Some worry that the barrier to protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp may not be as effective as previously imagined. Asian carp eggs can be brought in with ships' ballast water. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
By summer’s end, officials from the Army Corps of Engineers and the
state of Illinois hope to finish an underwater electric barrier in a canal just south
of Chicago. The barrier is designed to repel invasive fish such as the Asian Carp.
But some environmentalists fear the barrier won’t be enough to keep the voracious,
non-native species out of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee reports:
By summers end, officials from the Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Illinois hope to finish an underwater electric barrier in a canal just south of Chicago. The barrier is designed to repel invasive fish such as the Asian Carp. But some environmentalists fear the barrier won’t be enough to keep the voracious, non-native species out of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee reports:
Some conservationists worry Asian Carp may someday enter the Great Lakes by simply hitching a ride.
These critics say leaky ships passing through the electric barrier could hold carp eggs inside their ballast tanks and deposit them on the other side. But local officials say that scenario is unlikely.
Steve Stuewe is with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
He says Asian Carp eggs need turbulent water, and if they do find their way into rusty ballast tanks…
“They will probably be dead because they’ve settled out into the bottom of the hull and they’ve either suffocated or they’re down there, mixed in with the iron oxidate. So, they sink. They have to float.”
The research on egg viability is still sketchy, but a federal study of the issue may settle the question once and for all early this summer.
After a flight, the whooping cranes tuck their wings back into position, making sure each feather is in place. Photo courtesy of Operation Migration, Inc.
Some of the three dozen whooping cranes that winter in Florida have begun their spring migration to the Great Lakes region. More cranes are expected to fly north within the next few weeks. Wildlife officials put together that experimental migrating flock for the Eastern U.S., in case something happens to the only other migrating flock of whoopers, which winters in Texas and spends summers in western Canada. Scientists say there are several potential threats to the western birds. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports from the Texas Gulf Coast:
Some of the three dozen whooping cranes that winter in Florida have begun their spring
migration to the Great Lakes region. More cranes are expected to fly north within the next few
weeks. Wildlife officials put together that experimental migrating flock for the Eastern U.S. in
case something happens to the only other migrating flock of whoopers, which winters in Texas
and spends summers in western Canada. Scientists say there are several potential threats to the
western birds. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports from the Texas
The sight of a five foot tall adult whooping crane is awe-inspiring to many people. A Minnesota
man named Gary, who lives in Texas during the winter, says he loves to see the brilliantly white
whoopers and their amazing wing span.
“They’re pretty – huge and beautiful, pretty bird. Something we don’t have in Minnesota.”
The birds winter here at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a fifteen mile long by seven
mile wide peninsula north of the city of Corpus Christi. Aransas was the wintertime home for the
whoopers when the population of the endangered cranes dwindled to just 15 birds in the 1940s.
Today there are 194 whooping cranes in the Western flock.
“There’s a family out there.”
Crane Researcher Colleen Satyshur crouches down in a remote area of the refuge. she points at
“They’re just on the other side of the waterway that runs on the far side of the levy there. Two
parents on the outside and one baby in the middle”
The birds come to within about 100 yards.
It seems like a perfect place for the cranes. But because there is such a small number of birds, the
flock is at risk.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane Coordinator Tom Stehn says 194 whoopers in one
site is just not that many.
“That’s just not much genetics in the population and there’s big threats to the population whenever
there’s concentrated in such low numbers.”
And a small gene pool is just the beginning of problems for the western flock of whoopers.
A few miles south of the Aransas refuge an earth mover loads dirt and rock into dump trucks.
Development along the Gulf of Mexico is taking up land. The human population here is expected
to double within forty years. Tom Stehn says that’ll increase demand for freshwater. He says
Texas is looking at diverting river water that currently flows into the Aransas refuge, where it
sustains crabs, a major food source for the whooping cranes.
“The crabs need the fresh water coming down the rivers, so if we dam up those rivers, prevent those inflows, the cranes
are gonna suffer.”
The refuge managers also worry about maritime accidents.
(sound of boat)
Boats like this one that travel the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on the border of the Aransas refuge
sometimes carry toxic chemicals that could wipe out the birds with one spill.
Stehn says the list of potential risks to cranes is extensive – it includes things such as flying into
power lines along the cranes 2,400 mile migration route. He says there are new concerns, such as
global warming and West Nile virus.
Barring any disasters from those threats, Stehn says he’s pretty confident that generations of
whooping cranes will continue to winter in Texas for another 50 to 100 years. But Stehn says
even the crane’s longevity is in some ways a weakness.
