Tag Archives: New Jersey

A Bottom-up Boost for Coastal Habitat

Today we hear from Elizabeth Rogers, with the National Park Service at Fire Island National Seashore in New York State. Elizabeth spent some time this spring and summer working as a Public Affairs Specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, sharing the stories and science of resilient coastal communities and systems. On her days off, she can be found exploring the outdoors or dabbling in the kitchen.

The smell of the salt marsh can be overwhelming. Deep layers of mud dampened by the tides are rich in nutrients but low in oxygen. Bacteria within these layers feed on sulfate from seawater and produce the characteristic rotten-egg smell of the salt marsh. It is here, in the sometimes-smelly subsurface of the salt marsh, that Dr. Bart Wilson focuses his attention.

Salt marshes are considered “green” infrastructure. These natural habitats can help protect neighboring coastal communities by buffering against wind and waves and absorbing, then slowly releasing, floodwaters.

Salt marshes also provide habitat for fish, birds, and invertebrates and purify water by taking up nutrients that can be harmful in excess. According to Wilson, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast region coastal resiliency coordinator, marshes and the many benefits they provide are threatened by accelerated sea-level rise.

Salt marshes, like this one at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, offer habitat for fish and wildlife, while purifying water, absorbing floodwaters, and buffering wind and waves. Credit: USFWS

“Marsh elevation builds naturally from the bottom up,” says Wilson. “Organic material, like the roots of saltmarsh grasses, gives the surface a lift.”

To the plants and animals in tidal marshes, elevation is everything. Higher ground is home to plants and animals adapted to survive occasional flooding, and species that can withstand daily flooding by high tide live at lower elevations within the marsh. Smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) is salt-tolerant and typically grows where high marsh and low marsh meet, near the mean-high-water mark.

In addition to the bottom-up boost from below-ground plant roots, marsh elevation can slowly increase as sediments accumulate at the surface. Sediment may come from a nearby creek or river, or from the adjacent marine environment. Salt marshes tend to thrive in locations where these elevation gains are in a natural balance with elevation losses due to sea-level rise, erosion, and subsidence (the natural, gradual sinking of a land mass).

In many salt marshes, elevation loss has been outpacing elevation gain, threatening the survival of these systems. In response to this trend, nearly three decades ago, scientists began looking for a way to give salt marshes a lift.

According to Wilson, dredging sediment from nearby rivers or other waterways and spreading it onto high marsh free of vegetation builds “elevation capital.” The technique, called thin-layer deposition or TLD, helps salt marshes better withstand sea-level rise and subsidence. In some cases — where ditches or channels have been dug and have altered the way water naturally moves through the marsh, where upstream dams starve a salt marsh of sediment, or where infrastructure impedes the natural shoreward migration of marshes — restoration methods like TLD may be a way to maintain these ecosystems and preserve their many benefits.

The saltmarsh sparrow, whose numbers are declining, is one of many species that depend upon salt marsh habitat for survival. Credit: K. Papanastassiou

The Service first tested TLD in the Northeast in 2003 at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. This small demonstration project succeeded but left managers and scientists with more questions, including how to decrease costs while maximizing results.

In 2013, dredge material was used for the first time by the State of Delaware to restore a marsh at Pepper Creek. Not only did this effort help land managers better understand the amount of material needed to build maximum resiliency, it also demonstrated the practicality of reusing sediment from nearby dredge sites.

Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, federal funding for recovery and resiliency offered the opportunity to begin to answer those questions. Sandy funds are supporting five TLD projects at four national wildlife refuges in the Northeast.

For Wilson, these restoration projects go beyond just testing the technique. TLD projects, he says, are about, “conserving bird, fish, invertebrate and mammal habitat; enhancing flood attenuation, carbon sequestration, and nutrient uptake; and, protecting roads, houses, and waterways.”

By restoring elevation, TLD is helping restore natural marsh function, and the multiple benefits of this gorgeous green infrastructure lining our coasts.

A small-scale study with big impact at Blackwater Refuge

For thousands of years, tidal marshes have “kept their heads above water by building up roots below the surface,” says Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge Supervisory Biologist Matt Whitbeck. Only recently has the natural ability of these systems to grow vertically not been enough. As a result, says Whitbeck, “the marsh is essentially sinking.”

