LCC News

A Marketing Approach to Conservation: the region’s first quantitative assessment of ecosystem service supply, demand, and values from private landowners

Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC News -

A multi-year project involving three separate research institutions, thousands of private landowners, and hundreds of conservation providers across much of the Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks (GCPO) geography was completed in 2017. The components of the project include:

A high-level mapping of ecosystem service supply in the GCPO region conducted by Lydia Olander and Sara Mason and their team from Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
A survey of landowners’ reasons for owning lands, concerns, interaction with conservation programs, and valuation of key ecosystem services conducted by Robert Grala and Jason Gordon of Mississippi State University
A social network analysis of conservation service providers within the region conducted by Chris Galik of Duke/NC State University

What are ecosystem services and what makes them tricky?

Ecosystem services (ES) are the benefits people obtain from nature, both commodities with recognized monetary value and non-market benefits that are sometimes deemed priceless (such as beauty). As we continue to lose ecosystem services due to environmental fragmentation and degradation, finding new ways to sustain and support such services becomes important. One way to do this is for those who benefit from those services (e.g. downstream users of the water and the general public) to help support and pay those who produce ecosystem services (e.g. good land stewards who prevent runoff into streams and provide habitat for endangered species).

The Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GCPO LCC) commissioned this study because we recognize that in a region where landownership is largely private (~90%), successful natural resource conservation must leverage the collective efforts of private landowners. To do so, conservation practitioners must understand and appreciate what drives landowner management decisions and determine how these values can then be translated into specific results, often in the form of ecosystem goods and services.

Finding the win-win-win

Existing datasets, many of which were identified by using the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnviroAtlas, were used to develop a coarse-scale map of ecosystem service supply and the potential for conservation or restoration. These maps and their underlying datasets, along with the explanatory manuscript from Duke’s Nicholas Institute, are hosted in a new Ecosystem Services Gallery on the GCPO LCC Conservation Planning Atlas.

The Nicholas Institute assessed nine ecosystem services (see Table 1) in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley or MAV and East/West Gulf Coastal Plains. These maps not only paint a picture of what types of services are abundant or important and where, they also will allow LCC partners to begin identifying sites where conservation action can achieve multiple objectives, i.e. the “win-win-win.”

The Nicholas Institute provided three “Example Use-Cases” illustrating this concept. For example, datasets can show the best watersheds to target for restoration aimed at improving water quality by reducing nonpoint source runoff. Next, by combining additional layers, sites could be ranked on the basis of other “co-benefits” provided in those watersheds (e.g. infiltration capacity for replenishing groundwater, pollinator habitat, and biodiversity).

“What was nice about this study,” Olander said, “is it combines survey work with mapping of services, giving us the ability to understand what people care about and where to appropriately target programs of interest to communities.” She cautioned, however, that the coarse scale of these maps means they are only a starting point. “To better assess a project’s or program’s Return on Investment (ROI), a next step in this process could be to drill down on the landowner surveys for better targeting of conservation, combined with more in-depth ecological analyses in key areas.”

Designing incentive or ES trading programs would require much more in-depth modeling, analyses, and landowner surveys (see, for example, this Nicholas Institute modeling study on Water Quality Trading). There are a variety of programs currently in existence that address the issue of how to balance the mismatch between ES “suppliers” and “beneficiaries.” These include both voluntary and regulatory trading programs, as well as direct payment for service programs -- and many of these focus on water quality.

Going to the source: what do landowners think?

The purpose of conducting a survey,” said Robert Grala “was to find out the attitudes and needs of landowners. Knowing what they think, what help they need, and what priorities they have will make almost any private land conservation program more effective.”

A survey of approximately 6,000 landowners owning a total of ~424,000 acres within the GCPO region assessed attitudes on a variety of issues in each of the following areas and associated habitat types:
East Gulf Coastal Plain/open pine stands
Mississippi Alluvial Valley/bottomland hardwoods
Ozark Highlands/grasslands

The top reasons cited for owning land were:
long-term investment
family tradition
legacy to heirs
personal recreation
healthy soils
clean water
wildlife habitat
appealing visual appearance

The top concern expressed by landowners within the GCPO region -- who rated themselves on average as “extremely concerned” -- was drinking water quality.

Moderate concerns included:
drinking water quantity
chemical drift
wildfires
insect pests
invasive species
soils erosion
loss of forest, farmland, natural areas, wildlife habitat, and pollinators

Landowner values extend beyond income, but some landowners are “cut off”

One striking result of the survey is the revelation that many top landowner values and concerns do not relate specifically to land-based income production. One method used in this study for determining the value of non-market ecosystem services such as aesthetic appeal or wildlife habitat is to determine an average “willingness to accept” price at which a landowner would be willing to forego property income in return for providing another service (for example, delaying harvest of trees to provide wildlife habitat).

“Monetary compensation is one aspect of conservation,” Grala said, “but not necessarily the whole. Many landowners are interested in preserving ecosystem services, so perhaps they need more technical information, help with management plans, or simply awareness that programs exist to assist landowners with these needs.”

In particular, a portion of landowners, roughly 50%, rarely interact with conservation agencies or professional organizations that have access to this kind of information. “They are cut off,” said Grala. “Extension works to reach landowners through workshops, everyone has their established methods, but we may need new media to reach out more effectively.”

Talking to landowners and talking to ourselves

In addition to the landowner surveys, a second survey of conservation practitioners in the GCPO region (including local, state, and national NGOs, private sector organizations and consultants, state agencies, federal agencies, and extension service) provided the basis for an analysis of the relationships between conservation organizations and the attributes of the networks they comprise.

