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Open Spaces

A Talk on the Wild Side.

High-Diving California Brown Pelican Needs You

Brown pelicans. Photo by David Pereksta for USFWS

When I picture the California brown pelican eating sardines, I imagine the bird rolling back a tin of the little fish. For anchovies, I imagine birds ordering a pizza. But that’s not quite their style.

  Info on the study

The brown pelican is known as a plunge-diving bird. They dive steeply into the water – submerging completely or partly depending on the height of the dive — and come up with a mouthful of fish, often sardines or anchovies. That’s awesome!

But in recent years, populations of the pelican’s  key forage species have collapsed, raising concerns about the health of the subspecies. And that’s where you come in.

We are partnering with the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology to launch the first ever citizen science survey for California brown pelicans across the Pacific Coast.  The May 7 count will help scientists understand how potential threats from changes in weather patterns, prey availability, habitat or contaminants, could impact California brown pelican populations over the long term.

We won’t give up on the brown pelican, and let’s remember it’s a tough species.

Like the more famous bald eagle, the brown pelican was decimated by the unregulated use of the pesticide DDT in the middle of the 20th century.  DDT and other pesticides in the environment got into water and contaminated fish, and pelicans (eagles, too) ate contaminated fish. This caused the birds to lay eggs that had shells so thin they broke during incubation.

In 1970, under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973, we listed the brown pelican as endangered.  And in 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned nearly all uses of DDT.

Again, like the eagle, pelicans recovered and were removed from the federal endangered species list in 2009.

If you live on the Pacific Coast, consider helping out with the survey for California brown pelicans on May 7. And hopefully you’ll see a 10.0 dive.

Matt Trott, External Affairs


U.S. Supports Protections for Pangolins, African Grey Parrots, Chambered Nautilus at CITES Meeting

In five months, delegates from around the globe will meet for the world’s leading forum to debate and discuss issues related to international wildlife trade. The 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, will run from September 24th to October 5th in Johannesburg, South Africa. Nearly two years ago, the United States began its public process to gather and evaluate information related to species involved in international trade. Two years of hard work culminated yesterday in the submission of 11 documents and the co-sponsorship of several others to be considered by CITES member countries at the meeting.  In the coming months, we will continue to engage the public as we evaluate documents submitted by other countries and develop negotiating positions on the full agenda of CoP17. 

Not sure what CITES is or how it works? Visit our website for a quick overview. You can also view each of the U.S. documents on our website, but here are some highlights: 

Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are covered with overlapping scales made of keratin, the same protein that forms human hair and finger nails. Photo by Tikki Hywood Trust

Pangolins hold the unfortunate title of most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, with more than 1 million poached from the wild in the last decade alone. The silver, or shall we say scaly, lining is that countries where pangolins can be found are leading the charge to protect their native species. Thanks to the combined efforts of Vietnam, India and the Philippines, all four Asian pangolin species will be considered for transfer to Appendix I, which provides the greatest level of CITES protection. Similarly, Nigeria and Senegal, along with other African countries, have proposed transfer of all four African pangolin species to Appendix I. If adopted, these proposals would halt commercial trade in these species.  The United States has co-sponsored all of these proposals and will work hand-in-hand with these countries to gain support for these uplistings, a critical step in stopping the illegal trade in pangolins. 

The African grey parrot – a highly intelligent bird that is popular as a pet – has experienced significant population declines in the wild. In Ghana, where African grey parrots were once common and widespread, populations have declined between 90 and 99% since the early 1990s. Over the past 25 years, exports of more than 1.5 million wild birds from 18 range states (a range state is where a species is normally found in the wild) have been reported, making African grey parrots one of the most traded of all CITES-listed parrots. Gabon, a range country, has submitted a proposal to transfer the African grey parrot to Appendix, I which will stop the unsustainable commercial trade in wild birds.  The United States is proud to offer our support and co-sponsorship to achieve this goal. 

