Tag Archives: U.S. Forest Service

Letting Nature Do The Work

Just below the Appalachian Mountains, on the East Fork of West Virginia’s Greenbrier River, a remarkable change is underway. In a watershed where the land is so green and thickly forested that the water takes its color from the trees, there has been a comprehensive push to restore and open its waterways to a more natural state, allowing fish to move freely and improving conditions for all wildlife.

“It’s really beautiful Appalachian forest land, and with so many species in this one area it’s a really valuable place for us to do conservation work with our partners,” said Callie McMunigal, Regional Fish Habitat Partnership Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


For the last five years, Trout Unlimited, the U. S. Forest Service, and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been working together to restore the many branches of the Greenbrier watershed, which have long been constricted by aging infrastructure. The effort has improved habitat for native species like brook trout in some 50 miles of river, transforming the area into a hotspot for local anglers and making it one of the largest conservation endeavors in West Virginia’s history.

“We’re opening a great deal of diverse ecosystem for West Virginia,” said Gary Berti, Director of Eastern Home River Initiatives for Trout Unlimited. “It’s a commitment to doing what needs to be done in the long term.”

The watershed was one of the Forest Service’s highest-priority areas targeted for restoration, as it has long been riddled with decades-old pipe culverts that were either perched (too tall), pinched (too small), or were deemed hazardous in the event of a flood.  Mike Owen, an aquatic ecologist with the Forest Service, compared the pipe culvert design to the middle of an hourglass, restricting anything trying to pass through.

“It can make things really hard for passing fish, particularly brook trout as they tend to travel quite a bit within the watershed,” said Owen.

Most of the projects included replacing these culverts, installing new bridges, and clearing other obstructions so the river and its tributaries can experience a natural flow. Several of the culverts were replaced with open-arch designs, which allow the river to pass through its full width.


In addition to work on the riverbed itself, Trout Unlimited oversaw extensive tree planting, which will help provide shade and create colder water for brook trout, habitat the species relies on year-round. Crews also wiped out more than 100 miles of unused roads and trails in and around the watershed, recontouring the slopes beside the river to reduce erosion and promote proper water drainage on approximately 85,000 acres of land.The reshaping will also help guard against drought, as well as providing natural flood resistance during future storms.

“If we do these things right, then nature does the work for us,” said Owen. “The system should largely sustain itself and continue to improve as time goes on.”

And nature has not disappointed. Mere weeks after projects were completed, brook trout and other fish were found both above and below the work sites, areas where their populations had previously been sparse or nonexistent. While the Greenbrier has always been a popular area for locals to fish and hunt in the surrounding woods, the projects’ effects have been dramatic enough to bring anglers out in droves.

“Every time we go into the field, we get claps on the back,” said Berti. “People have started bragging about the number of fish they caught. I’ve met folks who told me they caught 80 fish in a weekend.”

But brook trout are more than a great recreational fish, Owen said, adding that biologists often refer to them as an “indicator species,” meaning that the strength of their population often represents the health of the ecosystem as a whole. And where brook trout are abundant, the entire river system and the life it supports – including people – reap the benefits.

“As go these species, so others go,” Owen said. “That makes it particularly important to make sure that they can get the most out of this habitat. It can create a big ripple effect for the entire ecosystem.”


The restoration was the first of what Berti hopes will become a model for future projects. On the Greenbrier, partners planned the entire restoration more than five years in advance, with funding secured for each individual piece of the project by the end of 2012. This allowed partners to look at the Greenbrier on a watershed scale, rather than trying to restore the river piece by piece. And as with anything bought in bulk, funding the projects in a large batch made them much less expensive, saving the Service and partners thousands of dollars.

“If there’s nothing else you take away from this, it’s that these partnerships work. This all would not have been possible without so many of us coming to the table,” said Berti. “We were all just eager to get it done.”

While initial results have been promising, there is still work left to be done. Several more projects are already planned for the watershed, which will open further sections of the Greenbrier so that species may roam freely.

“It’s a huge undertaking, but we believe that it’s worth the effort. It’s kind of the thrill of a career to try something like this,” said Owen.

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.


Salamander Fairyland: Conserving a unique treasure in the Blue Ridge Mountains

On a cool, crisp evening, Liberty University professors and their students trek through the damp understory of the Jefferson National Forest as the sun falls behind the treeline.

