Bird and Fish Poisoning Spreads in Great Lakes

  • Botulism is killing fish and the shorebirds that eat them. The cause is likely due to a disruption in the ecosystem by invasive zebra and quagga mussels. (Photo by Lester Graham)

A deadly toxin is killing fish and birds along the Great Lakes shoreline.
Researchers think type-E botulism works its way up the food chain from
the bottom of the lake through several invasive species. Bob Allen
reports:

Transcript

A deadly toxin is killing fish and birds along the Great Lakes shoreline.
Researchers think type-E botulism works its way up the food chain from
the bottom of the lake through several invasive species. Bob Allen
reports:


These days, Ken Hyde dreads walking the pristine sandy beaches along
the Sleeping Bear Dunes. He’s the biologist in this national lakeshore
along the Michigan coast, and he only has to hike maybe a hundred feet
to find a dead bird twisted head down and half-buried in the sand:


“This is a cormorant. Just in the last two or three weeks we’re
starting to see a lot more of them. So they’re probably starting to
migrate down from the upper parts of the lake.”



Last year botulism killed over 2,500 dead birds along this 35 mile stretch
of shoreline, mostly gulls and diving ducks, including nearly 200 loons
migrating south from Canada.


This year the die-offs started earlier in the summer and struck more
species. The park lost four endangered piping plovers. The National Park
Service brought in a research team from Minnesota to look for answers.
They’ve been diving in the lakeshore now for two years.


What they’ve found is a huge shoal stretching more than a mile off shore.
It’s covered with native green algae and loaded with invasive zebra and
quagga mussels:


The Park’s research boat docks at a small village along Lake Michigan.
Dive team leader Brenda Moraska Lafrancois was surprised when she
first saw the underwater landscape:


“Last year when we first dove this area we went down and it was
shocking how little of the biomass down there was native. I think
we’re looking at a really altered system.”


Here’s what researchers know so far. The mussels filter nutrients from
the water, the clearer water allows more sunlight to reach the bottom, and
that spurs more algae growth. For good measure, the mussels excrete
phosphorus, in effect fertilizing the algae in the near shore zone. When
millions of mussels and big globs of algae begin to decompose, that uses up
most of the oxygen in water near the bottom of the lake, and that’s a
condition just right for a naturally occurring botulism to grow.


So how does the botulism migrate from the bottom to the surface and
poison shorebirds? Enter the round goby. It’s a small invasive fish that
comes from the same Caspian Sea area where zebra mussels originated.


Last year the research team at Sleeping Bear saw gobies in some places.
Now, says Byron Carnes, everywhere they looked when diving on algae
beds there solid sheets of mussels and blankets of gobies, and he
watched them feeding on mussels:


“Part of the zebra quagga mussel that is the juiciest these guys tend
to go right in and do this frenzy feeding where they just come in and
start pounding away at all the broken shells and trying to get out as
much of the good stuff inside the quagga mussel as they possibly
can.”


Mussels don’t have a nervous system, so they aren’t harmed by botulism
toxin. But when gobies get a dose they flop around on the surface for a
day or so while succumbing, and that’s when shorebirds pick up an easy
but potentially deadly meal.


Some diving ducks may also get poisoned by feeding directly on the
mussels. That’s the theory most scientists in the field think explains
what’s happening, but Harvey Bootsma says it’s not active all the time, so
it’s hard to prove each step. He’s with the Great Lakes Water Institute in
Milwaukee:


“I think the problem is it’s usually a sporadic and short-lived event
when this occurs. And unless somebody happens to be fortuitously
collecting the right samples at the right place and the right time it”s
very difficult to pin down the process as it’s occurring.”



While researchers try to pin down the effects of invasive species in one
place, the cycle spins off somewhere else. This fall there are half as
many dead birds along the Sleeping Bear Dunes shore as last year, but
the die-off is now spreading farther north along the Lake Michigan coast,
and there have been similar outbreaks along Lakes Erie and Huron.