 Wild African grey parrots take flight in Lobeke National Park, Cameroon. Photo by Dirck Byler/USFWS
Wild African grey parrots take flight in Lobeke National Park, Cameroon. Photo by Dirck Byler/USFWS

At the last meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties, the United States achieved increased CITES protections for three native turtle species and 44 species of Asian freshwater turtles, by working in collaboration with China and Vietnam. Following on these successes, the United States  will co-sponsor, along with several African range states, a proposal submitted by Togo to include six species of African and Middle Eastern softshell turtles in Appendix II, which ensures legal and sustainable trade in these species. These species are traded mainly for consumption in East Asia. Evidence shows that when protections for freshwater turtles are strengthened in one region, demand in other regions for unprotected species may increase. The United States  supports a strategic, global approach to freshwater turtle conservation, to stay ahead of this trend and curb this boom-and-bust cycle. 

Chameleons, in demand for the pet trade, are also susceptible to a boom-and-bust pattern and the United States has put forward a proposal to include 21 species of African pygmy chameleons in Appendix II. If successful, this proposal will bring all chameleons under CITES protection. 

The chambered nautilus, with its beautifully intricate shell and exquisite coloring is traded in large quantities, mostly as jewelry and shell products. The United States has long been concerned about the impact that this trade may have on the seven species in the nautilus family , as have some ambitious young conservationists (learn more here and here). Nautiluses are slow to reproduce, leaving them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. The United States, Fiji, India and Palau have put forward a proposal to include the nautilus family in Appendix II to ensure its survival in the wild. 


The chambered nautilus is a slow-growing, long-lived animal that can take up to 15 years before being able to reproduce. Photo from the Flickr stream of Klaus Steifel shared under Creative Commons licensing.

Another marine species – the devil ray – is in demand for its gill plates, which are thought to have medicinal properties. The United States  has co-sponsored a proposal submitted by Fiji to include devil rays in Appendix II.

So far, we’ve only touched on the animal proposals, yet we can’t overlook the importance of CITES protections for plant species. In fact, of the more than 35,000 species protected under CITES, nearly 30,000 are plants! The United States has put forward a proposal to transfer three species of fishhook cacti, collected for the horticulture trade, from Appendix II to Appendix I. Documents on agarwood and holy wood were also put forward by the United States for consideration. 

In addition to our animal and plant proposals, the United States, along with South Africa, has put forward a document to encourage youth participation in CITES. Youth engagement is a powerful tool to generate new and innovative ideas while educating and connecting the next generation of conservation leaders. As a partner on the Youth Forum for People and Wildlife, the United States  is committed to engaging youth in CITES and wildlife trade issues. 

Aligning with the President’s Executive Order, the United States has submitted a document on global efforts to combat wildlife trafficking, including a recommendation that CITES member countries close their domestic ivory markets. The United States and China have agreed to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory and it’s now time for the rest of the international community to join that effort. In a similar vein, the United States submitted a document focused on reducing demand for illegal wildlife products with a draft resolution that, if adopted, would urge countries to implement campaigns that would raise consumer awareness of the impact of illegal wildlife trade on wild populations and influence purchasing decisions.

Perhaps of equal interest to those documents we submitted are those we did not. The United States did not submit a document on musical instruments, as we consulted with the European Union and its Member States on their submission. We will work with countries at CoP17 to ensure that permitting for musical instruments is streamlined and widely used. Regarding polar bears, though we remain concerned about the commercial use of polar bear hides as an additional threat to the species, we are not pursuing increased CITES protections at this time. We are putting our resources into working in collaboration with other polar bear range states to address climate change and mitigate its impacts on the polar bear as the overwhelming threat to the long-term future of the species.

Be sure to check back for other CITES news.

Discovering the First Observed Mississippi Sandhill Crane Nest of the Season

 Henry Woolley
Henry with a Henslow's Sparrow. Photo by Ross Ketron

Open Spaces features regular posts by Student Conservation Association (SCA) interns working to promote, protect and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States. Since 1957, SCA has been connecting young people from all backgrounds with life-changing, career-making conservation service opportunities. Learn how you can get involved at www.thesca.orgToday, Henry Woolley, an SCA wildlife intern at Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge checks in.

I leave the office at 5:30 in the morning, and drive through the pre-dawn mist to the blind. Once on the refuge, I turn off my headlights so as not to disturb the cranes. The federally endangered Mississippi Sandhill crane nests in ponds and wetlands from early spring through early summer, and I am participating in  my first early-morning observation. We need to find as many nests as we can in order to track where cranes are nesting and find out which pairs are successful in creating the new generation. With only around 125 cranes left in the population, the success of each nest is critical.

