Category Archives: Endangered Species

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.

Many hands making an impact

A large project is underway to reintroduce a small species of tiger beetle to an area they have historically referred to as ‘home’.  When the puritan tiger beetles were listed as threatened in 1990, conservation efforts began to help protect current habitats locations and keep the beetle from becoming further extirpated.

Puritan tiger beetle
Photo Credit: Chris Wirth

The Puritan Tiger Beetle Recovery Project was initiated to help restore the beetle to its current and historic habitats along the Connecticut River.  The Project consists of students and interns from several northeast colleges, the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, and volunteers throughout Western Massachusetts.  The team utilizes the Richard Cronin Aquatic Resource Center in Sunderland, MA as the official site to conduct the necessary lab work for the project where they work together everyday to ensure the project runs smoothly.

Let’s Meet Some of these dedicated people…


Rodger Gwiazdowski, Principle Investigator and Team Leader

Caucasian young male with bug netRodger imagined a project like this when he got curious about tiger beetles as an undergraduate. When describing the projects focus, he says “To learn how we establish stable puritan tiger beetle populations throughout the Connecticut River, our project has two broad questions: 1) What ecological conditions make ‘good habitats’ good?, and 2) How can captive reared larvae be used to establish new populations?” In the wild, it takes the puritan tiger beetle about two years to reach their adult stage. The lab-reared larvae grow in a fraction of this time. This process ensures they’re reintroduced without the substantial loss that would naturally occur in the wild.

Chris Davis, Research and Field Technician

Since 1997, Chris has been conducting research on puritan tiger beetles by conducting larval surveys, habitat management, and translocation of larvae to augment the population in Massachusetts. Currently, Chris is conducting adult counts by visual survey and assessing a new location for reintroduction. “It’s the old adage, ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’,” Chris says. “Puritan tiger beetle presence here in the Pioneer Valley gives us an opportunity to contribute, educate, and learn about many issues related to endangered species, their management, and how we can work with others to put shared values into action.”

Robin Saudade, Population Surveyor

Robin is currently studying the puritan tiger beetle populations in Cromwell, CT and Northampton, MA in order to create a life table for them. Robin surveys the total number and the larval stages of each burrow in order to learn the survival rate of each instar (stages). By incorporating egg hatching percentages from Rodger’s lab data and adult populations from Chris Davis’ field surveys, Robin will be able to calculate an overall survival rate from egg to adult of puritan tiger beetle.

Kate Froburg, Assistant Laboratory Manager and American Conservation Experience Intern

Kate is one of two assistant laboratory managers. Her main focus is maintaining the beetles in the lab, and assisting with student projects. Kate is also working on a project of her own aside from the Puritan Tiger Beetle Recover Project. Kate’s project aims to understand how sediment (sand/silt/clay) type influences oviposition (egg laying) in the laboratory environment, and whether female puritan tiger beetles prefer a specific sediment type.

Neil Kapitulik, Community Volunteer and Population and Site Surveyor for the puritan tiger beetles

Neil assists with the collection of adult puritan tiger beetle for lab rearing, and spends most of his time in the field observing the beetles in their natural habitat. Neil is currently in the process of identifying a potential habitat in Vermont.

“Surveys and monitoring adults for many years now has given us a good understanding of population trends and will enable us to connect external environmental factors such as high water and cold weather,” Neil explains. “Through surveys we will know if we reach the recovery goals for puritan tiger beetles.”

Caleb Robitaille, Graduate Student from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Caleb is striving to succeed in the field as a wildlife biologist. He is currently working on a research paper where he explores what puritan tiger beetles are eating. “It is often assumed that they are generalists”, Caleb explains, “but I am looking to see if there is any particular prey that makes up a larger portion of their diet”. Caleb also explains that this information will be useful in reintroducing the Puritan Tiger Beetle to their habitat since the presence of potential prey at a new site could be an indicator of survival success.

Mary Apessos, Student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Establishes Dynamic Feeders for Insect Colonies

While adults and larvae are in the lab, Mary maintains colonies of various feeder insects to feed the captive puritan tiger beetle. “The goal is to keep their diet relatively diverse (2-3 different species of feeder insects), and to keep them well fed”, Mary explains. Growing larvae rely on large amounts of food in order to effectively develop into their next instar (stages), and they’re surprisingly aggressive eaters.

Ellie Dufraine, Student and American Conservation Experience Intern

Her project aims to map the density of first, second and third instar puritan tiger beetle larvae of a successful population on the Connecticut River. By breaking the habitat up into measured square meter sections, the larval burrows can be identified by instar “age” based on size and as a particular species based on the angle of the burrow in the earth. This information can be used to visually determine where larvae inhabit the beach from vegetation to water-line, and the characteristics of preferred habitat for puritan tiger beetle larvae can then be concluded for future reintroduction efforts.

Laura Pickering, Intern and Manages the Clay Processing and the Sprayer System

The sprayer system was built to aid in finding the puritan tiger beetle eggs. Using a hose and an air tattoo gun, Laura uses a faucet in the lab to give the sprayer a continuous water stream. Laura also constructed the bin and platform for the strainer to strain out the sediment and find the eggs. This system saves hours every day, when looking for eggs, and is a much safer search than digging.