This type of network analysis can serve several purposes:
Identify potential “bottlenecks” in program implementation
Assess gaps in representation and opportunities to enhance a network of practitioners
Highlight opportunities to better integrate management efforts across spatial, ecological, and organization scales

The GCPO network analysis found different patterns of interaction as reported by landowners and those reported by practitioner organizations working in the region. Specifically, landowners generally reported interacting more with extension and industry organizations, while conservation practitioners interacted more with state and federal agencies. Survey results also suggest that landowner preferences may not be fully appreciated by conservation practitioner respondents. Christopher Galik, who led the analysis, noted that “conservation practitioners may be overestimating the frequency that landowners work with government agencies, while underestimating the role of private sector, extension, or industry organizations.”

Among conservation practitioners, the analysis suggests a well-connected network among the state and federal organizations critical to development and delivery of conservation programs in the GCPO LCC region. Though a well-connected network may be beneficial for the diffusion of innovative practices, they may be less suited to facilitate coordinated programming. “There is a need to continue efforts to coordinate activities at the regional scale, an important component of practice-driven, ecosystem-level management,” Galik concluded.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Finds Yellow Lance Mussel Warrants Endangered Species Act Protection

Appalachian LCC News -

Recent surveys showed the yellow lance mussel has lost 57 percent of its historical range. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is proposing that it be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Today’s warranted finding and listing proposal are the result of a review conducted by a Species Status Assessment team composed of experts from state and federal government agencies and academic institutions. The assessment included a comprehensive review of scientific information as well as an evaluation of current population status and projected trends in population levels based on threats to the yellow lance. The ESA defines threatened species as those that are likely to become endangered throughout all or a significant portion of its range within the foreseeable future. The yellow lance meets the definition of a threatened species.

Conserving and restoring freshwater mussel populations is important and benefits wildlife and people who live, work and recreate in areas near mussel habitats. Mussels filter and purify water, decrease downstream transport of nitrogen by storing nutrients in their tissue, and their shells provide habitat for other organisms. Mussels were once a food for Native Americans, and now many animals including otters and raccoons rely on them for food.

The yellow lance mussel exists in the Patuxent, Rappahannock, York, James, Chowan, Tar, and Neuse River basins in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. It is also native to the Potomac River, but hasn’t been reported in recent years.

The yellow lance faces threats from water pollution coming directly from sites such as sewage treatment plants and solid waste disposal sites, or from runoff caused by road drainage, private wastewater discharges, or other sources; erosion; or dams which affect both upstream and downstream mussel populations by disrupting natural flow patterns, scouring river bottoms, changing water temperatures, and fragmenting habitat.

If the yellow lance mussel is listed as threatened, the Service will develop a recovery plan and pursue cooperative conservation initiatives designed to reverse population decline and improve habitat conditions. The Service and state wildlife agencies are working with numerous partners to meet both species and habitat needs in aquatic systems from Maryland to North Carolina. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is bolstering existing populations of yellow lance mussels in the wild. Also, a group of federal and state entities and non-profit conservation groups who make up the Upper Tar Collaboration is planning landscape scale conservation to benefit the yellow lance in the Upper Tar Watershed in North Carolina.

The Service will publish its proposal to list the yellow lance as threatened in the Federal Register tomorrow, beginning a 60-day comment period in which the public is invited to submit scientific or technical information that will aid the agency in reaching its final decision. The proposed rule may be viewed today in the Federal Register Reading Room and will officially publish on April 5, 2017. Public comments on this proposal can be made until June 5, 2017.

All documents and supporting information for the proposed rule can be found at http://www.regulations.gov. In the search box enter Docket No. FWS–R4–ES–2017-0017 and click the “Search” button. Written comments also may be mailed or hand-delivered to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R4–ES–2017–0017, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.

Requests for a public hearing must be made in writing by May 22, 2017, to the above address. Persons who use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Information Relay Service (FIRS) at 800–877–8339.

For more information download the frequently asked questionsfor this proposal or visit the yellow lance species profile.

First-of-its-kind Interactive Map Brings Together 40 Years of Water-Quality Data

Appalachian LCC News -

For the first time, monitoring data collected by the USGS and 73 other organizations at almost 1,400 sites have been combined to provide a nationwide look at changes in the quality of our rivers and streams between the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act and 2012.

Federal, state, and local agencies have invested billions of dollars since passage of the Act to reduce the amount of pollution entering rivers and streams that millions of Americans rely on for drinking water, recreation, and irrigation. Tracking changes in the quality of these waterways over multiple decades is crucial for evaluating the effectiveness of pollution control efforts and protecting the nation’s water resources into the future.

The interactive map can be used to see whether 51 water-quality constituents, like nutrients and pesticides, and 38 aquatic-life metrics, like the types and numbers of fish, macroinvertebrates, and algae, have increased, decreased, or remained the same at nearly 1,400 sites between 1972 and 2012. For example, the phaseout of the insecticide diazinon for residential and some agricultural uses was initiated in 2000 and has led to widespread reductions in concentrations in U.S. streams, which can be seen on the map during the trend period from 2002 to 2012.

The map summarizes the first phase of the study— in which the USGS identifies streams that have been monitored consistently for long periods and reports the trends in those streams. In the second phase, to take place over the next several years, the USGS will assess whether and where billions in investments in pollution control have been effective, identify major causes of trends in U.S. stream quality, provide details on which chemicals are increasing or decreasing, and highlight whether any drinking water sources or aquatic ecosystems are at increased risk.

A new USGS interactive map provides a long-term look at changes in the quality of our nation’s rivers and streams, using data from over 70 organizations. Go online and see how 51 water-quality metrics and 38 aquatic-life metrics at nearly 1,400 sites have changed over the last 40 years. This map was developed by the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment Project, which conducts regional and national assessments of the nation’s water quality to provide an understanding of current water-quality conditions, whether conditions are getting better or worse over time, and how natural processes and human activities affect those conditions.