The Blackwater Marsh is unique in that the causes of its decline have been well-studied. Until the Chesapeake Bay Nutria Eradication Project began in 2002, nutria, root-loving rodents introduced to the United States in the nineteenth century, hindered natural marsh build-up. Since then, erosion from storm waves and subsidence have been the primary causes of marsh loss.

This historic perspective, and information collected by scientists over the years, helped Whitbeck strategically select 40 of Blackwater Refuge’s 28,000 acres of salt marsh for a Sandy-funded TLD project managed by the Conservation Fund.

To the casual observer, the project site looks as lush and green as any other on the marsh. But Whitbeck, who has spent more than nine years monitoring the marsh, says this project was a much-needed boost for marsh threatened by rising seas and more frequent powerful storms.

“Because we knew this area was losing elevation faster than elsewhere on the marsh, we could work to protect it.” And safeguarding this relatively small site helps protect a swath of salt marsh that supports one of the densest populations of bald eagles on the East Coast.

Partnering for the future at Forsythe Refuge

Restoring marsh elevation requires resources. Securing funds, permits, and a sediment source can be a major challenge for land managers. At Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, the Service is solving this problem by partnering with federal, state, and local agencies on three TLD projects.

Though the first project is still in the design phase, Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge stands to benefit from a New Jersey Department of Transportation channel-dredging project that will supply sediment for nearly 70 acres of degraded salt marsh. An environmental assessment of the project was completed in the fall of 2016 and will guide implementation, ensuring channel sediment is placed on the marsh when it is least likely to affect fish and wildlife.

This salt marsh at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey will be restored using thin-layer deposition. Credit: USFWS

The goal of the project is to “re-establish an optimum elevation for salt marsh plant growth,” says Amy Drohan, a Service biologist and lead on the project. As a bonus, Drohan says pulling the permits and plans together for this project will help speed the process in the future.

Recycling sediment to protect marshes at Rhode Island Refuges

The Service’s Hurricane Sandy resiliency coordinator, Dr. Jen White, has managed two TLD projects in Rhode Island since the storm hit in 2012. A focus of these projects has been to work with partners like The Nature Conservancy and Save the Bay to make use of available sediment to restore marsh habitat and function.

TLD, or “elevation enhancement,” as White prefers to call it, is considered a “beneficial reuse” of dredge or construction sediment. Material that would otherwise be disposed of at upland or offshore sites can instead be used to build up degraded salt marsh sites.

Elevation enhancement treatments were carried out at two Rhode Island refuges, where sediment placement helped restore saltmarsh sparrow habitat. “This is really new to Rhode Island,” said White, who is hopeful that understanding how these restoration projects perform will help the Service protect salt marshes for years to come.

Seeing how the marsh responds to restoration treatments will take time White says, but community interest was immediately apparent. Neighbors have been interested in the work and its benefits to coastal communities. Some have even offered to pitch in by planting vegetation at newly restored sites.

Though project sites can sometimes look like a sandy beach, many lie within marshes and require nimble footwork to avoid ditches and pools.

“Getting volunteers out to some of the elevation enhancement project sites can be an adventure,” says Wenley Ferguson, director of habitat restoration at Save the Bay. “But by the end of the day, they look forward to returning to see how their work helps protect this habitat.”

Nature has shaped salt marshes for thousands of years, building resilient natural systems that serve as an important stopover site for migratory shorebirds, critical nesting habitat for vulnerable species like the saltmarsh sparrow, and nursery grounds for valuable fish and shellfish. This productive habitat naturally provides additional benefits for people, like water purification, nutrient cycling, and flood protection.

Restoration techniques like TLD are giving salt marshes a fighting chance against sea-level rise and subsidence. And Hurricane Sandy Relief Aid gave the Service an opportunity to apply and study this technique.

With an improved understanding of TLD and help from partners, the Service can continue to work to ensure that salt marshes are healthy, sustaining species and making coastal communities more resilient to future storms.

Restoration of Piping Plovers Happening on Multiple Fronts

Originally shared by our partners at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), Karen Moore discusses the work of ESF’s professors and students to conserve piping plovers along the shores of New Jersey and Lake Ontario. 

High water on Lake Ontario, urbanization of the New Jersey shore and a growing predator population are among the challenges facing one of America’s iconic shorebirds and the conservationists determined to restore the bird’s population.

Piping plovers are found along the Atlantic Coast and in the Great Lakes and Midwest regions. Unique to North America, the birds nest on open, sandy beaches, making them vulnerable to predators and the dangers of being in close proximity to humans who use the beaches for recreation.

