Tag Archives: blackwater national wildlife refuge

Get a look inside the mind of a new hunter


Students from the University of Delaware pose for a group photo during their waterfowl hunting education course at Blackwater NWR, Credit: Chris Williams

Recently, a group of University of Delaware students visited Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland to learn about waterfowl hunting and wildlife conservation. Although they’re each pursuing studies in natural resources, all of them were first-time hunters.

The program, offered through a new partnership among Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, offered hunter education, shotgun safety training, and background on managing waterfowl populations.

Aside from the practical training and experience in the field, the program prompted the students to explore their feelings about hunting in general. Here are some of their individual thoughts about the experience.

How I dealt with feelings of  guilt:

“My fears spawned from the action of the hunt itself; if I do succeed, how will taking that life affect me, either on site or after I come home? Can I personally consider taking a life, “success”? Will I let my leaders down if I cannot bring myself to squeeze the trigger after all the effort in training me?”

– Dawn Davin


Credit: Chris Williams

How I made it through my first hunting trip:

“In fact, I was calm up until it was time to shoot. Everything happened so quickly. I am not used to shooting a gun, I am used to shooting clay birds, and I have no idea how a bird even lands in the water. I shortly found out, very quickly. I am up first. I see birds coming in as Jerry tells me to get ready. I respond as if I have never shot a gun before. I forget how to even hold the stock into my shoulder. As I am struggling to think straight, the birds see us and fly away.”

– Morgan Cochran


Students pose with a collection of duck decoys, Credit: Chris Williams

How my opinion on hunting has changed:

“I find that my opinion of hunting has changed considerably through the course. I always knew intellectually that hunting was an integral part of managing many species across the globe, but really honing in on the specifics and taking a part in that management connected me to the topic more. I learned so much about how setting goals for certain waterfowl species can aim to stabilize their population, and I got to participate in making those goals a reality.”

–Josh Zalewski


Two students prepare for their hunt, Credit: Chris Williams

My final reflections on the day:

“The one time I began to feel guilty and question exactly why I went hunting was when I talked to my boss about it. She knows there are population control benefits to hunting, but wasn’t sure why I personally wanted to be a part of it. Like many of my friends and family members, she was surprised to hear that I, animal lover extraordinaire, truly enjoyed killing an animal. It was difficult to explain why I wanted to and enjoyed the hunt when put that way, but I was able to “change her mind a bit” after I told her about the economic benefits, the reasoning behind certain policies, impact of invasive species, and so on. I will certainly have to do some more self-examination to determine my true stance, but that is a challenge I welcome.”

– Samantha McGonigle




Beyond the storm: science for managing our changing coast

There is a silver lining to every storm cloud, and to many coastal sites in the North Atlantic region, too.

Consider Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, established as a sanctuary for migratory birds because of the vast expanse of contiguous saltmarsh habitat encompassed within. A study conducted by Salisbury University revealed that between 1938 and 2006, the Refuge lost over 5,000 acres of that marsh to land subsidence, erosion, and sea-level rise. That’s equivalent to more than a third of Manhattan.

“It hasn’t gotten any better since then,” notes Matt Whitbeck, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist at Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Complex, which includes Blackwater. For the communities of people and wildlife that rely on those tidal wetlands for food, shelter, and quality of life, the forecast probably looks pretty gloomy.

Supervisory Wildlife Biologist at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex Matt Whitbeck explains that sustaining marsh habitat into the future means planning for change. Photo: Steve Droter

But hark, is that a bright spot on the horizon? “That study also shows that as sea levels rose, nearly 3,000 acres of upland at Blackwater converted to new tidal marsh,” explains Whitbeck.

That’s because Blackwater has both the physical space and functional processes, like inputs of sediment and freshwater, needed for marsh habitat to migrate inland. And it’s not the only bright spot. In a new study supported by Hurricane Sandy Resilience Funding, scientists from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) identified thousands of other coastal sites that have the potential to migrate, and in doing so, to offset more than 50 percent of the total predicted tidal habitat loss in the region.

TNC calls these places “coastal strongholds.” I call them silver linings.

The final product is called Identifying Resilient Coastal Sites for Conservation, and offers a resource for managers working at any scale to make strategic decisions toward helping coastal systems and communities adapt to changing conditions. The report and data are available to download from TNC’s Conservation Gateway, and will soon be rolled into the Nature’s Network conservation design to refine existing information on opportunities to maintain regional connections and connect tidal marshes to adjacent uplands.

A range of species, including saltmarsh sparrow and blue crab, depend on healthy saltmarsh habitat. People do too. Photos: FWS

“Because of the rate of change we are seeing in the Chesapeake Bay — where sea level rise is twice the global average — we need to think not only about where habitats are now, but where they are going in the future,” explains Whitbeck.