“It’s a long lived bird with slow reproductive potential, so it’s gonna struggle to adjust if change
happens too rapidly.”
Stehn says the wildlife agencies can’t protect the birds from everything. But researchers can learn
more about the whooping cranes’ habits and hopefully that will help figure out the best ways
to aid the birds.
(sound of whooping cranes)
Help may come by tracking the cranes. This winter, Colleen
Satyshur recorded some of the birds’ calls. Some scientists believe
every crane has its own unique voiceprint that can be measured
through soundwaves run through a computer. Satyshur says they
think they might be able to use the voiceprinting as a way to
see which cranes are doing what.
“Which pairs are bringing down chicks, how many years, might tell us something new we can use to help us conserve the birds.”
Many people see the whoopers comeback as an inspiring symbol of wildlife preservation.
Keeping an eye on the birds is not just about the safety of the whooping cranes. Even with the
eastern flock becoming established and flying between Florida and the Great Lakes. Losing the
western flock of whooping cranes for any reason would be a blow to the entire wildlife
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Chuck Quirmbach in Southeast Texas.
The Army Corps of Engineers' new barrier will be similar in design to the demonstration project in place now. (Diagram courtesy of USACE)
The war against terrorism nearly led to a biological invasion of the Great Lakes. The Army Corps of Engineers was struggling to find money for a barrier to stop Asian carp from getting into the Great Lakes. It wasn’t until a strong letter from 24 members of Congress was sent to the Corps that the money was found. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
The war against terrorism nearly led to a biological invasion of the Great Lakes. The Army
Corps of Engineers was struggling to find money for a barrier to stop Asian carp from getting into
the Great Lakes. It wasn’t until a strong letter from 24 members of Congress was sent to the
Corps that the money was found. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
Asian carp have already invaded the Mississippi River system and they’re making their way
toward the channel that connects the Mississippi basin to the Great Lakes basin. The big fish is a
poster child for alien invasive species. It leaps out of the water, sometimes even hitting and
hurting boaters. It competes with native fish. And it’s feared that it would wreak havoc on the
Great Lakes fishery and the ecology of the lakes if it ever gets through to them.
South of Chicago, a barrier that electrifies the water is in place in the connecting channel between
the Mississippi system and the Great Lakes. It shocks the fish and seems to stop them from going
any farther. But that barrier is just a temporary demonstration project. So Great Lakes officials
were pleased when the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would build a permanent barrier.
Michael Donahue is President and CEO of the Great Lakes Commission. The organization
lobbies for the eight Great Lakes states.
“Most invasive species we find out about after the fact, once they’re in the system, they’re
established and the damage is being done. In this instance we know who the enemy is, where
they’re at, what pathway they plan to take to get into the lakes and what we need to do to stop
So environmentalists, anglers, conservationists and scientists all believe stopping the Asian carp
from getting into the Great Lakes is a pretty good idea.
Stuart Ludsin is a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s
Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab. Ludsin says we don’t know exactly how the Asian
carp will affect the Great Lakes… but we don’t want to find out either…
“We certainly do not want to let other exotic species into the system for fear of the economic and
ecological consequences that can come from an invasion.”
Sport fishing enthusiasts don’t need to know exactly what the Asian carp will do to the Great
Lakes. Jason Dinsmore is a resource policy specialist with the Michigan United Conservation
Clubs. Dinsmore says it’s pretty clear the Asian carp won’t be good for anglers.
“Our big concern is: these fish eat what our fish eat, I guess is the best way to look at it. These
large predatory fish are planktovores which means that they eat very small organisms that our fish
like, you know, juvenile perch will depend on. And if they’re out-competing the juveniles of our
sport fish, our sport fish will look to take a hit in overall numbers which means there’s going to
be less for our anglers to catch.”
So, there’s no problem, right? The Army Corps plans to build it. Everyone seems to think it’s a
good idea. But then the Corps couldn’t find the money for it. Chuck Shea is the project manager
for both the demonstration fish barrier and the new permanent fish barrier that’s being planned.
“Earlier in the month of February we didn’t have the full funding allocated to the project. The
project was not dead in any way. We were still working internally to try to find the money.”
The four-point-four million dollars to build the electric barrier to keep the Asian carp out of the
Great Lakes was to come from a 25-million dollar fund that the Corps uses for projects not
specifically authorized by Congress. It’s discretionary money. But this year money is tight and
with money being used for projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, it wasn’t clear the Great Lakes fish
barrier could get the money from the fund.
