Tag Archives: partnerships

The Taste of Success

Appearance. Odor. Flavor. Mouth feel. No, we’re not talking about wine – this is water.

Award-winning water, to be precise; these are just a few of the criteria used to name Clarksburg, West Virginia’s tap water as the best in the state. It’s the first time Clarksburg has won the Rural Water Association Taste Test Competition, and the victory comes just a year after the Service and partners completed a major dam removal and river cleanup project on Clarksburg’s water supply, the West Fork River.

“We’re proud of it. You really have to attribute it to the cleanup of the river,” said Dick Welch, general manager of the Clarksburg Water Board.

The Service removed three dams from the West Fork in 2016: the Two Lick, the Highland, and the West Milford Dams- each of which had been cited for safety concerns and were considered barriers to wildlife – were all taken out, restoring  a natural flow to 491 miles of river. In addition, local agencies and volunteer groups led a cleanup effort that removed more than 61,000 pounds of trash – including 1,212 tires, several televisions, and even a car – from the river.

“I have people coming up all the time saying, ‘Hey, I’m really coming around on this, the river’s beautiful, the water is clear,’”  said Service biologist Nick Millett. “The clarity of the water has certainly improved.”

The project was a crossroads of many interests, from restoring habitat for mussel populations like the endangered clubshell mussel, to preventing flood risk to nearby communities, to improving fishing and other recreation on the river. The dams had also been responsible for several drownings over the years, which had prompted serious safety concerns.

Yet getting the removals approved was no easy task – many residents nearby feared that the project could hurt fishing in the area, or could even increase flooding during storm events. It took several years of negotiations and trust building to get the support of the community.

“A lot of people in the community were really skeptical, you know, they thought, ‘Big bad government’s coming in, telling us how to live our lives and taking our river away,’” said Millett.

Since the project’s completion, however, this section of the West Fork has been transformed. Early reports suggest that fishing has improved, with fewer barriers to fish migration easing their passage and increasing fish counts. Communities have also seen a demonstrably reduced flood risk: a high water event in summer of 2017 did not spill over the river’s banks, even in areas that had previously been prone to flooding. And with no obstructions in their way, kayakers and canoeists have enjoyed the free flow of the river, no longer forced to portage around the crumbling dams.

Highland Dam, post-removal. Credit: Nick Millett

Highland Dam site, post-removal (Credit: Nick Millett)

“I think the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done an excellent job gaining the trust of the community and responding to complaints quickly,” said Welch. “People see that the project has been worthwhile.”

Not only has the water looked visually clearer than before, but the Clarksburg water board also saw a savings of more than $45,000 in water treatment costs this year.

“We noticed we were using fewer chemicals,” said Welch. “That tells you that the river is cleaner.”

Time will tell when the mussel populations will show the benefits of the project. Reclusive creatures with long life cycles, the mussels need what’s called riffle pool habitat to survive, and require the hospitality of fish in the river, who become hosts to mussel larvae until they mature enough to grow a shell. It may take years to see the benefits of the dam removals, but with more fish to act as hosts and more riffle pool opened up by reduced dam impoundments, the stage is set for the little molluscs to return to the river.

In the meantime, residents of Clarksburg can bask in the glow of their water competition win, and root for their favorite beverage as it goes on to the national tap water competition in 2018.

Victory has never tasted so good.

Partners on the West Fork River include the Clarksburg Water Board, Canaan Valley Institute, Southwestern Energy, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, American Rivers, AllStar Ecology, LLC., West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Fishing Report WV, Ohio River Basin Fish Habitat Partnership, National Fish Passage Program, and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Since 2009, the Service and partners have removed or replaced more than 507 barriers to fish passage from Maine to West Virginia, reconnecting more than 4,020 miles of rivers and streams and 19,300 acres of wetlands. Partners across the Northeast have matched the Service’s funding contribution nearly 5 to 1, contributing $56.1 million to the Service’s $12.5 million to restore aquatic connectivity for wildlife and protect communities. 

A decade fighting a deadly bat disease

You can hear the desperation in Christina Kocer’s voice, as she describes how it felt to find bats dying from a mysterious cause in the winter of 2007. She and other scientists watched helplessly as bats in the Northeast succumbed to what would become known as white-nose syndrome, a disease that has devastated bat populations.

“Bats weren’t behaving normally. In the middle of winter, when they should have been hibernating, we were finding them flying around outside their caves,” says Kocer, white-nose syndrome coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast region. “By 2009, it looked as though all bats would be gone.”

Fortunately, ten years on, all bats are not gone. But neither is the threat. While we’ve learned a lot, biologists like Kocer continue to race the clock, looking for ways to detect, treat, and reduce the spread of the disease. The Service, along with federal, state, and private partners, has completed a national response plan for managing white-nose syndrome and is carrying it out.

You don’t need to be a scientist to be concerned. Bats are important not only from an ecological standpoint, but also from an economical one. They eat tons of insects nightly, providing a natural benefit to farmers and foresters, not to mention those who enjoy the outdoors. Some research suggests that bats could save American agriculture more than 3 billion dollars in pest control every year.

A single bat eats thousands of insects a night, offering free pest management. Credit: Ann Froschauer, USFWS

Since its discovery, white-nose syndrome has spread rapidly throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada and is now found in 31 states and five provinces. It has killed more than six million bats, with mortality rates exceeding 90 percent for many sites and species. It has been confirmed in nine species, two of which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act as endangered and another as threatened.

