Ten Threats: Saving an Ancient Fish

  • A juvenile lake sturgeon. (Photo courtesy of USFS, Rob Elliott)

Biologists have been concerned about a number of native species that
have been disappearing. One of them is the largest fish in the Great
Lakes. Over-fishing and gravel mining in riverbeds have wiped out 99-
percent of the population of lake sturgeon. Sturgeon used to be common
throughout the Great Lakes, but they’re a rare sight these days. Celeste
Headlee reports… biologists are trying to save some of the sturgeon’s
spawning grounds:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you reports from the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’ Lester Graham is
our guide through the series. He says our next report is about an ancient
fish that’s been disappearing.


Biologists have been concerned about a number of native species that
have been disappearing. One of them is the largest fish in the Great
Lakes. Over-fishing and gravel mining in riverbeds have wiped out 99-
percent of the population of lake sturgeon. Sturgeon used to be common
throughout the Great Lakes, but they’re a rare sight these days. Celeste
Headlee reports… biologists are trying to save some of the sturgeon’s
spawning grounds:


(Sound of the lake)


Sturgeon are the largest fish in the Great Lakes. The grayish brown
creatures can grow up to seven feet long, and weigh more than 200
pounds. Sturgeon have been on Earth for 100 million years, and they’ve
remained essentially unchanged in all that time. Instead of scales, the
fish have an almost leathery skin with five rows of bony plates running
along their torpedo-shaped bodies.


Fish biologist Bruce Manny says sturgeon were once abundant in the
Great Lakes. Back in 1880, in one month’s time, fishermen pulled four
thousand of them from the Detroit River.


“They tore holes in their nets when they were fishing for other fish that
they cared about. So, when they found a sturgeon in their nets, they
would kill them, bring them to the shore, pile them up on shore, dry them
out and use them for fuel in the steamships. Burn them up.”


Most of the time, the creatures were caught and killed while fisherman
angled for more valuable fish. Scientists think over fishing has caused
sturgeon populations in all of the Great Lakes to dwindle to less than one
percent of their former number.


The state of Michigan closed the Detroit River to sturgeon-fishing years
ago. Bruce Manny says he decided to check on the sturgeon and see if
the fish population had started to recover.


Manny assembled a team of biologists from the U.S. Geological Survey.
He says he was surprised when his team caught only 86 fish over the
course of four years. Manny says he realized the sturgeon were in
serious trouble.


USGS scientists followed the tagged fish for two years, and their
patience was eventually rewarded. Manny found the first known
spawning site ever documented in Detroit River in modern times.


“We were excited all right. Eureka moment. I mean this is like a very,
very great coincidence that we were able to find these spawning ready
males, and they were able to find a female. When there are only 86 fish
caught in four years out here, there aren’t that many around. So, to find
someone to spawn with is a real challenge, I would say.”


The area where the sturgeon mated lies close to a sewer discharge pipe.
There are limp, brown grasses bordering grey, mucky water. Manny sent
divers down and discovered the fish had actually produced fertilized
eggs. Manny says this was a major step forward for his project.


Sturgeon are pretty picky about their nesting sites. They need a fast
moving current and several layers of rock where eggs rest safely. The
problem is a lot of the gravel has been mined out of the Detroit River for
use in construction.


Another problem is the sturgeons’ long life. Fish biologist Ron Bruch is
in Wisconsin. He oversees sturgeon populations in Wisconsin’s
Winnebago river system. He says female sturgeons live more than 100
years and they don’t spawn until they are at least 20 years old.


“Their life history works well for a long-lived species, but it doesn’t
work well for a species that’s exploited heavily. So, sturgeon can only
tolerate very low exploitation rates, and when that exploitation is high
the populations collapse.”


Wisconsin was the first state in the U.S. to create a sturgeon management
program more than 100 years ago, and the fish are more abundant there.


Biologists in Michigan monitored the nesting sites in the Detroit River
this spring. Eight species of fish used the beds, including popular sport
fish like yellow perch and walleye. Only two sturgeon came by the sites,
but they weren’t ready to spawn.


Ron Bruch says biologists will have to create a lot more spawning sites
like the ones in the Detroit River before the sturgeon population is firmly
reestablished in the Great Lakes.


“In and of itself, it’s not going to restore all of Lake Erie or all the Great
Lakes, but it’s a shining example of what can be done in many areas
around the Great Lakes to help produce Lake Sturgeon spawning habitat
and rehabilitate the Lake Sturgeon population.”


USGS biologists will go back to the nesting sites next spring. They say it may
take years for sturgeon to notice the small beds in the 32-mile river.


One important development, though, is a change of policy from the
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Canadians used to allow
fisherman to take one sturgeon a day out of the river. Now, it’s illegal to
possess one of the endangered fish on both sides of the channel.