 

Explore other USGS interactive maps:
Trends in Groundwater Quality: https://nawqatrends.wim.usgs.gov/Decadal/
Status of the Nation’s Rivers and streams: https://cida.usgs.gov/quality/rivers/home

Saving an Endangered Southern River

Appalachian LCC News -

Petty and his brothers own seven miles of riverfront, much of it covered one recent morning in bright green winter wheat, along both sides of the Conasauga. The mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest offer a postcard-perfect backdrop. The rural idyll, though, belies the river’s trauma. Sedimentation, pesticides, chicken litter and industrial runoff threaten one of the nation’s most biologically diverse streams. The Conasauga is also one of the Southeast’s most threatened river basins, according to a new study, with the extirpation in recent years of possibly one-fourth of its fish and mussel species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Nature Conservancy will soon ratchet up conservation measures intended to protect the river and keep at-risk critters from being listed as endangered. Cindy Dohner, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Southeast, says private landowners can help “conserve as many at-risk species as possible through voluntary and innovative measures."

Jimmy Petty is doing his share. He and brothers Don and Jerry participate in a handful of federal, state and nonprofit water-quality measures to control runoff from their 5,000-acre farm and forest.

“Daddy always said if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you. That pertains to the river too,” Petty says.

The Conasauga needs all the help it can get.

Beginning amid the 4,000-foot peaks of the Cohutta Wilderness Area, the river dips into Tennessee before turning south, passing the Petty’s farm and, eventually, reaching Dalton. It joins, 95 miles from its source, the Coosawattee River to form the Oostanaula River before flowing into Alabama (as the Coosa River).

 

The Conasauga River flows from the Cohutta Wilderness in northern Georgia into Tennessee before turning south. Map by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

 

The aquatic biodiversity of the Conasauga watershed is “exceptional” with at least 76 species of native fishes and 18 species of native mussels. The more-heralded Upper Colorado River Basin, by contrast, contains 14 species of native fish.

The Conasauga, though, is imperiled. Jason Wisniewski, an aquatic zoologist with the Georgia DNR, estimates that the river once supported at least 33 species of mussels. Today, maybe 23 species remain with seven mussels (including the Coosa moccasinshell and the Georgia pigtoe) listed as endangered.

Three federally listed fish (including the Conasauga logperch) also make the endangered list.

“It’s one of the most diverse eco-systems in the country with quite a few species that are endemic,” said Robin Goodloe, a supervisory biologist with the Service in Athens, Ga. “And for several species that previously occurred, to a large extent, in the Upper Mobile River Basin, the Conasauga is the only place where they are left.”

The Tennessee Aquarium and the University of Georgia recently analyzed nearly 300 Southeastern watersheds across 11 states to determine which were most imperiled and in need of help. The study, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, was based on a simple calculus: 3 points were assigned for each endangered species in the watershed; 2 points for each threatened species; and 1 point for each vulnerable, or potentially, at-risk, species.

The Conasauga ranked as the seventh most imperiled watershed. Overall, the Alabama River Basin, which includes the Conasauga, and the Tennessee River Basin fare the worst.

“Relative to other areas of the United States, the Southeast has little land in national parks or other forms of protected areas and receives a disproportionately small percentage of federal expenditures for endangered species protection,” reads the report entitled The Southeastern Aquatic Biodiversity Conservation Strategy. The Conasauga, in particular, is bedeviled by agricultural runoff; sedimentation; pesticides; herbicides; Roundup-ready seeds; and chicken litter which fertilizes the crops.

Studies show that glyphosate (Roundup) and phosphorous (chicken debris) harm fish and mussels. Drainage ditches that carry a field’s runoff towards the Conasauga and its tributaries, as well as inadequate river buffers, exacerbate the river’s woes. Further degradation could push at-risk species, including the holiday, bridled and trispot darters, onto the endangered list.

 

The Service’s at-risk plate is already full. Environmental groups, since 2011, have requested that Fish and Wildlife evaluate nearly 500 species to determine if they are “threatened” or “endangered.” The Southeastern U.S. is home to roughly 60 percent of the possible listings. The Service, though, in concert with state agencies, private landowners, businesses, and others, determined that 97 of the proposed species don’t need federal protection.

Fish and Wildlife and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will soon offer private landowners additional financial incentives to conserve land voluntarily so species won’t have to be listed. The Working Lands for Wildlife program, for example, already targets the holiday, bridled and trispot darters, and the Conasauga, for conservation. The goal: wildlife-friendly improvements to 10,800 acres within two years. The Pettys, the largest private landowners in the Conasauga watershed, will continue to do their share. They long ago enrolled their 14 miles of river frontage into the USDA conservation reserve program. They allowed a 35-foot buffer of trees – poplars, oaks, river birch, sweet gums – to regrow along both sides of the river. Another 30 feet remains un-farmed and serves as additional buffer.

The conservation program pays the Pettys about $30 an acre annually; they could make a lot more farming to the river’s edge. Instead, they’ve added rock filter dams to slow runoff through ditches; prudently managed, burned and replanted their 500-acre forest; and recycled dairy water to repeatedly rinse out the stalls.

In 2006, the Pettys won Georgia’s first Environmental Stewardship Award.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever broached a subject with them that they weren’t willing to entertain,” said Cindy Askew, the USDA’s conservationist in Northwest Georgia. “If you give them an option for something beneficial, they’re almost always going to be interested. I give them all the credit in the world.”