“There aren’t many shorebirds that nest out in the beaches south of the Arctic,” said Dr. Jonathan Cohen, assistant professor at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF). “They don’t control mosquitos or hold the cure for cancer in their bones. They are not hunted by humans. But they’re valuable as a unique part of the American beach. They’re unique to North America.”

Piping plovers were placed on the threatened and endangered species list in 1986 when only 700 pairs remained on the Atlantic Coast, said Cohen, who teaches in ESF’s Department of Environmental and Forest Biology. The goal for conservationists such as Cohen is to establish 2,000 pairs of piping plovers. Currently there are about 1,941 pairs, but Cohen cautions, “there’s still work to be done.”

Photo Credit: Northside Jim

Piping plover conservation is important because the birds nest on beaches where they interact with people, Cohen said. “They’re affected by people all the time.” Piping plovers build nests where people go for recreation, build houses and drive to go fishing. “Just about every conceivable form of coastal human activity that affects sandy beaches on the Atlantic Coasts interacts with the piping plovers and causes problems for them in terms of disturbing them when they’re trying to nest,” Cohen said. Compounding the problem is increasing predator populations that prey on the birds and their eggs.

For researchers, it’s easy to become attached to the species with young that look like they stepped out of a Pixar movie and life challenges that mirror human’s, Cohen said.

“You get to observe their behavior all the time when you’re checking their nest every day. Each bird seems to have a different personality and then the chicks hatch and they’re tiny, little, cute fuzzballs. You watch them grow and you see the things that are threats. They lose their young … and they have to start over again when they lose their nest,” Cohen said.

Photo Credit: Northside Jim


“They deal – like all of us do – with a lot of struggles every day, and they handle all the difficulties of living on the edge of the sea.”

Cohen and ESF graduate student Michelle Stantial are working to lessen one of those difficulties as they study the threat from predators.

Soon after piping plovers were put on the endangered list, exclosure cages – a welded-wire kind of fence about 10 feet in diameter with a soft-cover roof – were used to prevent predators from getting to the eggs. The cages allow the birds to walk in and out but keep out predators such as foxes, skunks and other birds. They were “very successful in getting more nests to hatch,” Cohen said.

Unfortunately, some predators learned the cages signaled a potential nest and would wait to attack the adults as they came out of the cage.

“Over the last 25 years people noticed this can become a real problem. Questions were asked whether it was worth it to use these exclosure cages,” said Cohen, who joined a group studying the pros and cons of using the cages.

The group developed a web-based tool that allows conservationists to enter the data on nest survival and loss of nests to abandonment (when an adult leaves the nest unattended, possibly because the adult died). Once researchers input their data, the Decision Support Tool provides information to help make a decision for a particular beach.

“Sometimes it’s hard to know. Some people panic when they lose nests and want to pull them all, but then they’re exposing the nests to predators,” said Cohen. The next phase is assisting other researchers and conservationists as they learn the system.

Cohen was the recent recipient of a $21,751 grant from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund to help restore the piping plover to Lake Ontario.

Piping plovers disappeared from Lake Ontario in 1984, and came back in 2015, staying on the east end in small numbers. “They didn’t succeed in nesting in 2016 but hopefully they’ll try again this year.”

The Lake Ontario return may be the result of efforts on the western Great Lakes. Since 1986, the numbers of pairs – mostly on Lake Michigan – have increased. “Now that they are having better reproductive success, the population is expanding,” said Cohen. “So I think in 2015 we benefited from the efforts out to the west. “

The plover conservation community in New York is looking at ways to protect and restore habitat to get its population to solidify its foothold and grow, he said. However, high water levels from heavy spring rains may hamper this year’s nesting. “It has prevented plovers from nesting there so far this year,” Cohen said. One bird was seen at Sandy Island Beach State Park in mid-May but it didn’t stay. As of the beginning of June, one other bird was seen foraging in the area. “We hope if the water comes down some more we will get some late nesting. But if that was going to happen, it would have to be in the next couple of weeks,” said Cohen.

Stantial, a graduate student working on her Ph.D., is studying piping plovers in New Jersey. While the Atlantic Coast piping plovers, in general, have been doing relatively well in the last 20 years, New Jersey is “a little different,” she said.

Since the species was placed on the endangered species list, observers have seen no increases in abundance in New Jersey. “We’re trying to figure out why and what we can do to help increase the number of nesting pairs and increase productivity in New Jersey specifically,” she said.