For the GLRC, I’m Celeste Headlee.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Coaster Brook Trout

  • A close up look at a Coaster Brook trout. (Courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

A lot of native fish have been hurt by pollution, invasive species and changes we’ve
made on the lake, but one fish stands out. For anglers, the Coaster Brook trout might have
been the greatest Great Lakes fish. It was abundant, fun to catch and lived in the cleanest
water, but throughout the 20th century, its populations declined just as the health of the
lakes did. Now, slowly, a diverse group of people is trying to save the fish in an effort
that could improve the Great Lakes too. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris
McCarus reports:

Transcript

We’re continuing our look at Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Lester Graham is the
series guide. He says one of the threats is a disappearing species.


A lot of native fish have been hurt by pollution, invasive species and changes we’ve
made on the lake, but one fish stands out. For anglers, the coaster brook trout might have
been the greatest Great Lakes fish. It was abundant, fun to catch and lived in the cleanest
water, but throughout the 20th century, its populations declined just as the health of the
lakes did. Now, slowly, a diverse group of people is trying to save the fish in an effort
that could improve the Great Lakes too. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris
McCarus reports:


(Sound of river waterfall)


Hundreds of feet above Lake Superior, the Salmon Trout River flows fast and falls hard
onto a rocky bottom below. Much of the river lies within a large tract of private woods
and hills. It’s been untouched for about a century.


Peter Dykema and his family are part owners of the land. He speaks with affection about
fishing for coaster brook trout here as a kid.


“Well as you can tell it’s a beautiful river and there’s nothing a 14 year old boy would
rather do than get his feet cold and wet and throw flies into trees. So, I did it every
chance I had.”


Dykema is nostalgic because those days are long gone for almost everybody. He’s part
of a group of activists trying to restore the coaster brook population.


Coaster brook trout have sparkling colors. They’re even more colorful than Rainbow
trout, and they grow a lot bigger. They can reach 2 feet and 4 pounds. These indigenous
fish used to live in 200 streams around Lake Superior. People came from all around the
nation to fish for them. Presidents Roosevelt and McKinley came to Michigan to catch
them, and they were caught by the boatload.


Over fishing was one of the biggest reasons why they were nearly wiped out. Their
habitat was damaged from mining and road building. Silt filled in the rock bottom where
they like to lay their eggs. That also hurt the fish.


Logging damaged the coaster brook’s habitat. Scott Libants is a fish and wildlife
researcher at Michigan State University. He says loggers dammed up streams to flood
them. Then they packed them with logs. When they had enough, they broke the streams
back open so the logs would float down to the lake to be sold.


“You knock the dam out and send all the trees down. You scour the watershed. It’s like
flushing a toilet.”


The fish haven’t recovered since. They just couldn’t take the abuse.


The Salmon Trout River still has them because the private landowners banned fishing
and didn’t alter the land. It’s one of only a handful of streams in the U.S. and Canada
that still has the coaster brook trout.


(Sound of people walking in the woods)


Downstream on the way to Lake Superior, Peter Dykema and state environmental
officials walk to the spot where they have equipment that counts the numbers of coaster
brooks going up river to lay their eggs. Dykema says they counted more than 80 fish last
season. The population seems to be slowly increasing here, but the stream still isn’t
perfect. There’s too much sand and not enough gravel for laying eggs.


“Most of the sediment problem we are looking at is a creature of the last 40 or 50 years.
So if we can stop the input, I’m hoping that the river will be able to cleanse itself.


The sediment Dykema is talking about comes from the points where roads cross the river.
People and cars jar soil loose and it fills up the riverbed. This is the fish’s current
challenge. Coaster brook trout are sensitive and susceptible to pollution. Conservation
officials use brook trout as indicators of high water quality. Coaster brooks will die if
they don’t have nearly perfect conditions.


(Sound of Lake superior waves lapping on rocks.)


Few anglers alive today have seen coaster brook trout, but if they could this would be the
place. It’s where the Salmon Trout River meets Lake Superior. For a diverse group of
conservationists, this place symbolizes what people did to the land and water of the
region.


Laura Hewitt is visiting from Trout Unlimited in Wisconsin.


“This is a fish that presidents came to fish for, that Hemingway wrote about. It’s
something that captures the imagination, it touches the soul. It’s a fish that we care
very much about and think it can be sort of a rallying point for action in the basin.”


Those working to preserve the last few hundred coaster brook trout say we should feel
lucky that they’re not all gone. They say now’s the time to keep what’s left, build it up,
and use the eggs from this small population to start the fish in other streams of Lake
Superior. Then perhaps within our lifetime, our children can enjoy the fish that our great
grandfathers did, and in doing that, they’ll know the water’s clean.


For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.

Related Links

Ten Threats: The American Eel

  • Researchers measuring an American Eel. (Courtesy of United States Department of Agriculture)

Pollution and invasive species are killing off or crowding out native plants and animals,
but for some species, it’s not just one problem, but many problems that are hurting them.
Few species illustrate the dangers of the multiple threats to the Great Lakes as the American
eel. Only fifty years ago, the snake-like fish accounted for half of the biomass in Lake
Ontario. Today, it has all but disappeared. David Sommerstein has that story:

Transcript

In our next report in the series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes we hear about native
species that are in trouble. Our guide in the series is Lester Graham. He says some fish
and organisms are disappearing.


