Wild Notes Winter 2011 edition

Winter 2011

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Cosmo the flying squirrel


You can also download the entire issue in printable PDF form

Conservation Opportunity Areas:
Where the Wild Things Are

The Pennsylvania State Wildlife Action Plan, completed in 2005 by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, provides an overview of the efforts required to ensure the continued health and abundance of Pennsylvania wildlife and habitat.  The plan identifies Species of Greatest Conservation Need (referred to as Species from this point on) for amphibians, freshwater mussels, reptiles, fishes, birds and mammals.  While the plan does discuss the habitat for these species, it does not provide distribution maps of these species or their habitats.  In order to help protect these species, one needs to be able to identify, or visualize, the important areas where multiple Species might be found.  Knowing this would allow not only the commissions, but the conservation community as well, to protect these areas and keep habitat intact.

Chris Tracey, an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, took on the task of mapping out the priority habitats outlined in the wildlife action plan, with the goal of identifying areas of concentrated Species presence.  Chris also looked at regionally and globally rare habitats that could provide target areas for focusing conservation efforts.  The project also sought to identify landscapes that are most important to wildlife action plan species and to provide a basis for proactive conserva­tion planning on public and private land.  The concentration areas and important landscapes were termed Conservation Opportunity Areas (COA) — landscapes where conservation dollars might be most effective in protecting Species.  Funding for the project was provided by the Fish and Boat Commission through a State Wildlife Grant and by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources through a Wild Resource Conservation Program Grant.

Where to start?
A logical place to start the COA project was to look at what other states were doing, especially wildlife action plans from states that already included a mapping component, such as Wisconsin, Illinois and Oregon. These states identified several criteria for what determines a COA, including landscapes that contain ecological features; natural communities or Species habitat which a state has unique responsibility for protecting; an organization that is willing to implement conservation actions; available funding; a specific, plausible conservation objective can be articulated; or where broad fish and wildlife conservation goals can best be met (focusing conservation on landscapes rather than individual scattered projects).  Based on other state plans, Pennsylvania developed its own definition of what a COA would be: places in Pennsylvania that represent clusters of Species, as well as most critically imperiled plants and their associated habitats where collaborative conservation action should be targeted.  The COAs are intended to complement, not replace, other conservation planning efforts, by providing specific recommendations focused on Species and their habitats.

The project identified 36 Conservation Opportunities Areas across the Commonwealth.  Some COAs are very large and provide corridors across Pennsylvania, such as the Allegheny Front and Kittatinny Ridge COAs, as well as COAs associated with the major river drainages in Pennsylvania (Allegheny, Susquehanna and Delaware rivers).  Other COAs were much smaller and captured unique habitats, such Presque Isle and the Serpentine Region in southeastern Pennsylvania.

COA Profiles
What does a COA look like?  One example is the French Creek Conservation Area.  French Creek is a 1,250-square mile watershed sitting at the headwaters of the Upper Ohio River basin.  It is arguably the most ecologically significant waterway in Pennsylvania, containing more species of fish and freshwater mussels than any other comparably sized stream in the Commonwealth and possibly the northeastern United States.  Many of these species are found nowhere else in the world other than French Creek and the Allegheny River.  French Creek is often referred to as one of Pennsylvania's foremost aquatic treasures


Along its 117 miles, from western New York across northwestern Pennsylvania, the river is home to more than 28 freshwater mussel species, including 13 that are listed as endangered in Pennsylvania and the federally endangered northern riffleshell and clubshell.  French Creek is thought to be a conservation refuge for species that could be reintroduced in other parts of the Ohio River system.

The northern riffleshell is a federally endangered mussel species found
in French Creek. (Photo: PNHP)

The French Creek COA focuses on the creek itself and includes a buffer of 1,000 meters on the main stem and selected tributaries, covering a total area of 513,774 acres. Protected land within the COA boundaries includes State Game Lands 162, 167, 190, 213 and 277.  Additional protected lands include the Erie National Wildlife Refuge, several municipal parks and a number of parcels owned or eased by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy and the French Creek Valley Conservancy.

Twenty-nine Species have been documented in the French Creek COA, including two salamander species, eight bird species, nine fish species, one reptile species, nine freshwater mussel species, as well as three plant species considered critically imperiled in Pennsylvania.