By the time they arrive at their study site among the trees, it is completely dark and lightly drizzling. Equipped with headlamps, they creep along transect lines, scouring the vegetation for glimpses of gold.

They are hunting for the Peaks-of-Otter salamander. Often beginning at eight o’clock and working until one in the morning, they search for the salamander while it hunts for worms and springtails – its invertebrate prey.

Professors Norm Reichenbach, Paul Sattler, Tim Brophy and David Marsh have been working with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service to study the Peaks-of-Otter salamander for nearly two decades. Their research not only allows students to experience the species up close, but also helps federal and state agencies to better understand and manage this unique amphibian.

“This is a great partnership that helps secure the future of the Peaks-of-Otter salamander,” Reichenbach said. “Since most of the range of this salamander is in areas managed by the Forest Service and NPS, universities working cooperatively with these agencies can engage in research that aids in the conservation of these species.”

Reichenbach and Marsh study a variety of subjects regarding the species’ ecology, such as how habitat changes like timber harvest might affect the salamander or how other species, like the eastern red-backed salamander, might impact the Peaks-of-Otter salamander.

Known as “sit and wait predators,” this salamander often forages while perched atop forest vegetation, unintentionally revealing itself to the researchers and students that seek to round them up, at least for a little while.

The metallic, brassy flecks that speckle this critter’s dark brown body help the students to identify and grab the salamander before it scoots to a hiding spot under the damp leaves that coat the forest floor.

“You have to see them before they see you,” said Reichenbach, professor of biology at Liberty University.

Because the salamander can also be found under downed logs – or any other place where moisture is naturally trapped and the ground is cool – professors and students spend many hours hunkered over, flipping over anything that may reveal a golden prize.

An hour or less from their classroom, Reichenbach’s students learn about conservation hands on in the biologically rich Appalachians, which just so happens to be right in their backyard.

“You can be in one spot that has one species, walk as little as a few hundred meters, and then find a completely different species,” said Marsh, professor at Washington and Lee University. “You can think of the Southern Appalachians as a sort of salamander Galapagos.”

With a world-wide distribution of only 12 miles, this salamander’s range is contained almost entirely in Virginia’s Peaks-of-Otter region within the Jefferson National Forest and the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

Not to mention, it’s found only at elevations above 1600 ft.

The salamander’s limited range has landed it on the radar of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has been working with the National Forest and Park Service to better understand the status of this at-risk species.

The U.S. Forest Service has been managing the Jefferson National Forest with the Peaks-of-Otter salamander in mind for nearly 20 years. In 1997, a conservation agreement between the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service established primary and secondary conservation areas to guide timber harvesting and manage this sensitive species.

The Peaks-of-Otter salamander, like all plethodon amphibians, has no lungs – breathing entirely through the tissues in its mouth and skin. Preserving adequate canopy cover to prevent the sun from drying out soil and leaf litter is crucial as the salamander relies on adequate ground moisture to keep their skin moist enough to extract oxygen from the air.

In the primary conservation area no trees are cut, and in the secondary area timber harvest activities must meet guidelines for protecting Peaks-of-Otter habitat, such as leaving at least 50 percent of the canopy intact and leaving large woody debris on the ground.

These guidelines were informed by the research of the local professors and students who continue to study the Peaks-of-Otter salamander and its biology on an continuing basis.

“Ongoing research has enhanced our understanding of the species and helped to shape many of the existing management practices in place today,” said Rose Agbalog, Service biologist.

“Partnerships are critical to conservation efforts,” added Fred Huber, retired Forest Botanist for the Jefferson National Forest. “By sharing knowledge, combining resources, and coordinating research, we can move more quickly and effectively to protect species.”

Partnerships like these between universities and federal agencies take the conservation of at-risk species to new heights, potentially precluding the need to list them under the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to the devoted conservation efforts underway, the Peaks-of-Otter salamander is abundant within its limited range.

One night after a recent rain, Reichenbach recalled that the moss-covered boulders along the side of a ridge were strewn with this alluring critter. Huber and Reichenbach found sixty salamanders in just two hours, remembering it fondly as a “fairyland of salamanders.”