Pollution and invasive species are killing off or crowding out native plants and animals,
but for some species, it’s not just one problem, but many problems that are hurting them.
Few species illustrate the dangers of the multiple threats to the Great Lakes as the American
eel. Only fifty years ago, the snake-like fish accounted for half of the biomass in Lake
Ontario. Today, it has all but disappeared. David Sommerstein has that story:


Before you say, who cares about a slimy critter like an eel, eels are amazing. They spawn
in the Sargasso Sea, the Bermuda Triangle, but no one’s ever caught them in the act.


After they’re born, they’re like tiny glassy leaves. They float thousands of miles north
and west on ocean currents. Then, they wiggle up the St. Lawrence River and into the
Great Lakes. They live up to 20 years in fresh water before they start the long journey to
the Sargasso to spawn.


The problem is their offspring are not coming back. People are worried about the eel, and
those who relied on it for a living feel like they’re disappearing too.


(Sound of waves)


Just ask fisherman John Rorabeck. He grew up here by the lighthouse on Point Traverse,
a peninsula that juts out into northeastern Lake Ontario.


Rorabeck’s been fishing these waters for more than 30 years. Eels were his prime catch.
He points past the lighthouse.


“I remember when I started fishing there were nights on that south shore, the most fish
that would be eels at certain times and there was literally tons of them on that south
shore. Now, you could go back there and you’ll find nothing.”


Rorabeck stopped fishing eels several years ago because it just wasn’t worth it. Now he
dedicates his fishing time to science. He catches specimens for leading eel expert John
Casselman, who examines them in his lab.


“It is truly a crisis. A crisis of concern.”


Casselman’s a scientist at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. In 1980, at a point on
the St. Lawrence River in mid-summer, he counted more than 25,000 eels a day. Now
there are as few as 20 a day.


Casselman ticks off a list of causes. It sounds like a who’s who of environmental threats
to the Great Lakes – over fishing, dammed up rivers, erosion, pollution, invasive species,
climate change. If scientists could sift out how all the factors relate, they could take a big
step in better understanding the Great Lakes delicate ecosystem.


The problem is, Casselman says, there’s no time to wait. In 2003, eel experts from 18
countries made an unusual statement. In what they called the Quebec Declaration of
Concern, they urged more action, not more science.


“I’m a research scientist, and of course I love data. At this point, you don’t want me.
Don’t ask me to explain what’s going on here because by the time I get it figured out, it
may be too late.”


People are starting to do something about it, Casselman says. Several U.S. agencies are
considering giving the eel “rare and endangered” status. More money is going toward
research for fish ladders over dams.


Marc Gaden is spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.


“We’re committing ourselves, our resources to working to make the recovery of the
species a reality.”


The province of Ontario has closed the eel fishery in its waters for the foreseeable future.


(Sound up at beach)


Fisherman John Rorabeck supports that plan. He stares out across the waters he’s
trawled for decades. He says he’s behind anything to bring the eel back for future
generations.


“And hopefully we can, but I don’t expect to see it in my time. When I…[crying]…when I
think of all the times that we’ve had out in the lake and my forefathers and see what’s
happening here, it breaks you down.”


Rorabeck says when he thinks of the eel nearing extinction, he feels like he and his way
of life are becoming extinct too.


For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Break in the Food Chain?

  • Diporeia are disappearing from Lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. The actual size of a diporeia is ½ an inch. (Courtesy of the EPA)

Some of the life in the Great Lakes has been hit hard by industry and trade. Pollution and
invasive species have hurt some of the native plants and animals important to the food
chain. While popular game fish might be the first to come to mind, it’s a little organism
at the bottom of the food chain that has biologists and fishing experts most concerned.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

In a survey, experts said one of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is a disappearing
species. Some native fish populations and organisms are declining. Our guide through
the Ten Threats series is Lester Graham.


Some of the life in the Great Lakes has been hit hard by industry and trade. Pollution and
invasive species have hurt some of the native plants and animals important to the food
chain. While popular game fish might be the first to come to mind, it’s a little organism
at the bottom of the food chain that has biologists and fishing experts most concerned.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


(Sound of swinging doors)


Jack Donlan is taking me behind the fish counter at Donlan’s Fish House. In the
backroom he’s scaling and filleting some whitefish.


“Of the fishes caught in the Great Lakes, whitefish is one of the big volume fishes. Lake
perch, walleye bring more money per pound, but I would think from a tonnage-wise,
whitefish, it’s an extremely popular fish.”


This is a popular place to get Great Lakes fish, but Donlan’s suppliers, the commercial
fishers, are worried about the catch. At some places in the Great Lakes whitefish aren’t
doing too well.