The clay processing is essential for the puritan tiger beetle to lay their eggs. In the lab, sand is put into deep petri dishes for the puritan tiger beetle to lay their eggs in. To help with this, clay which has been specially quarried from the Connecticut River by the puritan tiger beetle team, is mixed, dried, kneaded, sanitized, and kneaded again to be places around the petri dishes so that the puritan tiger beetle can climb up into the sand-filled petri dishes to lay their eggs. Without these special ramps, puritan tiger beetle are less likely to lay their eggs.

Sara Wisner, Assistant Laboratory Manager and American Conservation Experience Intern

Sara is our other assistant laboratory manager for the puritan tiger beetle Lab. Sara would like to bring live tiger beetles to a wider audience. For this, she is designing, and creating a unique portable terrarium that will act as a type of “ant farm” display. In this way the larvae will develop their vertical tunnels against a glass window, which can then be used to educate the public to the life cycle of the puritan tiger beetle. However, due to the puritan tiger beetle’s endangered status, Sara will be using the bronze tiger beetle (Cicindela repanda) because they are a common species, with a similar life cycle.

Hal Weeks, Volunteer Coordinator

Caucasian male in red hat looking leftHal joined the Puritan Tiger Beetle Recovery Project this year to coordinate the community of volunteers helping with the project. In addition, Hal offers scientific advice, and a career’s worth of research, and applied conservation experience to benefit the project results.

Kevin Hannon, Information Technology & wireless hardware

For his day job, Kevin is Director of Information Systems for the town of Belchertown, MA, where he helps keep the town digitally connected. In his spare time, Kevin volunteers to digitally connect the recovery team with the puritan tiger beetle Lab. In the lab, the puritan tiger beetle adults and larvae live in a carefully controlled environmental room. For this room, Kevin has built custom computers and written code for them to create an internet-capable computing system which controls, monitors, and records data on all aspects of the beetle’s environment. With Kevin’s system, the lab team is instantly alerted by text and email if the building looses power, internet, or the environmental conditions change.


Above are just a few of the people who are dedicating their time to conserve the puritan tiger beetle. Working in the field of conservation takes collaboration from everyone including many more folks working in Federal, State, NGO, Academic, and other vital volunteer roles for the team. Everyone involved in any conservation project has a different project or task that will not only aid the group as a whole, but also creates greater benefits for the group, by pooling their resources. The overall outcome is rewarding!

To volunteer with the puritan tiger beetle Team, visit:  http://ptblabvolunteers.blogspot.com/

The Puritan Tiger Beetle Recovery Project provides collaborative opportunities for those interested in working in the field of conservation. In particular, for students looking for a career in conservation, it provides a venue to conduct scientific experiments and studies of their own, while also interacting with professional biologists in the field. All the combined work and effort will not only aid in the reintroduction of the puritan tiger beetle, it’s something students can use toward a future career path.

Stay tuned for the next blog post that will talk about the reintroduction and the projects progress….

Weathering the storm: piping plovers flock to Long Island beaches

If you live in the Northeast, you won’t soon forget 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. But there is one storm story you may have yet to hear.

Along some areas of the Long Island coast, strong winds and waves washed over the beaches, spreading out sand to create the sandy, open spaces that the island’s winged residents rely on for nesting. For biologists, the restored beach habitat was a sign of hope for the threatened piping plover, whose numbers had been precariously low in New York.

An example of an overwash area on Fire Island Wilderness area Photo credit: USFWS

Researchers from Virginia Tech investigated the effects of Sandy on Long Island with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, Suffolk County, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In comparing 2010 and 2015 plover habitat areas and population abundances, they found a substantial increase in suitable habitat and a modest population increase. Notably, more than half of the new habitat on Fire Island and Westhampton Island was created during the storm, with the rest of the habitat engineered by the Corps.

Outreach Coordinator Bret Serbin with Long Island Field Office biologists at the Fire Island Wilderness area. From left: Steve Papa, Kerri Dikun, Bret Serbin, and Steve Sinkevich. Photo credit: USFWS

This increase in available habitat likely contributed to the 40.6 percent increase in plover population on Fire Island and Westhampton Island since the hurricane. This boost is a welcome addition for the bird, which faces numerous threats and is struggling to reach the goal of 575 pairs set out in the federal recovery plan. The researchers also found that the number of nesting pairs in the area has increased over the past 5 years, and they are optimistic that 2018 will be a year of continued productivity for the birds in the area.

Since piping plover chicks have to forage for themselves, plovers like to build nests on flat open beaches close to the shoreline where they have easy access to the tiny invertebrates that they feed on. By creating a number of new overwashes and breaches, Sandy helped expand the territory where plovers and their chicks can live, eat, and grow before their winter journey.

A rare sight: an abundance of piping plovers! Photo credit: USFWS

The reaction from the local plover population has been telling: among new and returning plovers at each beach in the study area, more than 80 percent chose the newly-created habitats to build their nests. And the new plovers exclusively nested in these new areas, completely avoiding the less favorable habitat that existed before Sandy’s contributions. The Hurricane Sandy beach redesign seems popular among the plovers.

This new habitat inches the birds one step closer towards recovery. But what the researchers call a “modest increase” in population is still a long way off from the desired plover population on Long Island. And since much of the newly created habitat is not in protected areas, only time will tell how long and how much the birds will really be able to enjoy these new spaces. To recover this species and others that depend on storm-generated habitat, we must look for solutions that balance shorebird habitat creation while protecting human infrastructure so that we can both weather the storm.