I silence my cell phone and exit the truck, making sure the door doesn’t slam. The blind overlooks a pond and the adjacent wet pine savanna, ideal crane habitat. Historically, non-migratory Sandhill cranes inhabited much of the Gulf Coast, but loss of habitat due to timber farming and wildfire suppression has mostly confined the Mississippi Sandhill crane to the 19,300 acres of the refuge. Crane monitoring has been conducted here since before the refuge was founded in 1975, and is currently led by Fish and Wildlife Service biologists Scott Hereford and Angela Dedrickson.

 Sandhill cranes
A nesting Sandhill crane. Photo by Scott Hereford/USFWS

I climb up into the blind, set up my spotting scope and look at the leg band combination sheet to find the colors on the cranes who have used this pond to nest in the past. I am looking for 434, who was captive-reared and released on the refuge, and his wild-hatched, unbanded mate. Observing them together would indicate they have not yet nested, while observing one without the other would suggest they have a nest nearby. 434 and Unbanded typically nest  early in the season.   If the first nest is destroyed by flooding, predation, or some other unforeseen disaster, the pair will typically renest.

It’s starting to get light out, so I raise my binoculars and begin to scan the foggy toothache grass and longleaf pine saplings along the pond’s edge. After maybe a minute, I see a flash of red and white through the mist – a crane lying in the grass by the edge of the pond about 50 yards from the blind. Interesting, because cranes roost standing up in water. The crane is alert and looking around.   I can’t see a nest because of the dense fog and vegetation, and I can’t identify the crane because it’s lying down. I make a note of the crane’s location and keep scanning.

 Sandhill cranes
Banded Sandhill cranes. Photo by Henry Woolley

After about five minutes I see another crane about 100 yards south of the reposing crane, slowly walking through the grass and fog. It’s too far, too foggy, and there’s too much vegetation to make an ID, and I lose sight of the crane in the fog. I still don’t know who I’m looking at. I don’t even know if the two cranes I’ve observed are connected.

Ten minutes later, I see an unbanded crane emerge from the fog and tall thick dry grass only about 25 yards from the blind. Based on its location, I believe this is the one I saw walking earlier. Since I am able to confirm it is unbanded, it could mean the crane lying down is 434 on a nest, but I need to make sure so I keep watching.

 Sandhill cranes
Mates 434 and Unbanded. Photo by Angela Dedrickson/USFWS

The crane lies still for almost three hours, not responding to cranes calling in the distance or flying overhead, not budging when a great egret wades close by hunting. I keep watching in hopes of getting an ID or maybe even a glimpse of a nest, while at the same time keeping an eye out for any other crane activity I need to record.

  Aubrey Tingler

Finally, the crane suddenly stands up! I can see the band combination on its leg – it’s 434! He pokes around at something by his feet, turns to face the opposite direction, and sits right back down in the same spot. Even though I still can’t see a nest, this is nesting behavior and enough evidence to positively mark it as an active nest. The crane I saw earlier must have been his unbanded mate, foraging until it’s time for her to take her turn incubating. It’s my first time doing early-morning crane observation and it’s the first observed nest of the season!

Three years ago, while working as a wilderness monitor with Americorps in Nevada, I realized that I wanted to go to graduate school for wildlife biology. My undergraduate coursework, however, was in environmental science, meaning that I needed experience conducting wildlife field research before I would be eligible for a graduate assistantship. This opportunity to intern with the Fish and Wildlife Service through the Student Conservation Association and Americorps has allowed me to finally achieve my goal of going to graduate school. This fall I will be starting a Ph.D. program studying Mississippi Sandhill cranes, and that would not have been possible for me without the SCA!


Jenny Marek: Gearing up for the Refugio Oil Spill Anniversary

 Jenny Marek.
Jenny Marek: "Seeing those beaches covered with oil was quite a shock." Photo by USFWS

Betsy Painter, working in our Ecological Services Program, talks to contaminants biologist Jenny Marek.  

In sunny California, along the southern and central coast made up of mountain ranges and beaches, Jenny Marek and team work to support a bright future for both people and wildlife. Marek is based in our Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office. She coordinates responses to oil spills and provides analysis and consultation on pesticide issues and their potentially adverse impacts on endangered species. This past year, Marek has given the majority of her time and attention to the Refugio Oil Spill. 

