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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.

Sea Turtle Conservation Hero Wins Lifetime Achievement Award

 Earl Possardt

In March, our own Earl Possardt was presented with the International Sea Turtle Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award, one of the most prestigious awards in the sea turtle community. We could not be more proud of Earl! He is an inspiration to us for his dedication, vision and passion.

The excerpts below are taken from the remarks that were delivered when Earl was presented the award on March 4 in Lima, Peru, at the International Sea Turtle Symposium. They demonstrate why his contributions to sea turtle conservation are so valued.

The majority of you likely know our next recipient of the International Sea Turtle Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) International Sea Turtle Coordinator, a position he has held for the past 18 years.  However, this individual’s sea turtle career and conservation accomplishments reach back much further, to the late 1980s, when he was based in Florida, but working throughout the southeast United States as the USFWS Southeast Sea Turtle Coordinator.  Of course we are talking about Earl Possardt.  


Nosing Out the Bad Guys

I have a service dog who helps me with various everyday tasks like picking things up, pushing buttons, carrying my lunchbox and pretty much anything else you can think of. Fame is awesome. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has dogs, too, helping us with various conservation tasks, and although they probably wouldn’t be that great at developing a recovery plan for an endangered species, the dogs are a wonder at sniffing out illegal wildlife products being shipped into or out of the country. 

Making it even more impressive: Unlike Fame, who has been training for her career her entire life, the FWS Wildlife Detector Dogs are mostly “recruited” from shelters. They and their inspector handlers do complete a training course at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Detector Dog Training Center in Newnan, Georgia. But still … instead of learning to sit or shake, these dogs are learning to “key” in on various scents. 

 Wildlife Detector Dogs
The new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service graduates (from left); Chad Hornbaker and his canine partner Dock; Pamela “PJ” Akeo and her canine partner Hanna; Javier Pacheco and his canine partner Smokey; and Lauren King and her canine partner Dutton. Photo by Nadine Siak/USFWS

The newest class of four Wildlife Detector Dogs -- Dock, Dutton, Hanna and Smokey -- and their human partners graduated today and will soon spread out across the nation to some of the busiest ports of entry for wildlife trade. There they will get to work conserving species like elephant, rhino, alligator and more. 

 Wildlife Detector Dogs
Wildlife Inspector Amanda Dickson and her canine partner Lancer, who both graduated from the Inspection Canine Team program in 2013, return to the National Detector Dog Training Center to show support for the newest graduates April 14,. Photo by Nadine Siak/USFWS

The first four Wildlife Detector Dogs -- Locket, Butter, Viper and Lancer -- graduated in April 2013 and quickly made their presence felt, sniffing out live birds, elephant ivory and more. With the newest noses on the job, smugglers might want to find a new line of work.

Matt Trott, External Affairs

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge Goes Back to School

 Kegotank Elementary
Volunteers remove stumps and other debris to make the garden.

We know that to remain relevant to an American public that is growing less connected to the outdoors, we must go where the people are – meeting them where they live, work or learn. At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, this has meant going back to school.

The refuge is working with many community partners to create a pollinator garden in the courtyard of a local school, Kegotank Elementary. Once completed, this garden will serve as an outdoor classroom for the school.

Chincoteague Park Ranger John Fitzroy, who has two daughters at the school, puts the reason for building at the school plainly: “The project is not being constructed on the refuge simply because the children are not there.  Although the kids who attend the school live 15 miles or so away from the refuge, very few get the opportunity to visit.”

“Ideally,” he adds, “it will serve as a schoolyard habitat where children can learn and reflect.” It will also give us a place to provide environmental education programs. 

But the classroom won’t just be about environmental education. When it is done before school starts this fall, in addition to the pollinator garden, it will include a vegetable garden and greenhouse, benches, an exercise area and accessible playground equipment. 

John got the garden party started. He was named the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Visitor Services Professional of the Year in 2015 and put the award money into the project. The Refuge added an additional $25.000. 

But he has had a ton of help from the Fish and Wildlife Services regional pollinator coordinator Flavia Rutkowski as well as the community, which threw its support behind the outdoor classroom. Our partners include other federal, state and local agencies, the Master Gardeners, Coast Guard, Navy, Lowe’s Home Improvement, and other community volunteers, not to mention teachers and students. 


Thank You, Volunteers

This amazing group of 10th graders from the Coastal Studies for Girls recently volunteered with Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. They worked all day in the rain and mud, singing as they planted native plants for wildlife like the New England cottontail. Photo by USFWS

What would you do if someone gave you $36 million – after you picked your jaw up off the ground, I mean?