(Sound of Lake Guardian motors)


Tom Nalepa is trying to figure out why whitefish are struggling. He’s onboard the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency research ship, the Lake Guardian. Nalepa is a
biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes
Environmental Research Lab. He’s been studying Lakes Michigan and Huron, and on
this day he’s getting ready to study the bottom of Lake Erie.


He’s not studying whitefish. He’s actually looking for a tiny shrimp-like crustacean, only an
eighth to a quarter inch long, called diporeia. Eighty-percent of the whitefish diet is
made up of diporeia.


“And what we’re seeing is a dramatic drop in populations, and not only drops, but there are
large areas now in all the lakes, except Lake Superior, that no longer have diporeia. This
is real concern because diporeia is a very important fish food.”


Researchers used to find eight to 10-thousand diporeia or more in a square meter of sediment just
a few years ago. Now, there are only a dozen or so, or none at all. Diporeia is one of the
mainstays of the bottom of the food chain, and Nalepa says whitefish aren’t the only ones
that eat the tiny critters in the sediment at the bottom of the lakes.


“Just about every type of species found in the Great Lakes will feed on diporeia at some
stage in its life-cycle. Diporeia is high in calories and has a high-energy content. It’s a
very good food, nutritious food source for fish.”


Without it, fish are not getting enough to eat. Marc Gaden is with the Great Lakes
Fishery Commission. He says when diporeia disappears, commercial fishers can’t help
but notice.


“Right now we’re seeing skinnier whitefish. Whitefish that are somewhat emaciated in
some areas because they just don’t have as much of these low-end of the food web organisms
to eat, and we think it’s related to an invasive species that came in.”


That invasive species is the zebra mussel, and more recently another invader that was
likely carried to the lakes in the ballasts of ocean-going cargo ships, the quagga mussels.


Back on the Lake Guardian, Tom Nalepa says he’s seen the connection again and again.


“There’s no question that it’s related to zebra mussels and quagga mussels. In every area
that we’ve studied, regardless of the lake area, declines were happening a couple of years
after the quagga mussel or zebra mussel were first found, but that connection remains
elusive.”


Biologists thought the invasive mussels might have been filtering out all of the food the
diporeia eat, but when they find diporeia, they don’t appear to be starving. They appear
healthy. Now, scientists are wondering if there’s some kind of disease or toxin spread
by the mussels that’s wiping out the diporeia.


Even if researchers learn why the diporeia are disappearing, there might be nothing that
can be done to help. Some scientists worry that the decline of diporeia and other
organisms at the base of the food chain might ultimately lead to a massive collapse of fish
stocks in the Great Lakes.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Is Endangered Species Act Endangered?

  • The piping plover is a tiny bird, about the size of a parakeet. (Photo courtesy of the USFWS)

The Endangered Species Act protects plants and animals that are on the brink of extinction. The American Bald Eagle and the Timber Wolf are examples of animals that have recovered because of the Act. But, some conservative members of Congress think the Endangered Species Act goes too far. They say the law often stands in the way of economic progress and private property rights. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has this story:

Transcript

The Endangered Species Act protects plants and animals that are on the brink
of extinction. The American Bald eagle and the Timber wolf are examples of
animals that have recovered because of the Act. But some conservative
members of Congress think the Endangered Species Act goes too far. They say
the law often stands in the way of economic progress and private property
rights. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has this story:


(Sound of shoreline and low peeps of the plover)


The piping plover is a tiny little bird. It’s not much bigger than a parakeet. This plover scurries around on the beach. It’s making a distress call and showing a broken wing display because it’s
nervous about a group of people building a cage around its nest.


(Sound of metal cage rattling)


But the people are here to help; they’re trying to protect its nest. Plovers build their nests out of little round stones right on the beach. Amanda Brushaber is a biological technician with the National Park Service. She’s leading a group of volunteers who are working to save this rare little bird.


“Right now, we’re exclosing the nests that have eggs in them. The
exclosures keep the predators out, and keep the birds of prey out, so that
the eggs have a chance of making it to hatch, which takes 28 days.”


These birds are getting help because they were put on the Endangered Species
List back in 1986. At one point there were only eleven breeding pairs left in the Great Lakes
region. The birds like wide sandy beaches that have strips of stones and cobble.


But these shorelines have been under a lot of development pressure. And with more buildings and more people on the beaches, the bird’s had a tough time surviving.


The piping plover is just one of the more than 1,800 plants and animals that
are protected by the Endangered Species Act. The Act has been around for more than thirty years. It’s considered the strongest law in the world in protecting endangered
plants and animals, and for the most part, it’s remained unchanged since it was first passed.


But some members of Congress think the Endangered Species Act goes too far. They say enforcement of the Act is often heavy handed to the point that it’s an abuse of federal power.


California Congressman Richard Pombo chairs the House Committee on
Resources. He’s a vocal critic of the Act. Brian Kennedy is a spokesperson for Congressman Pombo and his Committee. He says the Congressman’s constituents are afraid of finding an endangered
species on their land because it could limit how they use their land.