The spill May 19, 2015, occurred when a pipeline ruptured near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, releasing around 140,000 gallons of oil that flowed through a creek to the ocean. The Service, along with many other agencies, were on site within the first days of the incident, cleaning up the area and capturing birds and other wildlife to bring them to treatment facilities for rehabilitation. 

 Jenny Marek.

Service biologists and environmental contaminants staff document wildlife and natural resource impacts after the spill. Photo by USFWS

But the restoration work had only just begun. 

Working cooperatively with the responsible party, and in partnership with other federal and state partners, we collected and analyzed evidence of impacts to natural resources and wildlife as part of a Natural Resource Damage Assessment. This involved evaluating and monitoring the status of fish, birds, marine mammals, sandy beach ecosystems, rocky intertidal systems, subtidal habitats and recreation. 

Now, a year into the response effort, Marek and team are getting ready for the next steps. "We are gearing up to collect data around the anniversary of the spill to help us understand how the injured habitats are recovering," says Marek. "The anniversary will mark a turning point in the case where we will shift from collecting data to understand how the environment was injured, to determining what restoration projects are necessary to compensate for that injury." 

Beaches in coastal California experience a seasonal pattern where winter storms pull sand off the beaches. During the spring and summer, the sand accumulates again. Spill response teams regularly check the beaches after storms to discover any uncovered oil and analyze the "fingerprint" of the oil to see if it matches that of the Refugio Oil Spill. No Refugio oil was found on the most recent after-storm outing, suggesting that the cleanup process may be complete. The hope is that the anniversary sampling will have similar results, and restoration projects will then be determined and set up for success. 

 Jenny Marek.
Biologist Jenny Marek speaks with community members about the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process at an open house in Santa Barbara this January. Photo by Ashley Spratt/USFWS

One possible restoration project will benefit the California brown pelican. The species was removed from federal protection in 2009 following recovery, and the U.S. Channel Islands off California are home to the only breeding population in the United States. The restoration project would remove two invasive plant species, Russian thistle and cape ivy, on Middle Anacapa Island to make room for a new pelican nesting habitat. This is just one of the many proposals for restoration projects that will be developed, analyzed, and then taken to the public for their approval. 

Oil spills can have a tremendous impact on the environment, but it's people like Marek and the team at the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office that rise to the occasion to minimize damage and restore the land for the benefit of wildlife and local communities. 

"When I was a kid, we would camp at El Capitan State Park almost every year and explore the beaches between El Capitan and Refugio,” Marek says. “It's one of my favorite places on earth, so seeing those beaches covered with oil was quite a shock. I am grateful that our staff has the training and experience to jump in and work side-by-side with the unified group of responders to clean up the spill, assess the environmental damage and conduct restoration to bring the resources back." 

The noteworthy restoration efforts achieved so far are an example of how oil spill responses go far beyond the initial cleanup—it takes time, dedication, and cooperation to fully restore an environment affected by a spill to its original, healthy status. We look forward to when the restoration process is complete, and Marek and crew can look out over the thriving beach ecosystems and enjoy with pride their hard work and dedication to the wildlife, habitats and communities along the southern and central coast in California. 

Editor's note: An update on the Refugio Beach Oil Spill Natural Resource Damage Assessment can be viewed on the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office website.


Sharing the Road with Wildlife

What should you do if you see a turtle crossing the road?  

This time of year many wildlife, like turtles, are on the move. Whether it's for new territory, breeding or a simple quest for food, it's possible that they will wander near or onto roads. Please keep a lookout for wildlife while you're driving.

These tips should help us all be aware and keep turtles safe this season.

Eastern Box TurtleEastern Box Turtle, Photo by Danielle Brigida, USFWS

1. Be very careful when moving the animal (it could be injured or it could bite you depending on what species). If possible, sometimes it is best to just stand guard as the animal crosses the road on its own. 

2. Always keep your own safety in mind – watch out for oncoming vehicles, signal properly when pulling over and recognize your surroundings first before working to help save an animal.

3. If the animal does need to be moved, put it down on the other side of the road in the same direction it was going. 

4. Do NOT take it with you - please only focus on helping it get safely to the other side.

5. Get involved with roadside restoration and transportation projects: We're working to make our roads and roadsides work for transportation and the environment. Some of the projects include restoring a place for vernal pools and or even planting milkweed along highways. 