We now know that white-nose syndrome is caused by a fungusPseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd for short — that’s primarily spread among bats as they hibernate in caves and abandoned mines. Pd disrupts bats’ hibernation, causing them to rouse more frequently and for longer periods of time during the winter, burning up their stores of fat. Some even leave their caves and mines during the winter and early spring and become victims of hypothermia, predation, and starvation.

We’ve learned that some species, like the little brown bat, tri-colored bat, and northern long-eared bat, are more susceptible to the disease, while others show resistance.

Little brown bat infected with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont. Credit: Marvin Moriarty, USFWS

Scientists today have new ways of detecting the fungus, including using ultraviolet light. Field research on treatment has begun, and work on vaccines and molecular and genetic tools to improve bat survival is underway.

Bats aren’t the only ones who hang out in caves and abandoned mines. People who enter places where bats hibernate, whether for work or recreation, can pick up the Pd fungus on their clothes, shoes, and gear, and spread it to the next site they visit. The Service and its partners have created decontamination protocols that have reduced the spread of the disease by humans.

It’s important that all cave visitors follow decontamination protocols to reduce the spread of white-nose syndrome. Credit: Wikipedia via Creative Commons

There have been some promising developments. Little brown bats have survived multiple years of infection, and some bat colonies that were nearly wiped out are gradually growing in numbers, bringing hope for recovery.

When asked about the outlook now, Kocer seems cautiously optimistic.

“There is evidence of little brown bats surviving white-nose syndrome and reproducing,” she said. “Juveniles have been born, survived, and reproduced.”

What we’re working for: healthy little brown bats. Credit: Ann Froschauer, USFWS

And while a decade may seem like a long time, Kocer notes, “Ten years is roughly the lifespan of a little brown bat, so we’ve seen only one generation since the disease was discovered.”

In that generation, we’ve learned a lot about white-nose syndrome and the importance of communication and collaboration in fighting wildlife diseases. While the situation remains dire, the knowledge and experience gained will guide the Service and its partners in the fight to stop white-nose syndrome in the next generation, and address mysterious illnesses in the future.

Visit our Bat Conservation Map to learn more about these amazing creatures.

Taking marsh restoration to a new level

The author at the project site. Credit: Dagny Leonard

As part of “Building a Stronger Coast” month, we’ve asked Erik Meyers, with The Conservation Fund, to share his thoughts on a marsh restoration project that the Fund is leading at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. Erik is vice president for climate and water sustainability at the Fund.

“But it’s not Yosemite!” friends sometimes blurt out when I speak glowingly of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. “No,” I respond, “it’s better.”

Few places on Earth better convey nature’s timeless beauty, productivity … and fragility. Here at Blackwater, soft green marsh grasses spread toward a distant horizon; small salt-marsh birds dart in and out of view; tree islands and forest fringe frame views of the marsh and coastal rivers — all competing for attention with majestic eagles soaring in dramatic Chesapeake skyscapes. Not for nothing is Blackwater frequently called the “Everglades of the North.”

Seaside sparrows nest in the salt marsh at Blackwater Refuge. Credit: USFWS

I’ve learned to look closer, however, and see what’s changing as well. Sometimes the change comes gradually—a ghost forest where there was a healthy stand of pines five years ago. Sometimes change comes suddenly—last year’s solid salt marsh now pocked with small pools of open water. The evolution of this landscape, formed after the retreat of the last major glacier in North America some 10,000 years ago, is accelerating due to the rising level of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

Sea-level rise models predict that Blackwater will be dramatically altered over this century, much more than at any point in recent history. An assessment by The Conservation Fund and others signaled the need to act now to hold onto these marshes, including ensuring space for the marsh to relocate, or “migrate,” inland as sea level rises. As important as they are to wildlife, salt marshes also serve people, buffering storm surge and wave action and absorbing flood waters.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland. Chesapeake Bay.

In addition to offering important wildlife habitat, salt marshes like the one at Blackwater absorb floodwaters and storm surge, protecting coastal property. Credit: Whitney Flanagan

A core project team of staff from the refuge, Audubon Maryland-DC, and The Conservation Fund, along with strong technical and citizens advisory groups, developed science-based, comprehensive strategies to help the marsh adapt. There were three objectives:

  • Hold the most-promising marsh-migration corridors in open-space uses.
  • Help former upland areas become new, high-quality marsh.
  • Slow the loss of existing high-quality salt marsh in strategically targeted areas.

A grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, supported by federal funds for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience, provided an unprecedented opportunity to apply and evaluate these strategies. The centerpiece of our project, completed in 2016, involved using Blackwater River sediment, which is mostly disintegrated upstream marsh, to raise the surface level of 40 acres of strategically located Refuge salt marsh.


Depositing Blackwater River sediment on the marsh to raise its elevation. Credit: Dave Harp, Chesapeake Photos

Pioneering scientific research suggests that native marsh grasses are most productive at a higher point in the tide range. With the elevation of the marsh surface, we expect native grasses to increase root growth, or “biomass,” and “lift” themselves higher over time. Maintaining productive native marsh plants is key to helping marshes rise along with future sea level.

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While we will continue to monitor and evaluate the project, to date, the results have exceeded our expectations. Added sediment settled out to target levels. Existing native grasses have flourished, and new plants added over the summer have taken root. Breeding pairs of seaside sparrows are already back using the site.

These outcomes are due to incredible partners at the refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast office, Audubon Maryland-DC, and other federal and state agencies — a social ecosystem nearly as vital as the natural system we’re all trying to conserve, enhance, and adapt.

So, no, it’s not Yosemite; it’s better.