“The war on terror and homeland security issues are creating new demands on the budget, in
particular for the Army. The Army is heavily involved in supporting the war on terror and
homeland security and that does affect the budget overall, yes.”
That’s when 24 Members of Congress from the Great Lakes region stepped in. They signed off
on a letter calling for the immediate funding of the fish barrier project and started making calls to
the Army and anyone else who had influence on funding the project.
It looks as though the political lobbying might have worked. The Corps issued a news release
which indicates the corps expects to start construction of the second barrier this summer,
completing it this fall. In the meantime, the temporary barrier will keep running, hopefully
deterring the Asian carp from making it to the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes Commission’s Michael Donahue says everyone hopes the barrier is completed
in time to stop the Asian carp because it’ll will cost a lot if it’s not.
“And instead of spending a few million dollars to prevent the invasion, we could be spending a
few hundred million dollars to deal with it once the Asian carp is established.”
The next challenge is finding money to rebuild the first electrical barrier and make the temporary
barrier permanent as well, backing up the new barrier in case it fails or needs to be shut down for
maintenance. No one wants to think about what might happen if the temporary barrier would
fail now before the permanent barrier is built. The Asian carp has been spotted as close as 20
miles from the barrier and only 50 miles from Lake Michigan.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
Crows are not the only birds affected by West Nile virus. Some Bald Eagles have come down with the virus as well. (Photo courtesy of the USFWS)
A wild bird sanctuary is using high-tech tracking devices to keep track of bald eagles recovering from West Nile virus. There’s no medicinal cure for the disease. But volunteers have nursed some bald eagles back to health. They’ve recently released a few of the birds and are watching to see if the disease affects their long term behavior. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Patty Murray has more:
A wild bird sanctuary is using high-tech tracking devices to keep track of
bald eagles recovering from West Nile Virus. There’s no medicinal cure for
the disease. But volunteers have nursed some bald eagles back to health. They’ve recently
released a few of the birds and are watching to see if the disease affects their long term behavior.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Patty Murray has more:
Marge Gibson is crunching through the snow on the grounds of the Raptor Education Group
Incorporated. Several big brown buildings stand stark against the gray Wisconsin winter. They
make up a hospital campus for injured or sick raptors.
Gibson approaches a screened in gazebo.
Inside is a very talkative young female bald eagle who’s hopping around on a perch and giving
Gibson a knowing look.
“She’s very vocal and she likes to chat…She’s doing her rendition of ‘poor me, get over here and
pay attention to me’ in bald eagle.”
West Nile Virus began showing up in birds here about two years ago. It’s not known if a bird can
ever fully be cured of it. But in January the sanctuary released three bald eagles that had
Gibson says it would have been irresponsible to let them go without first observing the lingering
effects of the disease. She’s studying West Nile Virus in eagles with the help of Nick Derene.
He’s a graduate student from the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.
Derene logs onto a special website and tracks down one recently released bald eagle that’s been
tagged with a satellite transmitter.
A topographical map shows the region where the bird has settled. A red “x” marks the spot
within 100 yards of where the bird is at that moment.
“And he’s found a nice place on a bluff alongside a stream outside of Black earth About 3 miles
off the highway that runs from Madison to Blackearth.
“Very nice secluded spot atop a hill.”
The satellite transmitters are more accurate than traditional radio monitoring. And they’re a lot
more expensive. Since the Raptor Education Group doesn’t get state or federal funding, Marge
Gibson foots most of the bills herself. The monitoring project could cost as much as 60-thousand
Just getting birds to the sanctuary is an involved process. Volunteers pick up birds they think
need help and drive them here. Then Nick Derene keeps an eye on the birds to see if they exhibit
any tell-tale signs of West Nile Virus.
“They’re usually convulsing, they have poor balance, head tremors. Usually
eye problems, sometimes they can’t fly-usually they can’t fly.”
West Nile Virus can also affect an eagle’s voice. That’s a problem because its mate might not
recognize its call.
When the sanctuary staff suspects a bald eagle has West Nile Virus they draw
a blood sample and send it to a local clinic for testing. Once the virus is confirmed, the only way
to treat it is with some tender loving care.
The birds are kept in cardboard boxes so they don’t expend energy flapping around. And they’re
fed baby food so they don’t waste energy in digestion. When the birds feel up to it they’re put in
an indoor flight room.