Jimmy Petty crossed the cement bridge over his stretch of the Conasauga and pointed to the spot below where his children were baptized. A rope swing hung invitingly from an oak. Fishing for catfish and floating the river on lazy summer days are but two of the many pleasures the Conasauga affords the Pettys.

“We don’t intend on quitting the conservation programs,” Jimmy Petty said. “They protect the river. And they make for good habitat for deer, fish and other wildlife.”

Human Dimensions Success Stories in Bird Conservation

Appalachian LCC News -

As such, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) Human Dimensions Subcommittee has volunteered to take on this project and we've created the following Google form to help collect and characterize the success stories where human dimensions/social science has been used to benefit bird conservation.

For the purposes of this data collection, success is defined as some sort of management, program (or approach), monitoring or conservation status change in response to considering/collecting the HD information. For example, what changed after HD information was collected?

Thank you in advance for helping us with this exciting and useful project! Authors will be contacted before success stories are posted. The following link provides an example of how to complete the form. Feel free to submit multiple success stories by completing 1 form per success story.

Please feel free to send any papers and additional products related to your story to Ashley Gramza, NABCI Human Dimensions Subcommittee Co-Chair and National Bird Conservation Social Science Coordinator, agramza@vt.edu

Seeking Statements of Interest for Gulf Strategic Conservation Assessment Project Coordinator

Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC News -

On December 9, 2015, the Restore Council approved the Strategic Conservation Assessment of Gulf Coast Landscapes (SCA) as one among a suite of projects approved in the 2015 final Funded Priorities List.  This project will coalesce identified conservation and socioeconomic priorities into a unified conservation planning decision support tool to aid the Restore Council and Gulf coast stakeholders in identifying high priority lands for voluntary conservation efforts.  The SCA project is being led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Gulf Restoration Team and administered through a cooperative agreement with Mississippi State University, with support from the five Gulf Landscape Conservation Cooperatives. 

The SCA project leadership team is seeking statements of interest for a qualified individual or contracting organization to take on a leadership role as of Assessment Coordinator for the SCA project.  This individual or organization must have extensive experience in coordination of stakeholder meetings and landscape-level natural resource conservation planning, preferably along the Gulf of Mexico coast.  Please see the Request for Statements of Interest description and template for detailed submission instructions available for download here: AssessmentCoordinator_Description_SCA_SOI_Final.docx.  Applicants are strongly encouraged to consult with a member of the project team (USFWS Project Officer, John Tirpak [John_tirpak@fws.gov], or MSU project lead Kristine Evans [kristine.evans@msstate.edu]) prior to statement of interest submission. 

Statements of interest will be reviewed starting May 15, 2017.

New Habitat Guidelines for Six Species of Eastern Wildlife

Appalachian LCC News -

The Guidelines for Managing Habitat for Regional Species of Greatest Conservation Need describe landscape and stand-level conditions needed by these six animals. The Guidelines, which range in length from 12 to 20 pages, also identify co-occurring species, such as New England cottontail and golden-winged warbler, that could benefit from the recommended management practices. The publications were developed with input from public- and private-sector foresters, wildlife biologists and conservation planners from 12 states and three Canadian provinces.

The Guidelines were funded by the Northeast Regional Conservation Needs (RCN) Grant Program, with a matching commitment from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, and other collaborating institutions. The Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies administers the RCN program to help states from Virginia to Maine implement their State Wildlife Action Plans.

The six focal species inhabit a variety of settings, forest types and successional stages across the region.

The American marten inhabits large tracts of intermediate to mature softwood, hardwood, and mixed forests in New York and northern New England. Close relatives of weasels and fishers, martens prefer an interconnected tree canopy where they can climb and move from tree to tree. Woody structure and dense vegetation near the forest floor boost prey abundance and increase denning opportunities for martens.

Bicknell’s thrush is a disturbance-adapted bird that breeds in fir-spruce forests at upper elevations in New York and northern New England. Bicknell’s thrushes typically nest in dense, low-canopy stands dominated by balsam fir, especially following fir waves, a common natural phenomenon on the region’s highest mountains. They also nest among paper birch-balsam fir saplings that arise following timber harvests or fires.

The Canada warbler is a colorful songbird that benefits from wetlands conservation and various methods of harvesting timber in upland settings. In the East, it ranges from North Carolina to northern Maine. Habitat managed for Canada wa

The rusty blackbird, one of North America’s most imperiled avian species, requires young northern softwoods for nesting. Rusty blackbirds breed in boreal and Acadian spruce-fir forests across Canada, northern New England and New York State.

The scarlet tanager is among the most brilliantly colored birds of the eastern forest. This canopy-nesting species breeds in multi-aged hardwood and mixed hardwood-softwood forests and also uses young forest habitats before migrating to South America in autumn.

The wood thrush is a ground-foraging songbird that nests in shrubs and young trees beneath a mature, hardwood-dominated canopy. Wood thrushes breed in temperate forests of eastern North America, occurring in every state from Virginia to Maine. Like most birds that breed in mature forests, wood thrushes and scarlet tanagers use areas of high sapling density, including regenerating timber harvest stands, during the post-breeding period. Many other migratory songbirds use such young forest areas, as do box turtles, timber rattlesnakes, and New England and Appalachian cottontails.

Each set of Guidelines includes information on species distribution and status, suggestions on where to create and sustain habitat, desired habitat conditions, recommended voluntary practices, managing for multiple benefits (including other wildlife that use the same habitats) plus a two-page digest of management considerations for quick reference in the office or the field.

Project leaders for the series are J. Daniel Lambert of High Branch Conservation Services of Hartland, VT, and Leonard Reitsma, professor of ecology at Plymouth State University. Additional contributors included a team of environmental biology students at Plymouth State and conservation biologists with the Audubon Society of New Hampshire and the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

The Guidelines can be downloaded for free.

