Sunday, January 2, 2005
Many local species in danger Staring down an
uncertain future. Bald eagle has much company in struggle to survive
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
''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
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
-- 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
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
''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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org