Category Archives: Blog entries

Haunted haven for bats

This story was originally published on our new Medium blog platform

When the world turns orange and red and the cold winds begin to howl, an ominous chill ushers in the Halloween season.

What is it about October that gets us just a little more spooked?

Is it the devilish expression that glows from the jack-o’-lanterns at dusk? Or the way that a bump in the night sounds more like a poltergeist than a raccoon getting into the trash?

As the daylight hours become shorter, and the cloak of night grows, I can’t help but wonder:

What’s really lurking in the dark?

My superstitious nature makes me think that it could be ghosts. The naturalist in me thinks it’s probably bats.

At historic Fort Delaware, it’s both.

Constructed in 1859, Fort Delaware has been called one of the most haunted places in the world.

Located outside of Wilmington, in the middle of the Delaware River, it once housed as many as 12,595 Confederate prisoners of war, of whom about 2,500 spent their final days imprisoned here.

Popular with paranormal enthusiasts, strange noises and mysterious apparitions color this historic site. Visitors have claimed to hear the soldiers’ voices and footsteps sneaking through the halls.

Here, bats and ghosts live side by side, hiding in the damp, dark nooks and crannies that this Civil War era former prison camp offers them as shelter.

Bats wedge in between bricks in Fort Delaware’s walls. Credit: DE Division of Fish & Wildlife

However, something else spooky but far more sinister is also lurking at Fort Delaware — white-nose syndrome.

White-nose syndrome is a disease that affects hibernating bats and is caused by a fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd for short. Sometimes Pdlooks like a white fuzz on bats’ faces, which is how the disease got its name. The fungus grows in cold, dark and damp places and attacks bats while they’re hibernating. As it grows, Pd causes changes in bats that makes them become more active than usual and burn up fat they need to survive the winter.

White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats throughout the northeast and beyond since 2007, making any place that continues to house bats, including Fort Delaware, critical to the fight against WNS.

Biologists from Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Division of Fish & Wildlife are hard at work to prevent the spread of WNS and study the bats that hibernate at Fort Delaware every winter.

Supported by federal grant funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, biologists are persevering to protect bats through research and education.

Combining natural and American history, the Division of Fish & Wildlife has collaborated with DNREC’s Division of Parks & Recreation to provide Fort Delaware State Park visitors with a unique experience that covers both bat conservation and the history of the fort.

“Visitors for the ghost tours are well aware of the bats lurking in dark places and I imagine it adds to their spooky experience,” said Holly Niederriter, Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife biologist.

This team has also worked to design and implement protocols to prevent the spread of WNS from Fort Delaware.

Their research has informed the timing of seasonal ghost tours that conclude in late October to prevent disturbance to hibernating bats.

“The bat program at the fort has reached thousands of people to teach them about the impacts of WNS, the importance of bats and what they can do to help bats,” said Niederriter. “Far beyond the boundaries of the Fort — throughout the state — the federal grants have funded critical surveys, monitoring and protection efforts.”

A Haunting in Connecticut

Further north, another former prison with a storied past has become a haven for bats.

Prisoners of the oldest surviving state prison in the nation spent their nights underground in the tunnels of the first operating copper mine in the North American colonies.

When it was still an operating prison, more than 800 prisoners were incarcerated over a period of 54 years, starting in 1773 and ending in 1827, when the state decided it was costly and inhumane.

Water dripped constantly from the surrounding rock and prisoners wrote that “armies of fleas, lice, and bedbugs covered every inch of the floor,” which itself was covered in “five inches of slippery, stinking filth.”

Nowadays, bats are the only inhabitants of Old New-Gate Prison (potential ghostly roommates aside).

Little brown, tri-colored and northern long-eared bats have all used the copper mine to hibernate during the winter months.

In recent years, less than a dozen bats over-winter in the prison. Connecticut was hit hard by WNS and these low numbers are consistent throughout the state.

“The counts at all of our sites are small since WNS arrived,” said Jenny Dickson, wildlife biologist with Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “For us, any number of bats still found in hibernacula is good news.”

