For two decades, biologists have taken to the woods, fields and streams of Pennsylvania counties searching for the biological needles in the haystack—the rarest plants and animals.
The County Inventory Program was launched in the mid-1980s with support from the Wild Resource Conservation Fund, to help biologists from Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC) and The Nature Conservancy create detailed county maps of where rare species, and their habitats, are found. “Our motto is no taxa without representation,” said Rocky Gleason of the WPC.
Biologists start their search with museum collections and other records to find where species were historically reported, then go into the field to see if they are still present. They also scout for rare habitats that may host something like the rare jeweled shooting star or a woodrat colony. A 10-acre colony of box huckleberry, a rare shrub famous for its longevity—it can live thousands of years — went overlooked in Bedford County until inventory work.
The inventories, Gleason said, help to identify the “best fragments” that remain of a once-vast wilderness. Often, species and their habitats have vanished without a trace, sometimes under a parking lot.
The inventories are more than a search for remnants of the past. They are building blocks that can ensure those resources have a place in the future. They result in maps that are “pre-planning documents” that can head off potential conflicts, Gleason said.
“We want people to know where they may run into a permit problem,” he said. “We want planners to look at these things ahead of time and say, ‘Where is the best of the best left, and how can we try to preserve it to try to accommodate development and rare species?’”
The first county inventory, for Lancaster County, was completed in 1989. Inventories for all other counties have either been completed or are under way. Updates to the first inventories will begin soon.
Pennsylvania will never again have the vast wilderness that greeted William Penn, but with smart planning that puts county inventories to work, Gleason said the remaining fragments can be saved and linked through habitat corridor.
“You may not be able to ride a horse for two weeks and not be able to run into a road,” Gleason said, “but maybe a woodrat or a salamander or a bird could make it through one piece of habitat to the next.”