6. Learn more about wildlife laws in your state. Contact your State and Territorial Fish and Wildlife Office to verify what is legal for your state and ways you can get involved. You also are always welcome to contact your closest National Wildlife Refuge to learn more about what species to look out for. 

Slowing down is one of the most effective ways to share the road with wildlife. 

Tiger salamanderTiger Salamander, Photo by Caitlin Smith, USFWS

Might as Well Jump, Says the Spider

 Jumping spider

Dan Magneson, a fishery biologist at Quilcene National Fish Hatchery in Washington state, remembers a little invertebrate that first caught his attention as a kid. He still keeps an eye on jumping spiders -- he took these photos.

Jumping spiders are small but often have very colorful, and even iridescent, markings. They don’t spin webs and wait to ensnare prey but instead actively patrol for food.

They love the sunshine and are very commonly seen prowling the outdoor walls of buildings. Their movements are quick and irregular, as though you are viewing them under a strobe light. 

 Jumping spider

Their vision is among the very best in the invertebrate world; the front pair of eyes are greatly enlarged and provide excellent binocular vision, crucial to accurately judging distance. Sensing prey, they will slowly stalk closer in a cat-like manner, and once within leaping range, can jump many times the length of their own body. They first secure a silk thread, a sort of safety line, before the actual leap. The actual jump itself is extremely fast, so much so that your eye probably won’t even register a blur. 

Their legs are tipped with hundreds of tiny hairs, each of which is further sub-divided into hundreds more even tinier hairs, each with a tiny foot at the end. This enables them to climb virtually any surface, and they will even climb straight up a vertical window, thanks to the traction gained from the microscopic imperfections in the surface of the glass. 

They seem to be curious and to possess an awareness of being watched. They’ll respond by turning to face you and raise their head to in turn study you. They may back up to maintain a comfortable distance, but tend not to flee, but instead keeping facing you. 

 Jumping spider

Males signal females by raising and waving their front legs in a sequence unique to the species; it reminds me of the guy who waves the orange flashlights to the pilot backing the plane out from the gate at the airport. 

As kids, we’d use our approaching hand to back up zebra jumping spiders, a very common species, into an open jar, and quickly put the lid on. We’d then catch a housefly and put that in the jar. While I had expected the spider to wait until the fly landed and was thus stationary, I was both surprised and amazed when they would leap up and catch the fly right out of the air. They must have some sort of ability to mentally calculate the speed and trajectory of the target and then accordingly launch themselves on a path to intercept the fly. The fly would be flying around the jar in circles. You’d see the spider watch the fly buzzing about overhead, then seem to cock by its body back as though compressing an internal spring, and the next thing you knew the spider would have the fly locked in a death-grip on the bottom of the jar.

I’ve never tried this method, but I understand that jumping spiders will also chase the dot from a laser pointer, helpful if you are squeamish about using your hand to back them up into a waiting jar.

Piloting New Partnerships for Bat Conservation

Indiana bat 
An Indiana bat on tree. Photo by Adam Mann

Megan Seymour, a wildlife biologist with our Columbus, Ohio, Ecological Services Field Office, tells us how the Air Force is helping the endangered Indiana bat.

Aircraft aren’t the only things flying around Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.  Indiana bats patrol the night skies, foraging for insects over the Mad River corridor. A maternity colony of Indiana bats was first documented at Wright-Patterson in 1993 and has been monitored regularly since then. For more than 20 years, these bats, which usually return to the area of their birth, have called the base their summer home. Prime habitat for the Indiana bat occurs only within about 700 acres of the Mad River’s forested riparian corridor, a small part of the base’s more than 8,000 acres, and concerns about habitat loss and degradation due to invasive species have arisen. 

BEFORE: The forest at Wright-Patterson with invasive honeysuckle in the understory. Photo by USFWS

Bush honeysuckles were introduced in the United States in the late 1800s for use in shelterbelts, wildlife habitat and landscaping. Birds disperse the seeds widely, and the plants have become naturalized throughout Ohio and the eastern United States. Bush honeysuckles are aggressive invasives that leaf out earlier in the spring than most native plants and maintain green leaves into the fall after most plants are dormant, shading out native plants and creating a monoculture. They  are recognized as one of Ohio’s top 10 invasive plants.