Recently, grant funding from the Service was used to improve a gate in place at the mine to protect the bats from being disturbed while they are hibernating. The existing gate at the site was updated to allow bats to enter the mine more easily, and more cool air to flow in as well.

Every time a bat is woken up during hibernation it has the potential to burn as much as ten days worth of stored body fat. When that happens multiple times over the winter, the chances of surviving until spring are greatly reduced.

“Not only does the new design allow bats to enter and exit the mine more easily, it also helps protect an important historic site,” Dickson said.

Now open as a museum and preserved as a national landmark, tours and events are hosted for curious visitors. CT DEEP and the Department of Economic and Community Development, are strong advocates for their resident bats and work together to bring programs about bat conservation to the public.

“This partnership has allowed many people, who may not know much about bats or their current battle with white-nose syndrome, to learn how important they are to our everyday life and how they can help our conservation efforts,” Dickson added.

These projects were supported by federal grant funding from the White-nose Syndrome Grant program, State Wildlife Grant program, and the Wildlife Restoration Grant Program provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program. These programs help to support important conservation initiatives throughout the Northeast region.

Saving an ancient fish in modern times

This story was originally published on our new Medium blog platform

 

Surrounded by vast northern Maine wilderness, Big Reed Pond sits peacefully on a mountaintop. A single cabin hides between the conifers that line its banks. The nearest town is 48 miles away.

Cabin owners Igor and Karen Sikorsky operate Bradford Camps, a guiding company that flies anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts to prime, remote fishing spots via their Cessna 172 floatplane.

Around the time that the Sikorskys took over the camp, something started to go very wrong at Big Reed.

“When we took over in ’96, almost everyone went to Big Reed Pond to go fishing — it was so good,” Igor Sikorsky said. “By 1998, two years later, nobody went there because whenever you went there you never caught a fish.”

It was more than just not catching fish. The fish were disappearing.

The Sikorsky’s float plane gliding over Big Reed Pond in the fall. Credit: Maine DIFW

One in particular: the Arctic charr, a fish found in just one state in the Lower 48 — Maine.

Though not quite dinosaurs, charr, also known as blueback trout, were the first fish species to colonize Maine waters when the glaciers receded over present-day North America. They now exist in only 14 lakes and ponds in the state.

Big Reed Pond — one of those lakes — was under threat. Charr had survived thousands of years just to face rainbow smelt, a fish native to some waters in Maine, but illegally introduced into Big Reed Pond. Smelt caused charr numbers to plummet, competing with them for food and feeding on newly hatched charr.

“It was terrible. A large part of the value of this business that we bought was the fact that Reed Pond was a successful fishery,” Sikorsky said. “That was many of our guests’ favorite pond to fish in the whole world.”

Though the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife had been managing charr populations since the 1960s, the threat of rainbow smelt kicked their efforts into high gear, beginning a 10-year process to reclaim Big Reed Pond.

Operation: Reclamation

Frank Frost, fisheries biologist with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, led the charge against smelt in Big Reed Pond.

He had overseen charr management and conservation since 2000 and was witnessed to the sudden decline of Arctic charr in Big Reed Pond.

At this point, it wasn’t enough to just try to increase charr numbers. Without removing smelt all together, the charr population would inevitably fall again.

Frost and his team decided on a total reset of Big Reed Pond: a reclamation.

Aquatic reclamation involves removing unwanted fish species from a water body, like the illegally introduced smelt, and then restocking it with desired fish species, like native Arctic charr and brook trout. At Big Reed the removal process involved a plant-based product called Rotenone, which impacts the way that fish use oxygen in the water.

Before biologists eradicated the smelt and restored the pond fishery, they had to make sure there would be enough charr to support a healthy population. The state partnered with a local hatchery to rear charr for later reintroduction.

But even this first step posed challenges. They needed to catch as many of the few remaining charr as possible to begin the rearing process.

It took four years. And in all that time, they were able to catch only 14.

Maine state biologists toil to catch charr for captive rearing. Credit: Maine DIFW

The second challenge was transportation.

The long hike up to the pond cuts through the largest old growth forest in New England and the fish wouldn’t survive the long trek out.

