Treefrog: Kerry Wixted
Seaside Dragonlet: Kerry Wixted
Scarlet Tanager: George Jett
American Lotus: Kerry Wixted
Baltimore Checkerspot on Yarrow: P. Durkin
Dan's Mountain WMA: P. Stango
Skimmer Island and the Rt. 50 Bridge: CB-NERR
Black Skimmer. Credit: D. Bales
Royal Terns. Credit: D. Brinker
Pipes carrying dredged material: D. Brinker.
Skimmer Island, 2009. Credit: NAIP Imagery
Skimmer Island, March 2011, during restoration: R. Jesien
Short's hedgehyssop: B. Harms
Martin Mt. Sandstone Glade, R.H. Wiegand
Piney Reservoir, Garrett County, MD: David Kazyak
Sunrise on Assateague: R.H. Wiegand
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