It looks like a warehouse-150 feet long and almost three stories high. It’s essentially a rehab ward
for birds who need to test their wings. An immature eagle flies overhead, but he hasn’t perfected
flight yet. He misses his perch, hits the wall and falls to the gravelly floor.
“Flapping, hits wall….is he okay?”
He’s okay but almost looks a little embarrassed.
On the floor of this flight room is a pile of fish, a deer carcass, and the ribcage of an animal that
became eagle chow.
Marge Gibson says she wants the eagles to stick to their wild diet. That’s why the satellite
monitoring program is so important because the birds’ behavior in the wild will indicate the
lasting effects of West Nile Virus.
“We can judge certain things in captivity, in a flight building. Whether the bird is flying well.
But one of the things we can’t judge is his visual acuity, his mental acuity and those things we
have to rely on once they’re released. And the satellite transmitter can follow them to see how
they’re reacting with their own species and other species once they’re in the
So far, West Nile Virus is fairly rare in wild bald eagles. In Wisconsin, more bald eagles die
from being hit by cars than they do from West Nile virus.
Nationwide the birds have made a remarkable recovery since being nearly wiped in the 1970’s by
the pesticide DDT. It’s now banned.
It doesn’t look as though West Nile virus will reverse that upward trend.
Marge Gibson hopes to keep tabs on just a few of the eagles infected by the virus to help shed
light on a still mysterious disease.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Patty Murray.
Most of the Great Lakes states are taking advantage of a federal program to get money to help make creeks, rivers, and lakes cleaner. But one state has not found a way to get the federal dollars. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
Most of the Great Lakes states are taking advantage of a federal program to get money to help
make creeks, rivers, and lakes cleaner. But one state has not found a way to get the federal
dollars. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is making
hundreds of millions of federal dollars available to states if they come up with matching funds of
about 20-percent. The money would go to private landowners to take measures to reduce soil
erosion and pesticide and fertilizer runoff. Seven of the eight Great Lakes states have signed
agreements with the federal government, each earmarking tens of millions of dollars to leverage
much more from the federal government. The state of Indiana has a proposal before the USDA,
but instead of tens of millions of dollars set aside as the other states have done, according to a
report in the Star Press newspaper, Indiana so far only has set aside 120-thousand dollars.
Conservationists in that state are calling on the legislature to tax bottled water and bagged ice as a
way to come up with the matching funds to leverage the federal money.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
New light is being shed on one of your shopping choices. Some conservation biologists have been critical of coffee that its distributors tout as better for the environment because it’s shade grown. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
New light is being shed on one of your shopping choices. Some conservation biologists have been critical of coffee that its distributors tout as better for the environment because it’s shade grown. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports…
The idea is that shade grown coffee is better for the environment than coffee grown in full sunlight. That’s because rather than clearing the land for the coffee bushes, it leaves tropical rain forest trees standing. But some biologists say that’s not the same as leaving the rainforest intact. So, they say it actually accelerates the destruction of tropical forests.
Stacy Philpott is a co-author of an article in the December issue of Conservation Biology. She says with rigorous certification programs and fair trade policies, shade grown does mean conservation-friendly coffee bean farming.
“If there is a high diversity of shade trees, that helps maintain a lot of particular species of animals that live there.”
Philpott notes that shade-grown coffee certainly beats the alternative of clearing the land and planting coffee bush varieties that produce higher yields in the full sun.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
President Bush has chosen Utah Governor Mike Leavitt as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Some environmentalists say this nomination indicates that the Bush administration is no longer concerned about placating conservationists. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Celeste Headlee reports:
President Bush has chosen Utah Governor Mike Leavitt as the new head of the
Protection Agency. Some environmentalists say this nomination indicates that the Bush
administration is no longer concerned about placating conservationists. The Great
Consortium’s Celeste Headlee reports:
If Leavitt is confirmed by the Senate, he will replace Christie Todd Whitman, who
Business leaders and Republicans describe Leavitt as a moderate and a consensus
Environmental groups, though, say Utah’s governor has a history of allowing
pollute the state’s forests and waterways.
Scott Groene is the staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
“He’s a smart man and he’ll be very careful not to blunder by telling the public
what he’s doing if
he’s actually rolling back environmental protections. That’s certainly what we’ve
seen here in
Utah, is that he’ll take some fairly extreme actions but then he’ll manage to claim
ground with his rhetoric.”
Leavitt says he wants to give states a larger role in environmental regulation. His
hearings will be scheduled when the Senate returns to Washington in September.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Celeste Headlee.
