Fishkill Ridge
Community Heritage

To List, Or Not To List…


 Snowy BarnPoughkeepsie Journal
Sunday, January 2, 2005

Many local species in danger Staring down an uncertain future. Bald eagle has much company in struggle to survive in valley
By Dan Shapley

With cold temperatures setting in, Canadian bald eagles are winging in to join the 11 pairs that nest on the Hudson River.
The annual event is repeated across the country, where bald eagles have recovered so thoroughly from the brink of extinction that environmental groups are agitating to have the bird removed from the federal threatened species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been considering ''de-listing'' bald eagles since 1999.
''It is not only the most recognizable and visible endangered species, but one that has shown the most dramatic comeback as a result of conservation efforts,'' said Colin Rowan, spokesman for Environmental Defense, an environmental group leading a national campaign to see the bald eagle removed from the
Please see Species, 5A
threatened species list. ''It is the perfect case study of what can happen when our conservation laws are funded appropriately and executed appropriately.''
But bald eagles are only one of many Hudson Valley threatened and endangered species listed by the federal or state governments. Not all are as well known as the eagles, or facing such a rosy future.
Other than the bald eagle, the 31-year-old Endangered Species Act has also become synonymous with such obscure species as the snail darter and spotted owl. Controversy has followed the law, as the rights of landowners and developers have been curtailed to protect rare species and their habitats.
Advocates say protecting endangered species is important for a variety of reasons. First, species play a unique role in the environment, so removing species could cause ecosystems to collapse. Second, it isn't known what use species could have in the future, for medicine or research. Finally, many argue, humans have a moral responsibility to be good stewards of the natural world.
The federal and state lists outlaw capturing or killing the species, require landowners and developers to make efforts to preserve habitat and pay for research.
Endangered species typically become controversial when they stand in the way of development. In the Hudson Valley, most development of open land is for housing, which can destroy habitat or set barriers in the way of migrating animals, including turtles, which scientists say lose significant numbers crossing roads.
Protecting habitat can be difficult and not always intuitive. For instance, frogs and salamanders need not only protected wetlands but significant dry land around wetlands to survive, research by Michael Klemens at the Wildlife Conservation Society's Metropolitan Conservation Alliance suggests.
Development is the No. 1 threat to endangered species in the Hudson Valley, said Peter Nye, chief of the Department of Environmental Conservation's Endangered Species Unit.
''It's really the alteration of the landscape, the loss and alteration that we're fighting every day,'' Nye said. ''That's the key.''
Protecting bald eagle habitat along the Hudson into the future, whether Endangered Species Act protections continue or not, will be the key for them as well, Nye said.
Federally endangered species, which have the greatest protections, in the region include:
-- Indiana bat. The largest winter colony of these bats is in Ulster County.
-- Shortnose sturgeon. Shortnose sturgeon have a robust population in the Hudson River.
-- Dwarf wedge mussel. The Nature Conservancy removed a dam in western Orange County last year to improve habitat for this freshwater species.
Endangered species designated by New York, and present in the Hudson Valley, include the northern cricket frog, the bog turtle, peregrine falcon and the short-eared owl.
Some species that once lived in the Hudson Valley no longer do. The Allegheny woodrat once lived on the Shawangunk Ridge in Ulster County, but the only remaining local woodrats live in isolation in Rockland County. Gray wolves are gone. Mountain lions are gone by official accounts, though people occasionally see and even have photographed them in the wild. State wildlife officials believe these animals were released pets.
In addition to these lists, the state runs a Natural Heritage Program in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy. It lists hundreds of additional species that are rare or in decline, but which have no special legal protections.
The Nature Conservancy draws heavily on the research, and has bought several preserves in the Hudson Valley in part because rare or threatened plants grow there, said Mark King, director of protection programs.
Adelaide Camillo, who splits her time between Millbrook and New York City, became aware of the valley's abundance of endangered species when she sought to stop the development of a neighboring property in Millbrook.
She pushed for surveys of the land, which ultimately showed there was suitable habitat for both bog turtles and Indiana bats, but neither animal was seen. Some changes were made to protect habitat as the four homes were built, but Camillo wasn't satisfied.
She sees a need to educate the planning boards that make land-use decisions for towns, so they know about the endangered species that live here, and the laws that protect them.
''From the planning board's perspective, they went further than they'd ever gone, but from our perspective, it wasn't nearly far enough,'' she said.
Aggressive neighbors can in some cases ultimately do more harm than good, said Roy Budnik, who has seen the issue both from an activist and landowner standpoint. He advocated for wetlands protection laws in the Town of Poughkeepsie, and served as a geologist for several mining companies that have faced opposition.
Too often, he said, a ''not in my backyard'' attitude masquerades as concern for endangered species like timber rattlesnakes and bog turtles.
''I think it's unfortunate when environmental laws are used that way because then people wanting an excuse to fight environmental laws use these examples,'' he said.
Finding endangered species is often a death knell for projects, or at the least a costly delay.
The Blanding's turtle, on the state's threatened species list, cost the Arlington school district $1.5 million in 1997, when the district had to move turtles and their wetlands habitat to make way for an expanded high school in Freedom Plains. The presence of timber rattlesnakes, also on the state's threatened species list, in the Highlands effectively stopped the expansion of a Fishkill mine in the 1990s.
Land management also can be expensive. Protecting grassland habitat for short-eared owls, a state endangered species, at the 400-acre Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge costs about $10,000 per year, refuge manager Steven Kahl said.
Open grassy fields are increasingly rare, as defunct farms are either sold for development or allowed to return to forest.
''This really is a continental decline, because they're an owl of the prairies and the tundra. The prairies are all now row crops,'' Kahl said. ''This aspect of the owl's need for open areas is a real challenge for us at the refuge because grasslands require intensive management. They don't stay grassland long without mowing or some sort of other treatment.''
In Washington, some lawmakers are considering changes to the Endangered Species Act that could require taking economic considerations into account and increasing the review of science that supports listing species. the proposals are opposed by environmentalists, who also argue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to list species that need protection.
Several local initiatives are striving to create a more collaborative approach to protecting endangered and rare species.
For example, New York's Hudson River Estuary Program, working with the Annandale research group Hudsonia, the Metropolitan Conservation Alliance and others, educates town planners and map habitats important for protection. The goal is to integrate knowledge about wildlife habitats into zoning laws so new development protects important areas.
And Environmental Defense is working with local landowners to protect bog turtle habitat, in some cases by encouraging farm owners to allow goats or cattle to graze in wetlands -- something environmentalists typically urge farmers to avoid, to avoid contaminating water. Controlled grazing keeps marsh plants low and wetlands open, allowing sunlight in that is necessary for bog turtles.
The effort has cost between $750 and $40,000, depending on the site, with federal grants covering some of the costs.
''Our belief has been that landowners want to preserve habitat. They're the first environmentalists, whether they're ranchers or foresters or farmers,'' Rowan said. ''They want to do the right thing by the land. They just don't want somebody telling them what to do.''
Dan Shapley can be reached at

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