“The U.S. Forest Service and the Blue Ridge Parkway have worked for over 20 years to conserve important habitat for the Peaks-of-Otter salamander,” said Agbalog. “With continuing collaboration and conservation efforts from these agencies and local university partners, we hope to secure the future of this unique species.”

Is the coast clear for tricolored bats?

Tricolored bat with visible symptoms of WNS from Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Georgia. Photo credit: National Park Service

This winter two scientists will set out to learn  whether tricolored bats that use winter roosts other than caves and mines are susceptible to a deadly bat disease in the coastal plains and forests of North and South Carolina — two of 38 states in the bats’ range.

In the winter of 2016, Dr. Susan Loeb of the U.S. Forest Service and Clemson University and Assistant Professor David Jachowski of Clemson did a pilot study of tricolored bats roosting under two bridges in the upper coastal plain of South Carolina. They found that some bats left the bridge for several days and returned, suggesting that they were using alternate roosts. However, because the researchers did not track bats to these roosts, where the bats were going was unknown.

Now the researchers are expanding their study to find out what alternative roosting sites tricolored bats use and if the behavior of bats and environmental conditions there can protect them from the disease white-nose syndrome (WNS).

WNS, caused by the fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd, was discovered in New York State in 2007. Now confirmed in 31 states and 5 Canadian provinces, the disease has wiped out some populations of several hibernating bat species, including tricolored bats. At hibernation sites where white-nose syndrome has affected tricolored bats, average overall declines of these bats have been more than 75 percent. As observed by Loeb, these declines have been even higher at some sites in the south.

In their pilot study, Loeb and Jachowski discovered that what sets coastal plain habitats apart is a striking potential difference in temperature tricolored bats encounter at more exposed and warmer sites than at mine and cave habitats.

Temperature is critical to the spread of the WNS fungus because any body temperatures above 64 degrees Fahrenheit might mean a greater chance for the bat’s immune system to fight the fungus over the winter, Loeb said.

She said, however, that such sites might be a double-edged sword. If body temperature remains high, a bat will be less able to enter an extended state of torpor, a short form of hibernation that can last only for a few days. Possibly because of the warmer climate, the coastal plains populations of tricolored  bats might only hibernate on a daily basis to conserve energy.

If bats are able to escape WNS in these alternative habitats but remain more active due to higher outside temperatures, they must forage to survive. Finding available insects in the winter, even in the Carolinas’ warmer coastal plains, might be challenging for the beleaguered bats.

Now, with  $125,925 funding from an FWS research grant, Loeb and Jachowski plan to expand their search for the bat’s winter habitat under bridges and in trees across the coastal plains of the Carolinas. They will be joining the ranks of other FWS-funded researchers such as Dr. Jeremy White in Nebraska and State Biologist Cory Mosby in Maine who have turned their attention to small bat hibernation habitats other than caves and mines.

“The decline of tricolored bats in the southeast is concerning. When the disease first arrived in the region, researchers expected it to not be as bad because the bats could forage.  In some populations, we are seeing 90% declines.” – Susan Loeb

To measure body temperature and foraging, Loeb and Jachowski’s team will outfit temperature-sensitive radio transmitters on the bats at their winter roosts to document body temperatures and activity levels. They will use the transmitters to track bats to what might be an array of winter roosting types in this area free of caves and mines.

When the researchers capture the bats, they will swab and inspect them for the fungus and record data about the roost, such as tree height and cavity depth that might affect temperature. They will also collect fecal samples at the roost site and from the bats to determine whether the bats forage in winter.

Loeb said the study will contribute to a better understanding of bats’ susceptibility to WNS in the southeastern U.S. When the disease was first documented, researchers had hoped the region would host roosts that would be warmer than the northeastern caves and mines where the disease was first found, suggesting that the fungus would not spread to areas where wintering bats’ body temperatures would be higher than the critical 64-degree Fahrenheit threshold. In years since, however, researchers have found that even caves and mines in the southeast are cold enough to allow Pd to thrive.

“The decline of tricolored bats in the southeast is concerning,” Loeb added. “When the disease first arrived in the region, researchers expected it to not be as bad because the bats could forage.  In some populations, we are seeing 90% declines.”

Now with exploration of alternative roosts in the southeast, scientists hope some tricolored bat populations might survive if they can find warm roosts and insects to eat during lean winter months. And in the race to help bats survive WNS, hope is a good place to start.