Researcher Lee Harper bands a common tern. Photo by David Sommerstein.
Biologists like to find these common tern eggs – a sign the bird's population is recovering in the region. Photo by David Sommerstein.
The common tern is a bird best known for its graceful flight and dramatic dives. Over the past 50 years, its best nesting habitat in the Great Lakes has been taken over by more aggressive birds, like gulls, cormorants, and osprey. Today, common terns are a threatened species in New York and Minnesota, and monitored carefully in other states. A couple years ago, a biologist and some volunteers used gravel and navigational buoys on the St. Lawrence River to create artificial nesting habitats for the terns. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports on the experiment’s progress:
The Common Tern is a bird best known for its graceful flight and dramatic dives. Over the
past 50 years, its best nesting habitat in the Great Lakes has been taken over by more
aggressive birds, like gulls, cormorants, and osprey. Today, common terns are a
threatened species in New York and Minnesota, and monitored carefully in other states. A
couple years ago, a biologist and some volunteers used gravel and navigational buoys on
the St. Lawrence River to create artificial nesting habitats for the terns. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports on the experiment’s progress:
The St. Lawrence isn’t just a river – it’s a seaway – an aquatic interstate for ocean freighters rumbling into the Great Lakes. So it’s not strange.
I’m in a boat floating just upstream from one of the river’s highway signs, a seaway
We’re not talking about a plastic buoy – it’s a fixed concrete column rising 8 feet above the
water. Its platform is big enough that you can walk around on it. On top, a tall steel tower holds a red light and signs that serve as channel markers for the seaway traffic. But for the conservationists I’m tagging along with, this is bird habitat. We sit in silence and listen to the call of the Common Tern.
(tern squawking in the clear)
Dozens of small white birds with pointy wings and black caps swoop above our heads.
They soar, suspended, then suddenly dive into the water. Their orange beaks snap at
minnows just below the surface, then they shoot back up into the air.
This particular colony was formerly the largest and most productive Common Tern
colony on the entire lower Great Lakes.
Biologist Lee Harper is known as “the tern guy” in this part of the Great Lakes. He’s
tagged thousands of them and recorded them as far away as Brazil. He documented the
common tern’s dramatic decline over the past twenty years. Gull and osprey populations
exploded, displacing the more sensitive terns from their nesting sites. But today Harper
peers through binoculars and grins.
“The terns we’re seeing here today represent the first nests on this site in almost ten
Terns don’t need much to nest, just a dry, isolated spot near water. Harper noticed the
refugee terns were retreating to navigation markers like this one. They’d lay eggs on its
concrete platform. The problem was the eggs would roll around and the birds would abandon
them. So Harper enlisted volunteers to lug 5 tons of gravel out here. They spread it on the
platform so the terns would lay their eggs on top of the gravel and the eggs wouldn’t roll.
Suzie Wood was among them.
“The first time I saw it, it was a piece of concrete and I frankly thought that Lee was a
little bit cracked when I heard about it.”
That was two summers ago. Today’s the first day the volunteers have returned. They’re
going to count nests and eggs to see how the gravel is working.
(motor sound, then clanking and action sound as we tie up)
We inch the boat up to the marker and huddle under the canvas top in case the birds dive-
bomb our approach. Then we tie up to an iron ladder that leads up to the concrete
platform. One by one, we climb the ladder and peer over the platform’s rim.
“Wow, this is a beautiful nest right here.”
Lee Harper is right behind and he’s beaming.
“After ten years of no terns here, this is really a wonderful sound!”
Almost invisible amongst the gravel and weeds are clusters of brown spotted eggs. We
walk on tip toe, look before every step, careful not to crush a nest. Harper works quickly
to minimize the disturbance. He calls out the number of eggs he sees. A volunteer takes
notes on a clipboard.
Harper was here two weeks ago and counted 18 nests. Today there are 40 common tern
nests. Volunteer David Duff is impressed.
“It was just such a simple thing to do. I mean, a hundred twenty dollars worth of gravel
and a two or three hours and half a dozen people helping with five gallon buckets of gravel
and I think we have a victory, at least a preliminary victory.”
The gravel nests are starting to catch on. The St. Lawrence Seaway Development
Corporation is spreading gravel on navigation markers all along the Seaway. Groups in
Michigan are planning similar restoration efforts, using dredging spoils from the St. Mary’s
River. They’re man-made solutions, but ones that just might restore the Common Tern
population to health in the Great Lakes.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.