Conservation Opportunity Areas:
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?
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 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
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:
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: -
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.