“Time was of the essence,” Sikorsky said.

So they forewent the trail and took to the sky.

Aided by helicopters from the Maine Army National Guard and the Sikorsky’s floatplane, those lone 14, the sole future of charr in Big Reed, were flown to the hatchery where they would reside while biologists cleared the pond of the unwelcome visitors.

“We actually didn’t lose a single fish in the flying process,” Sikorsky said.

Then, in October 2010, it was finally time to reclaim Big Reed. Thousands of pounds of gear, Rotenone, state staff and volunteers were flown in.

It took several days. State biologists needed to eradicate rainbow smelt from every inch of Big Reed Pond.

And they did. Since the reclamation, smelt have not been found at Big Reed Pond.

The following summer, hundreds of hatchery-raised charr, with direct bloodlines from Big Reed, were reintroduced to the pond. This continued for three consecutive years in hopes of carrying on the legacy of this ancient fish by producing a wild charr spawn.

It Takes a Village

The large-scale operation came with a lot of uncertainty — as well as a lot of partners to ensure its success.

Frost noted the important roles of Bradford Camps, the University of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, as well as the Maine Army Aviation Support Facility in Bangor and the Presque Isle High School Aquaculture Facility. Some funding for hatchery efforts came from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund.

“With these really complex, long term projects, you just can’t stand alone,“ Frost said.

Critical funding for this project came through the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Fund administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These funds support state fish and wildlife agency partners to restore and manage sport fish for the benefit of the public, including rare sport fish species like the Arctic charr.

“The project wouldn’t have happened without Sport Fish funds,” said Peter Bourque, former Director of Fisheries for Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

These funds are generated in part through a tax on fishing equipment and boating fuels, and help to support sportfish management and restoration throughout the country.

“It was money well spent by the anglers who bought their fishing rods,” Sikorsky said.

In recognition of the restoration, the American Fisheries Society presented the department and Maine DIFW fisheries biologist Frank Frost with their annual Sport Fish Restoration Outstanding Project award in 2017.

Igor Sikorsky shows off hatchery raised charr before depositing them into Big Reed Pond. Credit: Maine DIFW

“When you have the benefit of collaboration and planning, you have more control over the outcome,” said Francis Brautigam, the current DIFW Director of Fisheries. “Proactive conservation allows for out-of-the-box thinking, and the ability to pursue strategic and collaborative solutions to complex issues.”

The outcome was a win for wildlife and people. A species once destined for the federal endangered species list was determined to be stable — even increasing.

Faith, Reward, and Relief

Last summer, success materialized at Big Reed.

Frost and his son, Noah, were out on the water on a warm June day, pulling in nets, looking for evidence that charr had successfully reproduced in Big Reed. Then they spotted something.

“I knew it was a wild fish as soon as it came out of the water,” Frost said.

Small, about 10 inches, pale silver with a tell-tale blue back, and — most importantly — hatched naturally in Big Reed, this charr was a symbol of triumph.

After so much time away from home while working at Big Reed, Frost recounted how meaningful it was to have his son with him that day. Noah recently started the same undergraduate program Frost completed 30 years prior, carrying on the family legacy: fisheries biology, at the University of Maine.

“I didn’t have to explain how important this fish was; he knew,” Frost said.

 

The Arctic charr is one of more than 185 fish, wildlife and plants in the eastern U.S. that have recovered, been downlisted, or did not need listing under the Endangered Species Act, thanks to coordination with public and private partners. The effort to conserve at-risk wildlife and recover listed species is led by the Service and state wildlife agencies in partnership with other organizations. Our use of conservation incentives and flexibilities to protect wildlife, reduce regulations and keep working lands working has drawn bipartisan support from Congress.

Doggie detectives sniff for science

This story was originally published on our new Medium blog platform

They’re not chasing birds or deer. They’re chasing scent.

The aroma of animal scat, in fact.

They are Conservation Canines, a high-energy, ball-obsessed detector dog group being increasingly recruited to aid in wildlife conservation. Samples of wildlife scat provide experts with a multitude of information — without having to trap and take samples from wildlife.