Analyzing Threats and Stresses
Each COA was analyzed for known and potential environmental threats and stresses to the landscape.  French Creek lies within a watershed with extensive agriculture and private forest land.  Poor farming and forestry practices can lead to fertilizer and sediment run­off into French Creek and its tributaries, which in turn can cause extensive degradation of water quality.  Another potential threat identified for French Creek includes invasive species, especially the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha), which can colonize the shells of native mussels and smother them.  The zebra mussel has already been a severe pest in nearby Lake Erie for a number of years.

Development is always a potential stress to natural systems, including the French Creek COA.  As with much of Pennsylvania, this area could see new residential and commercial development as well as energy development (natural gas drilling and pipelines, electrical transmission lines).

Changes in climate may also be a long-term stress to all COAs in Pennsylvania.  Generally speaking, Pennsylvania is expected to experience an increase in precipitation events as a result of climate change.  Increased heavy rain events may affect aquatic systems such as French Creek by altering water and habitat quality and changing flooding regimes.  French Creek's size, geographic span and high degree of connectivity, ultimately to the Allegheny River, provides a resilience that smaller systems or COAs do not have.  Maintaining high water quality and habitat value through the watershed will maximize the opportunities for species to move and shift in response to climate change impacts.

Six out of 29 Species identified as targets for this COA have been analyzed using the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, a program that evaluates the potential impact of climate change on species from the wildlife action plan.  Of the six target species, one was considered stable, one highly vulnerable and four extremely vulnerable.  In general, aquatic species that require clean cold water are often extremely vulnerable to climate impacts because they have limited ability to move or colonize new streams and watersheds.  Their persistence relies on habitats like French Creek and its surrounding landscape remaining intact and healthy.

Here are the six Species of Greatest Conservation Need and their status in the Climate Change Vulnerability Index:

  • Cerulean warbler – presumed stable
  • Jefferson salamander – highly vulnerable
  • Clubshell — extremely vulnerable
  • Eastern hellbender – extremely vulnerable
  • Northern riffleshell – extremely vulnerable
  • Rayed bean — extremely vulnerable

The invasive zebra mussel is a threat to our native mussel species.
(Photo: Randy Westbrooks, www.invasive.org)

The Jefferson salamander is a species that may be highly vulnerable to changes in climate.
(Photo: Charlie Eichelberger, PNHP)

Priority Conservation Actions

Based on the recommendations contained within the wildlife action plan and knowledge of specific issues facing the French Creek COA, conservation actions and priorities can be identified. These priority actions include: -

  • Develop a comprehensive habitat map detailing areas of primary conservation concern.
    • Identify and map riverine habitat important to aquatic species and water birds, herons and bald eagles
    • Identify and map wetland and riparian habitats critical to marsh and thicket Species
    • Identify and map patches of substantial
    • interior forest and assess their importance as
    • habitat for interior forest dependent species
  • Develop multi-species management guidance for stream and wetland dependent species
  • Improve river connectivity through removal of impediments to movement, such as dams
  • Protect priority headwater stream systems through land acquisition, conservation easements and purchase of mineral rights
  • Reduce sedimentation from agriculture, mining, forestry and transportation infrastructure (dirt roads, railways, bridges)
  • Increase amount of private industry and public owned forestland under sustainable management
  • Develop and implement long-term monitoring of priority species and populations and assess their importance as habitat for interior forest dependent species

The Tippecanoe darter is one of Pennsylvania's smallest fish and can only be found in a few streams in the northwestern corner of the state and Allegheny County. (Photo: Rob Criswell)

Putting COAs into Action

The development of COAs provides state agencies and conservation organizations with a starting point for addressing Species of Greatest Conservation Need as identified in the State Wildlife Action Plan.  As part of the COA process, organizations were identified that were already working in the COA or would likely be interested in assisting.  In the case of French Creek, three conservancies have already taken leading roles in conserving and protecting French Creek and its watershed: the French Creek Valley Conservancy, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy.  COAs will not address the needs of every species in the wildlife action plan, but they provide a guide to where conservation dollars are likely to give the greatest return on conservation investment.

Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program

The Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program (PNHP) is a member of NatureServe, an international network of natural heritage programs that gather and provide information on the location and status of important ecological resources (plants, vertebrates, invertebrates, natural communities and geologic features).  Its purpose is to provide current, reliable, objective information to help inform environmental decisions. PNHP information can be used to guide conservation work and land-use planning, ensuring the maximum conservation benefit with the minimum cost. To learn more about what we do, and about species of special concern, visit us on the web at www.naturalheritage.state.pa.us.



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Pennsylvania Wild Resource Program