To his credit, he has been thinking about that for years. In 2011, Whitbeck partnered with The Conservation Fund, Audubon Maryland – DC, and the Chesapeake Conservancy to develop a strategy for salt marsh persistence at Blackwater.

But he says TNC’s tool represents a “huge step” forward. “It reinforces what we found in our study, but it also expands upon it, and can help us work across borders with new partners.”

A collaborative approach is critical for Refuges to meet their mandates for protecting fish and wildlife, and for ensuring that neighboring communities continue to benefit from functioning natural systems. Blackwater provides habitat for at-risk species like saltmarsh sparrow and Delmarva fox squirrel, and a nursery for species like blue crab that support the Chesapeake Bay’s economically and culturally important fishing industry.

The Refuge also provides a buffer against destructive storm surges that threaten infrastructure and public safety. TNC’s study is a call to action for protecting the marsh habitat we depend upon, but it also offers strategic guidance for how to do so effectively and efficiently.

“Although the study confirms that the Chesapeake Bay is seeing a great deal of marsh loss, it also shows that this system can be resilient moving forward if we plan right,” says Whitbeck.

And nowadays, planning “right” requires planning for change.

“When I was in school, pre-colonial conditions were the gold standard for land management. What was it like a few hundred years ago? That’s what we want to bring it back to,” remembers Whitbeck. “The lesson at Blackwater is that we have to let that go and think dynamically about maintaining a suite of habitats and ecosystem services across an entire landscape, and this tool can help us do that.”

The new gold standard might be to look for the silver lining.

When coming up with habitat management solutions, it is vital to think of a holistic approach. Credit: Steve Droter

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons

Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons are on the front lines of dealing with climate change. Where they work along the coastline of the Chesapeake Bay, scientists say sea levels are rising at rates three to four times faster than the global average. The cause is a combination of rising waters due to global climate change and sinking land, also known as subsidence.

As the supervisory wildlife biologist at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Whitbeck oversees the diverse habitats of Blackwater, Glenn L. Martin, Eastern Neck and Susquehanna National Wildlife Refuges.

While many may see the impacts of climate change as a looming event in the future, Whitbeck disagrees, saying, “It’s very real here.” Sea-level rise has continually shaped the landscape, turning marshes into lakes and forests into marsh grass. At the predicted rate of sea-level rise, nearly all of Blackwater’s marshes could be permanently inundated by 2100.

That could be disastrous for the refuge’s habitats, plant and animal species. Many of the species found here are uniquely adapted to survive in the refuge’s forests, marshes and shallow water habitats. “All the major taxonomic groups have a species or two that has found a way to exist in a saline environment,” says Whitbeck, such as the salt marsh skipper and the Diamondback terrapin.

“In the spirit of maintaining biological diversity, it is important to conserve salt marshes. So strictly from a conservation biology standpoint, a fish and wildlife conservation standpoint – maintaining all the parts is really the first order of business. Ensuring all these species have all the habitat they need to exist is critical,” says Whitbeck.

Yet the community benefits are equally important, especially as the threats of climate change become more evident. Salt marshes provide huge benefits as nurseries for fish, sponges for soaking up flood waters and reducing coastal erosion, and buffers from storm surge and strong waves.

Miles Simmons, a biological technician at the refuge, grew up on the Eastern Shore and has experienced the effects that storms can have on the environment, but also what kinds of effects a healthy marsh can have.

“Marshes – wetlands in particular – are critical in mitigating the effects of large storms,” he says.

When Hurricane Sandy struck the Atlantic coast in 2012, there was a lot of infrastructure that was damaged, but it could’ve been worse – specifically for the communities around Smith Island, located just south of Blackwater.

Having the healthy intact marsh systems of the Glenn L. Martin NWR along the northern part of Smith Island helped to stop shoreline erosion that was taking place on the western and northwestern shorelines. This “really helps maintain that buffer and give the community a small measure of protection,” says Whitbeck.

In June 2016, Whitbeck and team completed construction on a 21,000-foot living shoreline at Martin NWR that will dynamically benefit the surrounding local area and the environment into the future.

Following Hurricane Sandy, efforts to repair and build resiliency around these coastal communities were aided with the help of federal funding from the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013. Refuges and communities all throughout Maryland received over $13,096,841 to put towards recovery and resiliency.

At Blackwater, as the shoreline elevation begins to shift, biological technicians like Simmons are conducting vegetation surveys to monitor the changing landscape. This is some of the first opportunities that Blackwater has had to examine the ecological changes that result from elevated water levels.

By continuing to work on the Chesapeake Bay coastline, Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons are not only ensuring that Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is #StrongAfterSandy, but continue to make it resilient in the face of climate change.

This is the first in a five part series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to  defend their coastal ecosystems against storms as we approach the four year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. You can view the continuation of this series and other news regarding our restoration and recovery projects on our website.