The project leaders write: “We invite you to consider applying these guidelines in forests where you work. If you anticipate using them to help plan conservation or harvest activities, please notify Dan Lambert with information about the location and extent of your project (802-436-4065). This will help us assess the level of uptake in the region. We also welcome inquiries about where the guidelines could be most effectively applied. Complementary spatial prioritizations are available upon request.”

Northeast States Release Report on Hellbender Distribution

Appalachian LCC News -

The goals of the project were to better document hellbender distribution in the Northeast using environmental DNA (eDNA) surveys and to develop a communication framework and standardized methodologies to coordinate conservation efforts throughout the region. The final report as well as eDNA and egg rearing protocol are now available on the RCN project page.

The eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is a large, fully aquatic salamander that prefers clear, fast-flowing, well-oxygenated streams and rivers. They are found throughout the Appalachian region from southern New York to Georgia, and in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. The hellbender is declining in many parts of its range and has been identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need. The species is broadly distributed and very cryptic, making it difficult to thoroughly map its distribution using traditional approaches that rely on rock-turning to find hellbenders.

Environmental DNA (eDNA) surveys are a relatively new approach to determining if aquatic species are present at a location. The hellbender is well suited for eDNA monitoring because it is rare, secretive, and likely sensitive to disturbance from rock-turning surveys. As aquatic species, hellbenders exude many sources of DNA into their environment including skin, feces, blood, spermatozoa, and eggs.

Like many rare species with distribution among several states, their conservation is improved when states can share knowledge and resources and work together through efficient state partnerships. This study sought to fill major data gaps in hellbender distribution throughout the northeast, and develop standardized protocols for hellbender research and monitoring and a communication framework for hellbender researchers and population managers across the region.

This project provided broad-scale knowledge about the hellbender’s distribution and generated measurable benefits for public education and wildlife conservation by engaging a large group of citizen scientists in eDNA collection. The resulting archive of frozen eDNA samples represents a ‘snapshot’ of entire biological communities at the time of sample collection, which could serve as a valuable resource for future inventory and monitoring of native fauna, introduced species, and aquatic pathogens. Through these collective efforts and the support of the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, this project established an effective framework for region-wide hellbender conservation that has resulted in a better understanding of the species’ distribution, public engagement in conservation efforts, and tangible resources to benefit wildlife conservation in the northeastern U.S.

LCC Network Receives Distinguished Landscape Practitioner Award

Appalachian LCC News -

This award is given for distinguished contributions to the application of the principles of landscape ecology to real-world problems. This decision was based on a strong nomination from the society’s membership and knowledge of LCCs contributions to sustaining landscapes through the support of 100s of projects that address landscape ecology and conservation challenges.

The award will be announced at the Banquet Dinner of the Annual Meeting of US-IALE in Baltimore from 7:00-9:00 pm on April 11 (http://baltimore2017.usiale.org/).

You're Invited to Help Protect Mallows Bay!

Appalachian LCC News -

 

Show your support by attending one of these meetings and telling NOAA that you want to protect this special place where history and nature have come together. Meetings will be held at the following locations:
March 7, 2017, 6-9 p.m. Charles County Government Building 200 Baltimore Street La Plata, MD 20646 March 9, 2017, 6-9 p.m. Anne Arundel Community College CALT Building 101 College Parkway Arnold, MD 21012
Can't make it to a public meeting? Submit a comment online
Learn more about this special place!
Mallows Bay on the Potomac River, is located just 30 miles south of Washington, D.C. along the John Smith Chesapeake Trail and is home to the largest visible collection of shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere. What began as a junkyard in the Bay has evolved into a thriving ecosystem that is full of wildlife. What makes this place even cooler is that you can kayak around and view the shipwrecks at low tide.

 

 

ACJV Flagship Species Initiative

Appalachian LCC News -

The goal was to select species and habitats that 1) represent the full geography of the partnership; 2) have a high degree of conservation need; and 3) where the Joint Venture partnership can provide the greatest added value.

The result of the retreat was to focus ACJV efforts primarily on coastal marsh habitat, with a subset of flagship species (Saltmarsh Sparrow, Black Rail and American Black Duck) chosen to represent that habitat:

Coastal marshes are one of the most imperiled habitats along the Atlantic Coast, impacted by sea level rise and coastal development. They span the entire geography of the Joint Venture, making the ACJV uniquely responsible for their conservation. The threats to this habitat are high and difficult to address; as a result, a whole suite of tidal marsh birds are in decline – some of which are facing extinction in our lifetimes.

Saltmarsh Sparrow and Black Rail – flagships of the high marsh, these two species are experiencing catastrophic declines of 90% or greater. Arresting and reversing declines will require immediate and coordinated conservation action across their breeding range.

American Black Duck – our low marsh representative, Black Duck populations have declined by half since the 1960s in our region. Restoring the former abundance of this species will require a shared and sustained commitment to coastal marsh conservation.

For all three species, the ACJV will set population goals linked to habitat goals and coordinate efforts to meet them.  Read on to see the progress we have made on flagship initiatives in the past year.

But what about all the other species?!

A common concern and question posed has been “What happens to everything else the JV has worked on in the past?” A strategic focus does not mean the JV is abandoning past priorities, but we must face the practical reality of limited capacity. The JV will invest partnership energies towards a short list of priorities where we can best contribute toward existing conservation efforts. Our flagship initiatives will occupy the bulk of staff and partnership time (about 2/3rds) but we will also continue to work strategically on non-tidal wetlands (waterfowl, shorebirds, waders) and beach habitat conservation through the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative. NAWCA will remain a major tool to meet our goals in each set of priorities.