Indiana bat tree
An Indiana bat maternity roost tree near Wright-Patterson AFB. Photo by Melanie Cota/USFWS

The Mad River riparian zone canopy supports a diversity of native trees including maple, oak, hickory, cottonwood, hackberry, cherry, walnut, sycamore and ash. But the understory is dominated by honeysuckle, sometimes as large as 8 inches in diameter and 15 feet tall! 

Darryn Warner, the Natural Resources Program Manager at Wright-Patterson, noticed native tree saplings in the understory being out-competed by honeysuckle, and without management feared there would not be enough young trees to replace older trees as they die off. Thus, over time, Indiana bat habitat could become significantly degraded, or lost altogether. He decided that the Sike’s Act would be the mechanism to address the issue quickly.

The Sike’s Act requires all military installations to “provide for the conservation and rehabilitation of natural resources.” To do this, each installation must develop and regularly update an Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan (INRMP). In 2012, Warner updated the INRMP to include honeysuckle control within Indiana bat habitat along the Mad River corridor. This allowed Wright-Patterson to obtain funds in 2012 and 2013 and contract private companies to implement control activities. These companies cut and treated about 20 acres of bush honeysuckle per year.   

In Fiscal Year 2013, we established a nationwide interagency agreement with the Air Force allowing the Air Force to fund our staff to implement actions identified in INRMPs.  We received $60,000 in both fiscal years 2013 and 2014 to conduct invasive species control at Wright-Patterson, and an additional $10,000 per year to head-start forest regeneration in previously treated areas. 

Cleaned out
AFTER: The forest with cleaned-out understory. Photo by USFWS

Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, about 130 miles from Wright-Patterson in Indiana, had the staff, equipment and expertise to conduct the work. Biologist Brian Winters led a crew from Big Oaks, Muscatatuck and  Ottawa National Wildlife Refuges staff for 10 days during 2014-2015. Using machinery, herbicides, Service know-how and plenty of elbow grease, our folks treated about 100 acres, more than double what the contractors were able to treat, at a similar cost.


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We love to partner in projects that benefit endangered species and increase resilient landscapes; this project did just that by removing invasive honeysuckles and by planting native shellbark hickory trees, which are used by roosting bats as maternity colonies. Honeysuckle treatment is planned to continue over the next five years, including treatment of new areas and regrowth in areas that were treated previously.

So how is the Indiana bat faring at Wright-Patterson? Indiana bats continue to be captured there as recently as the last survey in 2012, and additional surveys are scheduled for 2017.

Indiana bats nationwide face the daunting threat of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that infects bats during hibernation and results in significant winter mortality. Ensuring that high-quality summer habitat persists within the home range of maternity colonies is a critical step in helping the bats that do survive white-nose syndrome recover and reproduce during the summer. Wright-Patterson is doing their part to ensure these small pilots have a safe landing spot this summer. 

Tribal Wildlife Grants of the Past Conserving, Inspiring and Engaging for the Future

  Tulalip Indian Tribe

Jane Chorazy, a public affairs officer in our Pacific Region, tells us how the Tulalip Tribes of Washington state have used grants awarded under our Tribal Wildlife Grant Program to enlarge their scientific team with educated, experienced tribal members to lead conservation work. Read more. Photo by the Tulalip Tribes 

ARGO Barge: A 1937 Shipwreck Haunts the Aquatic Habitat of Lake Erie

A diver in full “Level A” protective dive gear.

Betsy Painter, working in our Ecological Services Program, tells us about an often-unremarked-on problem with shipwrecks.

We’ve all heard tales of legendary sea monsters and mischievous pirates wreaking havoc on ships, sending some to their watery graves. While many of the actual shipwrecks of the past may not have involved mythical aquatic creatures or outlaw sailors, a seldom-told part of the story reveals  a danger more real and more deadly than Scylla and Charybdis or Long John Silver. The metallic skeletons of some ships that have managed to evade detection over the years are slowly decaying,  potentially threatening the waters of their final resting sites with the environmentally hazardous substances they hold.

This was the case for the ARGO barge—a ship carrying 4,800 barrels of oil that mysteriously sank in 1937 in Lake Erie. An oily sheen developed over the surface of a large patch of water nearly 80 years later after an anchor of a dive boat disturbed the sediment of the lake floor; the source of the oil was moments away from discovery.