These special dogs, many rescued from shelters, undergo intensive training to become doggie detectives with the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. The dogs are trained and motivated to accurately locate the appropriate scent. “Our dogs are quick to learn the game,” said wildlife biologist Suzie Marlow, who joined Conservation Canines in 2012. Marlow, who began as an orienteer and scat volunteer, said their dogs think of finding wildlife scat as a game.

“Simply put: find the target odor equals play ball,” she said.

Recently, this “target odor” was mink scat. Experts wanted to determine how the polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination in New York’s Hudson River affected populations of wildlife, particularly mink, along the river. They brought in the Conservation Canines to sniff out the answer.

Mink live along rivers, diving for fish and eating frogs, birds, mice and other wildlife. As mink eat wildlife carrying PCBs, the persistent, toxic chemical builds up in their bodies. Laboratory studies have documented that mink are sensitive to PCB exposure and can experience reproductive impairment and mortality. The dogs of Conservation Canines were needed to see if those laboratory effects might be reflected in the mink populations of the Hudson River.

Photo by Carlos Guindon/USFWS Contractor

Conservation Canines sniffed out thousands of mink scat samples over a two year period. After reviewing the data, experts found that the mink population was drastically (approximately 40%) lower in the Hudson River when compared to the Mohawk River, a Hudson tributary without high levels of PCB contamination. The dangers to mink are documented in a new peer-reviewed, multi-year study commissioned by the Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees.

General Electric discharged PCBs into the Hudson River from two plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, NY. The Trustees are studying injuries caused by these PCBs. To date, the Trustees have documented injuries to groundwatersurface waterrecreational fishing and navigation and are evaluating injury to other resources and habitats.

Mink scat is just one of the scents these canines can detect. Their dogs can locate species that were thought to be extinct, an invasive seed even before the plant breaks through the surface, and pollutants in old, urban structures. “Single surveys provide information on species’ interactions and entire ecosystems over vast spaces and if repeated, can assess interactions over time,” Marlow said.

 

In 2016, Conservation Canines set out to prove that their dogs could detect one of the lowest of odor profiles. Marlow and her detector dog Ranger traveled to Connecticut to assist Tracy Rittenhouse, a University of Connecticut professor of natural resources and the environment. Rittenhouse was on the lookout for Eastern cottontail and New England cottontail nests.

“I was committed to trying to get the Conservation Canines organization out here to the East coast,” Rittenhouse said. “Finding the cottontail nest is an extremely difficult thing to do, so I wanted to go to who I viewed as the best organization at training dogs.”

New England cottontail. Photo by Tom Barnes/USFWS

The New England cottontail is the only rabbit native to New England and east of the Hudson River in New York. Eastern cottontails were introduced to the region decades ago, replacing New England cottontails in many areas. Cottontails can be difficult to follow because of their protective camouflage and thick habitat.

Ranger, who was systematically introduced to the scent of multiple nests that week, put his head down low, stuck his nose out, and eagerly went to work, Marlow said.

Rittenhouse, who accompanied Marlow and Ranger on their rabbit expedition, said that the cottontails poked their fuzzy, little heads out of the nest and started hopping away a little bit, “but Ranger pointed to each one individually with his nose and then looked to the trainer and got his ball reward.”

The Conservation Canines provided key data to the ongoing initiative to restore the New England cottontail. As a result of advanced research and conservation, the cottontail was removed as a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection in 2015, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stressed the need for continuing efforts.

“I think it’s impressive the efforts that have gone into the New England cottontail,” Rittenhouse said. “A lot of groups can train their dogs to find scat or things that are smelly, but Conservation Canines has many successes at training dogs on things that have very little odor, and it’s really impressive.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “has been super successful at funding habitat management and creating enough habitat for species so that they are not on the Endangered Species list,” she added.

To learn about what other projects canines are sniffing out, check out their K9 Odor Detection page. You can learn more about the mink study by checking out the Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees fact sheet and press release, and the peer-reviewed Scientific Reports publication, titled ‘Large-scale variation in density of an aquatic ecosystem indicator species’.