If you have questions or concerns you would like to share contact Aimee_Weldon@fws.gov.

GCPO LCC and the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative meet in Starkville

Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC News -

Exciting things are happening in the world of grassland conservation. Dwayne Estes and Theo Witsell have been traveling across the Southeast promoting their vision for a Southeastern Grassland Initiative. Three months ago, GCPO LCC communications specialist Gregg Elliott and I saw them present their ideas to Memphis area planners and conservationists at Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. On Monday, February 27th, they came to Starkville, Mississippi to network with a greater portion of the GCPO staff and a handful of Mississippi State University faculty members involved in the science of grassland ecology. The meeting was attended by representatives of Central Hardwoods Joint Venture; Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks; Mississippi Natural Heritage Program; University of Central Florida; US Fish and Wildlife Service; and Wildlife Mississippi. Mississippi State University faculty attending included representatives from the Mississippi Entomological Museum; the Department of Landscape Architecture; the Department of Biological Sciences; and the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Aquaculture.

I kicked off the meeting with a presentation on the contribution of the GCPO LCC to grassland conservation. Last year we produced a Grassland Condition Index data layer for our 180-million-acre geography, and that layer was folded into the broader Conservation Blueprint, which addresses the condition of our nine priority systems in the context of threats such as climate change and urbanization as well as positive elements in the landscape such as the conservation estate and species distribution models. I shared the fact that our Conservation Blueprint is nested in a larger Southeastern Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS) data product guiding landscape conservation across fifteen states and six Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.

Regional scale challenges to grassland conservation include a lack of consensus in the scientific community as to how to categorize them as ecological systems (chiefly because they tend to grade continuously into savanna, woodland, and forest in the landscape, but also due to regional variations in substrate, topography, hydrology, and vegetation), and the lack of a repeatable method for delineating the openings on the ground in our maps (different individuals and organizations include or exclude various zones of woody vegetation when drawing grassland boundaries). These issues frustrate our effort to obtain a baseline measure of how much grassland currently exists and the condition of the patches. We have numerous organizations working on grassland conservation across the region at multiple scales: some groups are focused on a single patch, some on a specific region (such as the Black Belt), and some address only those patches within a particular state. I made the point that at times it seems that these organizations are as disjunct as the patches themselves. Until the Southeastern Grassland Initiative (SGI) took shape last year, there was no organized effort to coordinate grassland conservation specifically across the entire Southeast. The network of partnerships already established by the LCCs is a natural complement to the vision and mission of the SGI.

Botanical Explorers

After I spoke, Dwayne Estes, professor of the Center of Excellence for Field Biology at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee and botanical explorer for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), described the recent and growing appreciation and acknowledgment of southeastern grasslands.  He recalled that, as an elementary school student, he was taught that at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans in North America, the eastern forests were so dense that a squirrel could travel tree-to-tree from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Multiple accounts of vast grasslands by early settlers and explorers indicate that such a squirrel probably would have had to have taken a very circuitous route, chiefly following the riparian zones. Dwayne’s overview of historical grasslands focused on Kentucky and Tennessee and was supported by many references to old parcel surveys and the journals and letters of early settlers. He described the development of the Southeastern Grassland Initiative last year, with early support by Austin Peay State University, philanthropic organizations, and corporate sponsors. The Initiative’s supported projects include preservation, restoration, re-creation, rescue, seedbanks, education, and market-based initiatives such as grass-fed cattle.

Theo Witsell, Grassland Biodiversity Explorer for SGI, then elaborated on the research priorities for the Initiative. The Initiative is planning to develop an inventory of grassland biodiversity by identifying all major grassland habitat types in the region, and also to conduct detailed studies both of current lands and of the historic records. These studies will improve the existing grassland fidelity index, which measures the degree to which each plant species is obligated to grassland habitats. Theo and Dwayne have discovered numerous undescribed plant species while conducting inventories on grasslands, and they expect to find more. High rates of endemism and biodiversity in southeastern grasslands contribute to the overall biodiversity of the region, which has been recognized recently as the world's 36th biodiversity hotspot by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Theo also showed us examples of grassland habitat restoration guides he has published for landowners and the public.

Green roofs and Grasshoppers

Mississippi State faculty members shared their research related to grassland ecology and conservation. Tim Schauwecker, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, highlighted student work on green roofs (birds more frequently visit green roofs, both those planted with the traditional sedum cover and those planted with prairie grasses, than conventional roofs), the use of General Land Office survey notes to find prairie patches in the Jackson Prairie Belt, and the development of a biodiversity index for the city of Starkville. Tim also described recent work on a management plan for the Catalpa Creek watershed, which contains extensive agricultural research fields on the MSU campus, and a planned Wetland Education Theatre with a native grass component to be installed at his Department’s facilities.

Jovonn Hill and Richard Brown described work done at the Mississippi Entomological Museum, housed on the Mississippi State University campus. The GCPO LCC uses species habitat models based mostly on birds. Dwayne and Theo focus primarily on the rare and endemic plants. Insects play an important ecological role, both as pollinators and as a food source for other species. Those of us largely unfamiliar with the science learned a great deal. Many insects -- grasshoppers were a prominent example -- occur only in grasslands, some only in the Black Belt, and some only on particular single patches such as Osborn prairie, a relict patch under TVA power lines a couple of miles northeast of Starkville. Some occur in only one county in Mississippi and one county in Minnesota.