Photo credit: Northside Jim

“I think a lot of it has to do with the lack of habitat. If you think about the New Jersey coastline, there are a lot of barrier islands but a lot of it’s been built up by people,” she said.

Holgate and Barnegat Light are two study sites located on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Three pairs were noted at Barnegat Light in 2016 and 24 pairs at Holgate. “Holgate is sort of the crown jewel of central New Jersey,” Stantial said. “It’s got a natural system and there’s a lot of overwash (where beach sediments move across a dune area).”

Holgate, which is home to part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, is a two-and-a-half mile portion of the beach and marshland that is closed from March 1 to Sept. 1. This gives animals, including the piping plovers, a large window to carry out nesting and other activities undisturbed. “They have a whole season human-free,” she said.

Field observations will continue this summer, followed by data analysis and recommendations for specific management that will maximize ideal piping plover breeding habitat and minimize the effects of predation and human disturbance, according to Stantial. A piping plover data collection app is also being developed where people can collect the same type of data all along Atlantic Coast to go into one database.

“We’re mid-project now,” she said.

Piping plovers are highly adapted to the dynamic ecosystem of the overwashes, she said. “They like those kinds of spots.”

Those spots are often created when hurricanes hit the coast; however, if a hurricane hits too early in the season, it can be detrimental to the bird’s reproductive season.

“If a hurricane strikes while they have nests on the ground it would cause a widespread loss of their reproductive effort that year,” said Cohen, “but the hurricanes tend to reshape the coast in a way that’s good for piping plovers. They like open sand, and the vegetation gets knocked back by storms. “

The birds forage in mudflats that are created when storms deposit sand in tidal areas. “So they really evolved to take advantage of habitat created by storms,” Cohen said.

However, rising sea levels and beach erosion could prove too much for piping plover nesting grounds. In an effort to predict where the piping plovers habitat will be over time, models have been run by Virginia Tech and the U.S. Geological Survey to predict the effect that sea level rise and climate change will have on the coast.

“There’s probably places where new habitat will arise, but a lot of places where it may be gone after the sea level gets too high for barrier islands to persist,” said Cohen.

Meet our new NJ endangered species biologist!

Meet Alicia Protus, a new member of the endangered species team in our New Jersey Field Office! 


What is your professional background and experience with the Service?

I am a recent graduate from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry with a B.S. in conservation biology. While there, I conducted a thesis with Dr. Jonathan Cohen on visitation patterns of piping plover predators at nest exclosures.

Following graduation, I was selected to participate in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Directorate Fellowship Program, one of the agency’s many recruitment programs seeking to involve young professionals with the Service. I spent three months with the Virginia Field Office assisting their endangered species biologists with incorporating information for five listed species into the IPaC (Information, Planning and Conservation) program. Toward the conclusion of my fellowship I realized I wasn’t ready for my work with listed species to end, though, honestly, I don’t believe I will ever be ready for such a time to come. I transitioned into a volunteer position with the biologists at the Long Island Field Office and Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge where I assisted with various projects and routine biological work for several months.

Now I’m excited to be a part of the New Jersey Field Office supporting the efforts of the endangered species program. I’ll be working on consultation and recovery actions for the bog turtle, Indiana bat, northern long eared bat, and several plant species.


What are your goals as a new member to the endangered species team in New Jersey? (can be what do you hope to work on, achieve, etc)

As a part of the endangered species team, I’m excited to assist with recovery actions for New Jersey’s listed species and plan future projects. I have had a small obsession with bats since my time in high school, so I am particularly thrilled to be able to support the work on the listed bats in New Jersey. I’m honored to be able to play a role in safeguarding public resources, especially in the coastal Northeast not far from where I grew up. I’m looking forward to working with all the wonderful folks in the endangered species program and beyond!

Can you share a story about one of your greatest accomplishments at work so far? What you’ll bring from that experience to your new role? 

One of my greatest accomplishments so far has been advancing the progress of the IPaC (Information, Planning and Conservation) program, a system that automates parts of the ESA-mandated project consultation process. I supported the addition of five new species into the program (three freshwater mussels and two plants), which reduces the overall consultation workload of Service biologists and allows for more time spent on direct conservation actions, like species recovery planning. My work to distill a biologist’s thought process into tangible chains of effects for the program was challenging, but through it I gained a unique perspective of the consultation process.

I hope to apply my experience to the Service’s ongoing efforts to streamline consultation work.