“In other words, if the federal government finds an endangered species on a
fraction of an individual’s private property, he loses the use of that
property and then when that individual goes to sell it, it is worth less
than it would be otherwise.”


Private property advocates say they want owners compensated for this loss. Otherwise they say their rights to their land are being taken away. They refer to this loss as a ‘taking.’ But people who enforce the Act say there’s a lot of misunderstanding about
what it means.


Jack Dingledine is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says they work closely with landowners to make sure a development won’t harm a protected species.


“If a landowner finds an endangered species on their property, they do have
an obligation not to harm the species when it’s there. It doesn’t mean that
we’re going to close beaches, and we don’t seize people’s property, but we
would ask that they consider any actions that might harm the species.”


Harming a species includes damaging the place where it lives – even if that
habitat is on privately owned land. And this is what makes private property advocates bristle. They see this as an infringement on their rights to do whatever they want
with their land.


Several bills are being developed that would change the way the Act is
implemented. The sponsors of these bills say the changes they want to make to the
Endangered Species Act will be an improvement.


But supporters of the Act say these bills do nothing to improve the law. Kieran Suckling is with the Center for Biological Diversity. He says these critics of the Endangered Species Act are hiding their true
agenda.


“Down the line, these are all industry sponsored bills that have no purpose
other than to get rid of environmental protection to benefit industry,
period. They can spin it any way they want, but at the end of the day, that’s
what their bill says.”


Supporters of the Endangered Species Act are troubled by the way Congress
has changed its tune. When the Act was first passed 32 years ago, Congress voted for it by a 355
to 4 margin. The law was extremely popular because there was a sense of urgency about
protecting endangered plants and animals.


Many environmentalists are concerned that if the Endangered Species Act is
weakened now, we’ll see more wildlife wiped out of existence.


For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Saving Rattlesnakes From Development

  • Veterinarian Dr. Tara Harrison operates on an Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake to implant a radio transmitter for tracking in the wild. (Photo by Chris McCarus)

The Eastern Massassauga Rattlesnake used to be found all over the Midwest. Now there’s only one state where the population is fairly healthy, but even there it’s threatened by rapid development. A group of scientists is trying to protect the snake before all of its habitat is gone.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:

Transcript

The Eastern Eastern Massassauga Rattlesnake used to be found all over the Midwest. Now there’s only one state where the population is fairly healthy. But even there, it’s threatened by rapid development. A group of scientists is trying to protect the snake before all of its habitat is gone. The GLRC’s Chris McCarus reports:


(Sound of snake rattling)


A team of veterinarians and researchers is pulling an Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake from a bag. They put the snake on an operating table. Then the doctor snips open the skin.


“Okay, so I’m into the abdominal cavity.”


She’s putting a radio transmitter the size of a AA battery into the snake’s belly. This will allow them to track the snake’s movement in the wild for the next two years.
Kristin Wildman is a graduate student at Michigan State University. She catches and tracks the snakes. She’s involved in a project with federal, state and university biologists. They’re trying to protect the Massasauga.


She thinks of the snakes as being much like herself. She identifies with their personalities. Wildman says these snakes are just modest. They don’t like to attract attention and don’t like to hurt anybody.


“Like with this snake, she’s one of the bitier snakes I have in this study. And she only strikes the tongs – the snake tongs – because I’m grabbing her with the snake tongs. It just kind of gives you an idea. They don’t really strike unless you’re messing with them, unless they have a really good reason to, or unless they’re harassed enough that they feel they need to.”


Although it would rather avoid you, if you’re bitten by a Massasauga Rattler, its venom can kill you.


But it can’t fight people destroying its habitat.


Mike DeCapita is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He and other experts say rapid development is the snake’s biggest enemy. It’s not only destroying the snake’s habitat, it’s also destroying other wildlife habitat.


“The Massasauga is sort of an indicator species or a keystone species; perhaps that if we adjust so that we protect the needs of the Massasauga then all those species that use that same type of habitat also are protected.”


The onslaught of development has made the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake a candidate for the endangered species list, though it’s not on the list yet.


(Sound of hammering and cement mixing)


A new subdivision is being built in suburban Detroit. It’s just beyond the gate of a park where the research team came to study Massasauga habitat.


(Sound of people walking on a trail and talking)


Andy Hertz works for the State Department of Environmental Quality. He has the authority to refuse a building permit to anyone who could hurt Massasaugas.


“This is part of an effort of making us more aware of the habitat the Massasauga’s found in, so hopefully, we can direct developers and landowners to stay away from these more sensitive areas.”


In the winter, the Massasauga joins the frogs and turtles. They hibernate in marshes about two feet underground. Then, in spring and summer, they’ll seek higher ground for feeding. They can’t survive if they can’t move back and forth between their summer and wintering grounds. The research team has figured out this rule for minimizing damage to the snake’s habitat: don’t tamper with wetlands in winter nor the uplands in summer.