As with the relictual plant species mentioned in my description of the SePPCon conference, this pattern of very rare species occurring at locations very far apart indicates that the species is very old and that the particular location is a remnant of a larger ecological system that was intact long ago. Twenty thousand years ago states such as Illinois and Oklahoma, where tallgrass prairie was extensive at the time of European settlement, were occupied by coniferous forests, and the prairies of the Southeast were refugia for most of the grassland species that colonized the Midwest when the forests and glaciers receded northward. Information on just how these species migrated, whether they dispersed through the grasslands of Tennessee and Kentucky or whether they expanded into the Piedmont and Appalachian regions and then westward across present-day New York, is contained in the genetic markers of the species found on the relict sites.

Staying Genetically True and Other Challenges Ahead

Understanding of the genetics and the use of local genotypes in restoration is important, because success is more likely when species adapted to those local conditions are used. In practice, the local genotypes are difficult to obtain. Seed collection, germination, caring for and transporting the plugs, are all labor intensive processes. In many situations, a private landowner has no choice but to use plant stock from another state. Furthermore, so-called conservative plant species, those restricted to a very particular habitat, can be “uncooperative” when encouraged to expand. Simply expanding the size of the opening by thinning and removing the tree cover is not enough to expand the relict patch because the rare species have trouble competing against the more weedy early successional vegetation.

Above: Cara Joos, Science Coordinator for the Central Hardwoods Joint Venture, makes a point to the group.

In the follow-up discussion, three main challenges to a regional approach to grassland restoration and conservation were identified:

  1. The popularity of the field of science once known as “Natural History,” an integrated science that considers biotic and abiotic interactions (plants, animals, the physical environment), is declining. Biology departments are increasingly focused on specialized fields such as molecular biology. As current biologists with expertise in field-based research retire, fewer are coming along to take their place.
  2. Plants with local genetic characteristics are vital for quality restoration work. Companies exist that will collect seed and propagate plants from local stock, but at significant cost.
  3. A baseline assessment, a current inventory, requires a mapping methodology that can parse out warm season and cool season, or native and non-native grasslands, efficiently across large landscapes. This is a known issue in the geospatial science and conservation community, and we continue to seek solutions.

In the end, all partners came away with a better understanding of the current and potential state of regional scale grassland conservation. The staff of the GCPO LCC was very impressed with the depth of botanical knowledge that grounds the Southeastern Grassland Initiative and the possible applications of that knowledge, such as the on-going effort to digitize and geo-tag the thousands of grassland obligate specimens found in the many herbaria of our region. Dwayne and Theo of the SGI expressed appreciation for the geospatial science products developed by the LCC and their potential applications. And we were all impressed by the work done by the Department of Landscape Architecture and Entomological Museum here at Mississippi State University and how their projects can strengthen and enhance our conservation work. This meeting laid the groundwork for what we hope is a highly effective regional partnership as we move forward to conserve this ecologically important and highly imperiled feature of the southeastern landscape.

GCPO LCC and the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative meet in Starkville

Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC News -

Exciting things are happening in the world of grassland conservation. Dwayne Estes and Theo Witsell have been traveling across the Southeast promoting their vision for a Southeastern Grassland Initiative. Three months ago, GCPO LCC communications specialist Gregg Elliott and I saw them present their ideas to Memphis area planners and conservationists at Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. On Monday, February 27th, they came to Starkville, Mississippi to network with a greater portion of the GCPO staff and a handful of Mississippi State University faculty members involved in the science of grassland ecology. The meeting was attended by representatives of Arkansas Heritage Commission; Central Hardwoods Joint Venture; Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks; Mississippi Natural Heritage Program; University of Central Florida; US Fish and Wildlife Service; and Wildlife Mississippi. Mississippi State University faculty attending included representatives from the Mississippi Entomological Museum; the Department of Landscape Architecture; the Department of Biological Sciences; and the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Aquaculture.

I kicked off the meeting with a presentation on the contribution of the GCPO LCC to grassland conservation. Last year we produced a Grassland Condition Index data layer for our 180-million-acre geography, and that layer was folded into the broader Conservation Blueprint, which addresses the condition of our nine priority systems in the context of threats such as climate change and urbanization as well as positive elements in the landscape such as the conservation estate and species distribution models. I shared the fact that our Conservation Blueprint is nested in a larger Southeastern Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS) data product guiding landscape conservation across fifteen states and six Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.

Regional scale challenges to grassland conservation include a lack of consensus in the scientific community as to how to categorize them as ecological systems (chiefly because they tend to grade continuously into savanna, woodland, and forest in the landscape, but also due to regional variations in substrate, topography, hydrology, and vegetation), and the lack of a repeatable method for delineating the openings on the ground in our maps (different individuals and organizations include or exclude various zones of woody vegetation when drawing grassland boundaries). These issues frustrate our effort to obtain a baseline measure of how much grassland currently exists and the condition of the patches. We have numerous organizations working on grassland conservation across the region at multiple scales: some groups are focused on a single patch, some on a specific region (such as the Black Belt), and some address only those patches within a particular state. I made the point that at times it seems that these organizations are as disjunct as the patches themselves. Until the Southeastern Grassland Initiative (SGI) took shape last year, there was no organized effort to coordinate grassland conservation specifically across the entire Southeast. The network of partnerships already established by the LCCs is a natural complement to the vision and mission of the SGI.

The View of a Botanical Explorer

After I spoke, Dwayne Estes, professor of the Center of Excellence for Field Biology at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee and botanical explorer for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), described the recent and growing appreciation and acknowledgment of southeastern grasslands.  He recalled that, as an elementary school student, he was taught that at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans in North America, the eastern forests were so dense that a squirrel could travel tree-to-tree from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Multiple accounts of vast grasslands by early settlers and explorers indicate that such a squirrel probably would have had to have taken a very circuitous route, chiefly following the riparian zones. Dwayne’s overview of historical grasslands focused on Kentucky and Tennessee and was supported by many references to old parcel surveys and the journals and letters of early settlers. He described the development of the Southeastern Grassland Initiative last year, with early support by Austin Peay State University, philanthropic organizations, and corporate sponsors. The Initiative’s supported projects include preservation, restoration, re-creation, rescue, seedbanks, education, and market-based initiatives such as grass-fed cattle.