A scan of the ARGO.  

In August 2015—after diving off his boat into the warm, rippling waters of Lake Erie and down into its cooling depths—a shipwreck hunter discovered the missing barge. Tom Kowalczk of Cleveland Underwater Explorers, a recreational diving club, located the ship at the bottom of the lake about 15 miles northeast of Lakeside, Ohio, while performing a sonar search. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has long sought ARGO because its holdings could cause an environmental disaster on the Great Lakes. Now that it is found, response and restoration efforts are assessing any damage already done and prevent further threats to the environment.

Richard Henry, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, works with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) environmental response team to provide technical support and advice for operations in the field. Henry’s role is to represent the Service’s goal of protecting endangered and threatened species and other trust resources during the cleanup process.

The initial response effort kicked off in November with commercial divers collecting sediment samples from the perimeter of the ARGO barge. The divers donned full “Level A” protective dive gear, “equivalent to an underwater moon suit,” explains Henry. The sediment samples were sent to a lab and analyzed for petroleum hydrocarbons, semivolatile and volatile organics, and PCBs. The sediment was also screened with direct reading field instruments, and the results suggested they were indeed contaminated with volatile organics. Out of the six to eight oil-filled cells still intact in the vessel, at least two of the compartments were leaking a vintage petroleum product, benzole.

The decision was made to offload the petroleum product from the barge so that no further oil could leak out into the water. “The divers emptied the barge’s contents while it rested on the lake bottom through a process called a ‘hot-tap’ which involves putting a hole in the barge wall and installing a port so a hose can be attached and the contents pumped out,” says Henry. “This time-critical action was aimed at reducing the imminent threat of harm to human health and the environment.”

Now that an empty ARGO no longer poses an imminent threat to humans and the environment, the next step is to evaluate the extent of the contamination and concentration of the benzole in the sediment. This data will help determine the magnitude of risk to fish and birds, as well as humans involved in various activities that may expose them to contaminants. Further response actions will be decided on the basis of the magnitude of the risk, and may include an action to remove or remediate contaminated sediment.

“Due to weather, additional characterization and/or removal actions were suspended until spring or summer of 2016,” says Henry. “The EPA’s Environmental Response Team, the group that I am embedded in, offered assistance to further characterize the sediment and determine the risk to human health and the environment.”

It looks like for now, ARGO will continue to haunt the bottom of Lake Eerie until its final destiny is decided, leak free and full of harmless lake water.

Conservation Connect Studies California Condors, Black-footed Ferrets This Wednesday

 California condor black-footed ferret

Captive-breeding programs – breeding animals in artificial, secure environments – are sometimes needed to keep a species from extinction, and when discussing captive breeding, two species stand out.

We worked with conservation partners in the 1980s to capture the last 22 California condors remaining in the wild. The birds were put in a captive-breeding program, and now, more than 400 condors exist (one even hatched in the wild on camera recently!). All are descendants of those original 22 condors. 

The black-footed ferret story is even more engrossing. 

The creatures were considered extinct or nearly extinct when a small population was located in Mellette County, South Dakota, in 1964, but that population died out, and in 1979, the ferret was again presumed extinct. In 1981, a population was discovered in Meeteetse, Wyoming, thanks to a local ranch dog. This time, captive breeding worked, and in 1991 ferrets were reintroduced into several areas. Last year, we reintroduced black-footed ferrets to the Colorado prairie.

Interested in learning more about these two, among the most endangered native animals in the United States? 

Join us for Conservation Connect LIVE on April 20 at 2 p.m. ET for in-depth looks at the black-footed ferret and the California condor. You’ll have the opportunity to chat with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Biologist John Hughes, from the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado, and Endangered Species Biologist Joseph Brandt, from Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex in  California. Tune in to ask questions about wildlife species, careers and new technology being used to study our natural world. Mark your calendars and join us at nctc.fws.gov/broadcasts. Visit http://bcove.me/dz1k7ylp to see our one-minute teaser trailer.

Conservation Connect is a web-based video series, in partnership with the National Science Teachers Association, that aims to connect youth, ages 10-15, with the great outdoors and conservation careers. To check out other episodes, resources, and lesson plans, visit http://nctc.fws.gov/conservationconnect/. We’ll see you on the 20th at 2 p.m.

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