The team is focusing on Michigan to see why the population is the healthiest there. Then perhaps they can understand how to protect the rattlers in the rest of the Midwest where they’re nearly wiped out.


While she’s looking for more snakes, graduate student Kristin Wildman laughs about how a woman once called her to take a Massasauga away from the side of her house.


“We said, ‘Well, we’ll come out and we’ll move it for you.’ And we usually just move it down into the nearest wetland, down the hill. We pull in and she lives on Rattlesnake Drive. I didn’t expect to move out here and have all these rattlesnakes and stuff. It’s like, you live on Rattlesnake Drive. It’s called that for a reason.”


Wildman says when people come into conflict with wildlife, the wildlife almost always loses. If the Massasauga Rattler is going to survive it will take constant attention from all kinds of experts. They’ll have to stop developers from building over the snake’s habitat and threatening its existence.


For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.

Related Links

Rare Warbler Makes Comeback

  • The Kirtland's Warbler is listed as an endangered species. Its numbers are up these days in Michigan, due to a devastating fire that had positive consequences for warbler habitat. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

New census figures show the population of one of the rarest songbirds in North America is at a record high. Biologists say the tiny Kirtland’s Warbler is one of the lesser-known success stories of the Endangered Species Act. But the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sally Eisele reports that success has not come without a price:

Transcript

New census figures show the population of one of the rarest songbirds in North America is at a
record high. Biologists say the tiny Kirtland’s Warbler is one of the lesser-known success
stories of the Endangered Species Act. But the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sally
Eisele reports that success has not come without a price:


To find the bird at this time of year, there’s only one place to go—the pine forests of
northern Michigan.


“Hear anything out there yet? No, we may need to take a walk.”


Forest Service biologist Joe Gomola hikes off in search of a Kirtland’s Warbler. He’s
armed with binoculars and a bird watching scope that looks like a bazooka. But he’s
really using his ears.


(forest sounds)


He doesn’t need to go far.


Quietly, he sets up his scope and focuses on a small pine about twenty feet away. There,
a bluish-gray bird—head thrown back, yellow breast puffed out—warbles the loudest
song in the forest.


(Kirtland’s Warbler singing)


“He has to know we’re here… and he just sits unperturbed. Just gorgeous.”


This is the only part of the world where Kirtland’s Warbler are known to nest, drawn to
the scrubby young jack pine that reseed in forest fires.


Logging and fire prevention efforts brought the bird close to extinction. In 1987,
researchers counted only 167 singing males. Ironically, a tragic accident marked a
turning point for the warbler. In 1980, what had begun as a small controlled burn to
create nesting ground for the bird turned into a massive wildfire, killing a Forest Service
worker and engulfing the small village of Mack Lake. But Rex Ennis, head of the
Warbler Recovery Team, says the disaster eventually created 25,000 acres of ideal
warbler habitat. Unexpectedly the bird began to thrive.


“There was loss of life, loss of property which were all tragedies when you looked at
that… but the end result of that was it created an ecological condition we saw the warbler
respond to. Those things we learned from that wildfire made our current management
strategy very successful.”


That strategy involves state and federal agencies working together under the Endangered
Species Act to control predators and create warbler habitat by clear-cutting and
reforestation. The goal is to replicate conditions once created naturally by wildfire.


After the Mack Lake disaster, researchers realized much larger managed habitat areas
were needed. Today, 150,000 acres of state and federal land have been identified as
potential habitat. It’s a massive, multi-million dollar effort and not everybody likes it.


(store ambience)


Linda Gordert and her husband own Northern Sporting Goods in Mio, the heart of
warbler country. She says folks resent the warbler program because it restricts access to
the state and national forests.


“More complaints from hunters and just everybody… when they come in and say you
can’t go into this area because it’s Kirtland Warbler management area. They’re taking up
thousands and thousands of more acres of this because of the Kirtland management area
and that’s the complaints we hear.”


The bird supporters counter the warbler benefits the region. The forestry program
generates jobs and revenue and a yearly Kirtland’s Warbler Festival attracts thousands for
a glimpse of the rare, pretty songbird. But there will always be competition for the land.
And the recovery team says it needs more acreage, not less, to replace habitat as it
matures and becomes unsuitable for the bird.


(Warbler sings)


His scope still on the warbler, Joe Gomola says some worry about the danger of a fire
like the Mack Lake burn, happening again in the flammable jack pine they now plant.


“But it’s part of the ecosystem that was here before us…same with the Kirtland’s and
we’re charged with managing habitat for this endangered species. And that’s what we’re
doing. (SE: “Is that the same bird?”) Same bird. We’re probably close to the center of
his territory, he’s made almost a full circle around us.”


This year’s census found 1,340 singing males—a record that has started talk of eventually
changing the warbler’s endangered status. But the recovery program has become the
bird’s life support system. 90 percent of the birds were counted in man-made plantations,
indicating habitat management must also continue indefinitely if the bird is to survive.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Sally Eisele.