Theo Witsell, botanist with the Arkansas Heritage Commission, then elaborated on the SGI research priorities. The Initiative is planning to develop an inventory of grassland biodiversity by identifying all major grassland habitat types in the region, and also to conduct detailed studies both of current lands and of the historic records. These studies will improve the existing grassland fidelity index, which measures the degree to which each plant species is obligated to grassland habitats. Theo and Dwayne have discovered numerous undescribed plant species while conducting inventories on grasslands, and they expect to find more. High rates of endemism and biodiversity in southeastern grasslands contribute to the overall biodiversity of the region, which has been recognized recently as the world's 36th biodiversity hotspot by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Theo also showed us examples of grassland habitat restoration guides he has published for landowners and the public.

Green roofs and Grasshoppers

Mississippi State faculty members shared their research related to grassland ecology and conservation. Tim Schauwecker, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, highlighted student work on green roofs (birds more frequently visit green roofs, both those planted with the traditional sedum cover and those planted with prairie grasses, than conventional roofs), the use of General Land Office survey notes to find prairie patches in the Jackson Prairie Belt, and the development of a biodiversity index for the city of Starkville. Tim also described recent work on a management plan for the Catalpa Creek watershed, which contains extensive agricultural research fields on the MSU campus, and a planned Wetland Education Theatre with a native grass component to be installed at his Department’s facilities.

Jovonn Hill and Richard Brown described work done at the Mississippi Entomological Museum, housed on the Mississippi State University campus. The GCPO LCC uses species habitat models based mostly on birds. Dwayne and Theo focus primarily on the rare and endemic plants. Insects play an important ecological role, both as pollinators and as a food source for other species. Those of us largely unfamiliar with the science learned a great deal. Many insects -- grasshoppers were a prominent example -- occur only in grasslands, some only in the Black Belt, and some only on particular single patches such as Osborn prairie, a relict patch under TVA power lines a couple of miles northeast of Starkville. Some occur in only one county in Mississippi and one county in Minnesota.

As with the relictual plant species mentioned in my description of the SePPCon conference, this pattern of very rare species occurring at locations very far apart indicates that the species is very old and that the particular location is a remnant of a larger ecological system that was intact long ago. Twenty thousand years ago states such as Illinois and Oklahoma, where tallgrass prairie was extensive at the time of European settlement, were occupied by coniferous forests, and the prairies of the Southeast were refugia for most of the grassland species that colonized the Midwest when the forests and glaciers receded northward. Information on just how these species migrated, whether they dispersed through the grasslands of Tennessee and Kentucky or whether they expanded into the Piedmont and Appalachian regions and then westward across present-day New York, is contained in the genetic markers of the species found on the relict sites.

Staying Genetically True and Other Challenges Ahead

Understanding of the genetics and the use of local genotypes in restoration is important, because success is more likely when species adapted to those local conditions are used. In practice, the local genotypes are difficult to obtain. Seed collection, germination, caring for and transporting the plugs, are all labor intensive processes. In many situations, a private landowner has no choice but to use plant stock from another state. Furthermore, so-called conservative plant species, those restricted to a very particular habitat, can be “uncooperative” when encouraged to expand. Simply expanding the size of the opening by thinning and removing the tree cover is not enough to expand the relict patch because the rare species have trouble competing against the more weedy early successional vegetation.

Above: Cara Joos, Science Coordinator for the Central Hardwoods Joint Venture, makes a point to the group.

In the follow-up discussion, three main challenges to a regional approach to grassland restoration and conservation were identified:

  1. The popularity of the field of science once known as “Natural History,” an integrated science that considers biotic and abiotic interactions (plants, animals, the physical environment), is declining. Biology departments are increasingly focused on specialized fields such as molecular biology. As current biologists with expertise in field-based research retire, fewer are coming along to take their place.
  2. Plants with local genetic characteristics are vital for quality restoration work. Companies exist that will collect seed and propagate plants from local stock, but at significant cost.
  3. A baseline assessment, a current inventory, requires a mapping methodology that can parse out warm season and cool season, or native and non-native grasslands, efficiently across large landscapes. This is a known issue in the geospatial science and conservation community, and we continue to seek solutions.

In the end, all partners came away with a better understanding of the current and potential state of regional scale grassland conservation. The staff of the GCPO LCC was very impressed with the depth of botanical knowledge that grounds the Southeastern Grassland Initiative and the possible applications of that knowledge, such as the on-going effort to digitize and geo-tag the thousands of grassland obligate specimens found in the many herbaria of our region. Dwayne and Theo of the SGI expressed appreciation for the geospatial science products developed by the LCC and their potential applications. And we were all impressed by the work done by the Department of Landscape Architecture and Entomological Museum here at Mississippi State University and how their projects can strengthen and enhance our conservation work. This meeting laid the groundwork for what we hope is a highly effective regional partnership as we move forward to conserve this ecologically important and highly imperiled feature of the southeastern landscape.

Dead Zone Redemption

Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC News -

A great post from The Nature Conservancy's Bryan Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science for TNC's Louisiana program on working smart to address Gulf hypoxia.  Bryan cites Landscape Conservation Cooperatives as important partners to in scientific targeting to "align along our shared nutrient reduction goals to ensure that our collective efforts have maximum impact in the primary focus states and throughout the Mississippi River Basin."

Read the full Dead Zone Redemption blog post.

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