That’s our happy predicament: Last year, nearly 40,000 volunteers donated 1.5 million hours, valued at more than $36 million, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those combined hours equal 681 full-time employees. The Service has a workforce of only a little over 9,000 employees, so those volunteer hours are a mighty big gift. 

We have an opportunity, however modest, to give all our volunteers a huge THANK YOU this week during National Volunteer Week.

INTERESTED? Get more information on volunteering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is almost impossible to list all the activities our volunteers help us with – everything probably describes it best – but here is a brief list: banding a bird, greeting a visitor, leading a birding tour, helping with a wildlife survey, sustaining a garden, planting native plants, pulling invasive weeds, working on various maintenance tasks and more.


Fun Facts about Bird Nests

Blue Eggs in Nest Box

If you pay careful attention to the birds this time of year, you may notice that some are carrying nesting material. Nests vary greatly across the country and different bird species have a number of unique techniques for building their perfect home to raise their young.

Here are just a few facts about nests from some of our beloved bird species:

  • Bald eagles build strong nests and use them year after year. They make improvements and add to the nest, it can weigh over a ton! The largest eagle nest was 20 feet deep and estimated to weigh 2 tons!  

>>Check out the nest on our eagle cam and watch them raise their chicks.

  • Some birds will use abandoned homes from other animals. Burrowing owls have been known to use abandoned prairie dog burrows to raise young. Unlike eagles,  great horned owls reuse nests built by other species and don’t make any improvements before moving in. It’s not unusual for their nests to collapse.

  • Blue-gray gnatcatchers makes their nests out of spiderwebs and lichen - and they didn’t even take basket weaving in college!

  • Ruby-throated hummingbirds have nests about the size of a thimble.  

  • Red-cockaded woodpecker nest in cavities that can take years to construct in a living tree. (But they sometimes have help.) They live in groups and will have as many as four helpers.

  • Gyrfalcons can use theirs for generations- one was discovered to be over 2,500 years old. They use rocky ledges or old raven nests.

  • Piping plovers make shallow depressions on the beach with a few twigs. Despite the lack of coverage, their nests can still be hard to spot because they are so well-camouflaged.

What should you do if you find a bird nest?

Admire it from afar!

Many bird nests are protected by law this time of year, because they are considered “active”. Tampering with an active nest is against the law.  An active nest is any nest where there are birds or eggs present. If you have a special situation where you must move the nest, you can apply for a permit but these are issued under very limited circumstances.

Some other interesting legal facts about bird nests? Bald and Golden eagle nests are always protected even when unoccupied. And it’s actually important that you get a permit to keep an unoccupied nest for educational purposes.

By maintaining a respectful distance from the bird nests, we can help ensure that the birds will not be sensitive to disturbance since if they feel threatened they may even abandon young.We certainly don’t want to detract from the incubation process and we don’t want to interfere with them in their home.  

Love birds?
Join Us in Celebrating the Migratory Bird Treaty and 100 Years of Bird Conservation ~ 1916-2016! #birdyear

Stepping Twice into the Same Stream: Terlingua Creek at Big Bend

Terlingua Creek
Willow poles planted six feet deep in the bed to Terlingua Creek near the juncture with the Rio Grande. Photo by Jeffery Bennett/NPS

Craig Springer of our Southwest Region tellsus about some amazing stream restoration work in west Texas.

The notion is as old as human experience—that people and places change over time. Heraclites reasoned 2,500 years ago that "Everything changes and nothing remains still and you cannot step twice into the same stream."

But you can try.

And try they are:  Jeff Bennett, a physical scientist at Big Bend National Park in west Texas, is a specialist in hydrology, the science of how water moves on and under the land. He’s working in partnership with Mike Montagne, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stationed at the Texas Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in San Marcos.  Big Bend is in Montagne’s bailiwick. These two, along with other important partners, strive to recreate some semblance of the stream that was Terlingua Creek more than a century ago to improve fish and wildlife habitat, some of it essential for the conservation of threatened or endangered bird and fish species.


Really, All Refuges are the Best

Last month, the folks at USA TODAY 10 Best asked the public to choose the best places to see various critters. Not surprisingly, National Wildlife Refuges were popular spots in all three categories.

None of the winners near you? Find a refuge close by at http://www.fws.gov/refuges/refugeLocatorMaps/index.html

Best Place to See Wildlife

American Bison are native to the Oklahoma Prairie. Photo by R Wood/USFWS

1. Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge - Oklahoma

At Wichita Mountains, which won an earlier 10 Best as best National Wildlife Refuge, three native herds dominate its 59,000 acres – American bison, Rocky Mountain elk and white-tailed deer. A total of 240 species of birds, 50 species of mammals, 64 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 36 species of fish have been documented on the refuge.

4. Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge - Colorado

One of the latest draws at Rocky Mountain Arsenal is the black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America. Its 15,000 acres of prairie and lakes attract raptors, migrating songbirds, wintering ducks and geese, and provide habitat for a variety of mammals including bison, coyotes and deer.

10. Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge - Alaska

You say Kodiak, and its namesake brown bears spring to mind.  But bald eagles, salmon, and a diversity of other fish and wildlife abound on the 1.9 million acres of pristine upland and waters.

Best Place to See Aquatic Life

Manatees swimming near Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Photo by Keith Ramos/USFWS

3. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge - Florida

Crystal River is the only refuge created specifically for the protection of the endangered Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee.

4. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge - Hawaii

Spinner dolphins, humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals and green turtles can all be spotted in the waters or on the beach below Kilauea Point.

7. J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge - Florida

It may be best known for its bevy of beautiful birds, but Ding Darling has manatees, crocodiles, terrapins, frogs, fish and more.

Best Place for Birding

whooping crane
Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Steve Hillebrand/USFWS

1. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge - Texas

The mild winters, bay waters and abundant food supply attract more than 400 species of birds to the Aransas. But one species of that 400 stands out: the whooping crane, one of North America’s rarest birds. The only natural wild flock of whooping cranes winters at Aransas. All of the whooping cranes alive today, both wild and captive, are descendants of the last 15 remaining cranes that were found wintering at the refuge in 1941.

2. Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge/Magee Marsh - Ohio

Much of Ottawa Refuge and the surrounding lands, on the shore of Lake Erie, were part of the Great Black Swamp. The 1,500 square mile Great Black Swamp was a vast network of forests, wetlands and grasslands. The refuge manages about 6,500 acres of wetland, grassland and wooded habitat. It provides valuable habitat for a diversity of waterfowl and other migratory birds. For instance, Ottawa may host as many as 38 different species of warbler including the yellow-rumped warbler during migration season.  

7. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge - Hawaii

Each year, thousands of migratory seabirds use double winner Kilauea Point for nesting, foraging or resting. Laysan albatross, red-footed boobies, brown boobies, red-tailed and white-tailed tropicbirds, great frigatebirds and wedge-tailed shearwaters all visit the refuge. In addition, migratory shorebirds, such as the kolea can be seen August through May. A small population of endangered nene were reintroduced on the refuge in the 1990s and are continuing to do well.

8. Cape May National Wildlife Refuge - New Jersey

Cape May's five-mile stretch along the Delaware Bay is a major resting and feeding area for migrating shorebirds and wading birds each spring such as the red knot. The arrival at Cape May of red knots and about 20 other shorebird species coincides with the horseshoe crab spawning season which occurs in May/early June. The crab eggs provide an abundant food supply these long-distance flyers use to replenish their energy reserves before moving on. 

10. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge - New Mexico

Dancing Sandhill cranes draw visitors to Bosque del Apache each year for the Festival of  Cranes. Other birds pass through the refuge on their way north or south. And some are year-round visitors.

California Condor Egg Hatches on Camera

Hey, eagle chicks, make way for a California condor!

A California condor egg hatched in the wild Monday, and for the first time in history, anyone with an Internet connection can watch it. And a live streaming video from a cliffside nest at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in Ventura County, California, will capture the young condor's journey to adulthood.

Interested? Condor biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Santa Barbara Zoo will answer questions about the condor nest from the public during an online livestream video chat hosted by Cornell Lab of Ornithology on April 14 at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET. 

“We’re eager and excited to not only be able to share this experience with the world, but also open up the opportunity for more people to learn about California condors, what makes them such remarkable birds, and draw attention to the very real threats they face in the wild,” says Joseph Brandt, one of our condor biologists.

The egg was incubated as part of the California Condor Recovery Program’s captive breeding effort at Los Angeles Zoo and replaced the California condor #111 and California condor #509 pair’s wild-laid egg that went missing in March. Biologists quickly mobilized to replace the missing egg with a dummy egg to ensure the male and female continued to incubate at the nest. On April 2, the captive-bred egg was placed into the nest. The soon-to-be condor parents, 22-year-old female condor, California condor #111 and her seven-year-old mate, California condor #509, have been courting since fall of 2014, and hatched their first wild chick together in April 2015. Sadly, the pair’s first chick died from lead poisoning, a harsh reality of the man-made threat condors continue to face in the wild.  

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