Related Links

Canadian ‘Species at Risk’ Law Criticized

A Canadian environmental group is protesting Canada’s decision to seek public comments before giving protection to endangered species. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports:

Transcript

A Canadian environmental group is protesting Canada’s decision to seek public comments before
giving protection to endangered species. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly
reports:


Representatives of the Sierra Club of Canada say they were blindsided by the federal
government’s decision.


The government announced public consultations to consider adding 63 new species to Canada’s
Species at Risk Act.


The Sierra Club’s Rachel Plotkin says endangered species should be chosen by scientists, not by
the public at large.


“Either a species is becoming endangered or its not becoming endangered. It’s not whether or not
someone wants it to be on the list because they recognize that might impact their profit and their
industry.”


Plotkin says socioeconomic issues are already considered when action plans are developped to protect a species.
Unlike the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Canadian law only protects species on federal land.

However, new listings in the U.S. are also subject to public comment.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.

Related Links

BIOLOGISTS TRACK LYNX’S RETURN

  • Canada lynx are rare in the U.S. Their populations fluctuate following the population cycles of snowshoe hare, their main prey. Photo courtesy of the Gov't of NW Territories.

Some areas of the Great Lakes are again home to an elusive wild cat. Canada Lynx disappeared from the region about twenty years ago. Now, considered threatened, lynx are turning up in the Superior National Forest for the first time in decades. Biologists are trying to figure out why they’ve come back, and whether they’ll stay. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Kelleher reports:

Transcript

Some areas of the Great Lakes are again home to an elusive wild cat. Canada Lynx disappeared
from Minnesota about twenty years ago. Now, considered threatened lynx are turning up in the
Superior National Forest for the first time in decades. Biologists are trying to figure out why
they’ve come back, and whether they’ll stay. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Kelleher
reports:


Lynx have tufted ears, a stubby tail, and big snowshoe feet. They’re a northern forest cat,
about the size of a cocker spaniel. Lynx range across much of Canada and Alaska, but
historically they were found in the Great Lakes region as well. Lynx are loners and range a huge
territory. They seem to follow their favorite prey, snowshoe hare, and recently, Minnesota’s
Superior National Forest has been jumping with hares.


“It doesn’t matter where snowshoe hares are. If they’re there, that’s where cats are going to be.”


University of Minnesota Researcher, Chris Burdette, has one possible explanation for the return
of Canada Lynx.


“There’s a lot of snowshoe hares in this part of the area, and up to 90% of a lynx’s diet is
snowshoe hares.”


Hare populations boom and bust in about seven-year cycles. But in recent population booms, the
lynx were missing. By the mid-1990s, lynx were considered gone from Minnesota, until now.
Three years ago, the cats were spotted again in the region.


Burdette has just begun to count and track northeast Minnesota’s lynx. Two cats have been fitted
with radio collars. It’s not yet clear how many others are wandering the forest. And Burdette
says, lynx do wander.


“It’s very likely that the majority of these animals migrated from Canada. These animals innately
want to disperse long distances.”


Burdette was checking his traps recently, marching through dense balsam fir and the last
remnants of spring snow.


(walking through snow)


His lynx traps are chicken wire boxes, the size of a big dog house, with a bit of hare or beaver in
the back and a door on the front poised to slap shut. But on this day, there were no lynx to be
found.


“It seems like it’s been in there. We cover it up with some balsam, spruce, pine
boughs – whatever we have to sort of make it look more natural. So this one looks clear.”


Lynx were added to the list of threatened species three years ago. An environmental group sued
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, saying the agency’s recovery plans overlooked lynx
populations in the Western Great Lakes, Maine and the Southern Rockies.


Mike Leahy, Counsel for Defenders of Wildlife, says it’s clear there are lynx in the Great Lakes
Region.


“The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had for a long time vehemently denied that
there could possibly be more than one or two lynx in the entire state, and, they found indeed,
there’s a resident population of lynx in Minnesota.”


Lynx aren’t entirely welcomed. Some residents worry that rules protecting the threatened species
might stop timber sales, or close roads and recreation trails. They remember the Pacific
Northwest, where logging was stopped for spotted owls. But that won’t happen for lynx,
according to Superior National Forest Biologist, Ed Lindquist.


“It’s certainly not a four-legged spotted owl. It really likes regenerating forest – dense
regenerating forest – that provides good snowshoe hare habitat.”


And regenerating forest is what you get after harvesting timber. New aspen growth attracts hares.
Lynx also need older growth nearby for shelter.


Chris Burdette’s study will help create a lynx recovery plan. But he says recovery – actually
getting the cat off federal protection – isn’t even on the horizon.


“No where near it. Very preliminary stages. We’re just in the data collection stage right now, so we
can put some kind of scientific thoughts into the process of managing this species.


There’s little known about the elusive cat or it’s prey. Understanding snowshoe hares will help
researchers understand the lynx.


“Are they going to be here in three years? Are they going to be here in five years, or whatever?
That’s a very open question.”


Burdette will trap lynx until bears begin raiding the bait in his box traps. Then he’ll radio track
collared lynx and monitor hare feeding areas for signs of lynx. The lynx study is funded for three
years, but it might take ten to begin understanding this rare cat.


For The Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bob Kelleher.

Endangered Mussel Rides to Renewal

  • Biologists release bass, gills laced with Higgin's Eye Pearly Mussel larvae, into the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Up and down the Mississippi River, people once collected tons of mussels for the pearl button industry. Factories stamped out pearl buttons from the shells, sometimes wiping out 50,000 tons of mussels annually in the early part of the last century. In recent years, the biggest threat to local mussel species has come from the zebra mussel. That invasive species came to North America in the ballast water of ships and has since disrupted many local ecosystems. Today, there’s a new effort underway to bring back local species like the Higgin’s Eye Pearly Mussel, and it’s in an unlikely place. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby has this report:

Transcript

Up and down the Mississippi River, people once collected tons of mussels for
the pearl button industry. Factories stamped out pearl buttons from the shells,
sometimes wiping out 50,000 tons of mussels annually in the early part of
the last century. In recent years, the biggest threat to local mussel species
has come from the zebra mussel. That invasive species came to North America in
the ballast water of ships and has since disrupted many local ecosystems. Today,
there’s a new effort underway to bring back local species like the Higgin’s
Eye Pearly Mussel. And it’s in an unlikely place. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Todd Melby has this report:


Urban areas like Minneapolis-Saint Paul might seem like an unusual
location to boost the population of an endangered species.


But it’s here, below a busy bridge that spans the Mississippi River, that
biologists are searching for a safe place for their project. Divers have
just come up from the bottom of the river with a few mussel specimens.


“Well, we’ve got Big Toe, Maple Leaf, Three Ridge. Good enough I think.”


That’s Mike Davis rattling off the names of mussel species. Davis is
a biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The fact that
some mussels live in this part of the river makes Davis think that this
might be a good spot for the Higgin’s Eye. The Higgin’s Eye, which has an olive-
colored shell, has been languishing on the Endangered Species List since
1976.


Just two decades ago, this part of the river suffered from sewage runoff. The river is cleaner now and some mussels have returned. But not the Higgin’s Eye. And that has Roger Gordon worried. He’s a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


“They function as the kidneys of the river, more or less. They siphon everything that
goes through the river. They are a very good indicator species if we have a problem in the environment. They are usually the first species to get hit hard and disappear.”


For the past decade or so, it’s been the zebra mussel that’s been hitting the Higgin’s Eye. But the zebra mussel hasn’t made it to this part of the river. That’s why biologists are on a small flotilla of boats on this morning with 800 large-mouth bass. The bass and the Higgin’s Eye have a strong connection. Attached to the gills of those bass are thousands of Higgin’s Eye larvae.


“Right now, we’re counting fish in the cage. We have a known number of fish, 25 in
this case, that we’re going to place in these cages. And hopefully over the next several weeks, they’ll drop off and we’ll have clams in the river.”


Melby: “You’re putting them in the bucket?”


“Right now we’re putting them in a bucket and placing them in the cage over the
side of the boat.”


(sound of buckets banging and water sloshing)


The bass are put in cages so they don’t swim somewhere that’s not a good home for the Higgin’s Eye. In the wild, adult females mussels shoot embryos at unsuspecting fish swimming overhead.


“The larvae have a chemo-receptor in them. When they touch flesh, they actually shut. It’s a one-shot deal. If that fish clamps on a fin or an eyeball or a lip, it’s a no-go. He’s not going to develop. But if he’s lucky, and he just happens to be going through a gill arch of a fish and it’s the right fish, the right species of fish and the right size fish, it
will shut on that gill.”


But the Higgin’s Eye population is too low to leave to chance.


(Bubbling sounds of fish hatchery)


So Gordon and his colleagues bumped up the number of mussel larvae
per fish here at a federal fish hatchery in Genoa, Wisconsin. Instead of just a
few larvae per fish, the bass dropped into the Mississippi have several dozen
larvae attached to their gills.


That prep work took place inside the “Clam Shack,” which is really
just a metal pole barn that biologists built themselves.


“We didn’t have any money to do this. We scraped up and saved up at the end
of the year. We had seven or eight-thousand dollars. The hatchery guys just got together and built this little building.”


Since beginning their work two years ago, they’ve added approximately
12,000 mussel-rich fish to rivers in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.


“We’re probably going to have to build another little building
like this. But we’ll scrape along and do what we can.”


Back on the river, Mike Davis of the Minnesota DNR calls the return
of the Higgin’s Eye historic. But with the zebra mussel closing in on native
mussel species like the Higgin’s Eye, he’s also a bit wistful.


“The former dead zone of the Mississippi may become
one of the last refuges for the Mississippi’s mussel species.”


In September, divers return to that same spot to check on the Higgin’s
Eye. They hope to find thousands of young clams nestled safely in their new
home. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Todd Melby.