So far Harvey Bootsma says there are no good solutions to break the
cycle of algae, mussels and gobies that scientists think is transporting
botulism toxin to shorebirds.


“And it’s just a great example of how huge an impact a new species
can have on an ecosystem. And I think it makes it all the more
imperative that we try to stem the tide of exotic species coming into
the Great Lakes.”


Researchers say it may take decades for the Great Lakes to recover from
the effects, if they ever do.


For the Environment Report, I’m Bob Allen.

Related Links

Gao: Agencies Should Streamline Park Fees

A government watchdog agency is calling for recreation fees at parks and other public lands to be more coordinated. Lester Graham reports it could affect how you much you have to pay to get into parklands:

Transcript

A government watchdog agency is calling for recreation fees at parks and other public
lands to be more coordinated. Lester Graham reports it could affect how you much you
have to pay to get into parklands:


For the past nine years, agencies such as the National Park Service, and the Fish
and Wildlife Service have been allowed to come up with new fees and fee collection
programs, with the idea of improving visitor services at certain sites.


The Government Accountability Office studied how recreation entrance fees and user
fees are applied and used. The GAO found that some sites were bringing in more money
than they could use and others didn’t pull in enough money to keep up basic
maintenance. The report also indicated that a new annual visitor’s pass that would allow
you to get into sites regardless of which agency owned it was to be issued starting the
first of next year, but the agencies still haven’t come up with a price for the pass.


Finally, the GAO says many sites don’t have proper controls or audits on collected fees.
Sites say they trust their staff to handle the money properly, but the GAO indicates that’s
not quite good enough.


For the Environment Report, 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

National Parks Stretch Their Dollars

If you’re thinking of visiting a National Park this summer, you might notice there aren’t as many naturalist programs as usual, or you might notice some trail closings. Critics say the National Parks are woefully under funded, and they say the problem is getting worse. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports that park officials around the region are looking for ways to cut costs:

Transcript

If you’re thinking of visiting a National Park this summer, you might notice
there aren’t as many naturalist programs as usual, or you might notice some
trail closings. Critics say the National Parks are woefully under funded. And
they say the problem is getting worse. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Stephanie Hemphill reports that park officials around the region are looking for
ways to cut costs:

When he was running for president, George W. Bush promised to restore the
National Park System. But four years later, parks continue to deteriorate, and
some observers estimate it would cost $4 billion to make them healthy again.


Ron Tipton is with the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy
group. He says park managers are having to make tough choices.


“Are they going to have fewer law enforcement people, backcountry rangers,
interpretive programs, shorter hours, or even some days where the visitor
center’s not open – all of the above in some cases.”


Tipton says Congress mandates salary increases for park workers, but doesn’t
provide money to pay for them. That diverts money that should be used for
maintenance, hiring staff, and other programs; and when the nation goes to
Orange Alert, parks have to pay for the extra security.


Tipton says most parks in this region have less money now than they did two
years ago.


The Grand Portage National Monument is near the Canadian border with Minnesota.
Superintendent Tim Cochrane says the monument has been limping along without a
visitor center for nearly 50 years.


“That ought to tell you a little bit about funding levels and ability to provide
for fairly basic services at a National Park unit. There’s been under funding
for awhile; it certainly is more chronic now.”

Cochrane says as he loses staff, he relies more on volunteers to run the park
and explain the history to visitors.


At Voyageurs National Park, also along the Canadian border, officials are
working on a plan to manage the park on reduced funding for the next five years.
Deputy superintendent Kate Miller says they’ll use retirements to reduce staff
levels.


“It’s no secret I guess that those of us who are baby boomers are approaching
retirement age and that there will be some opportunities, service -wide, to find
some efficiencies and do some reorganization.”


Next year’s National Park Service budget won’t be decided until fall.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.

Related Links

Bacteria-Powered Fuel Cell Becoming More Efficient

Scientists have been able to harness energy from bacteria for several years. Now, some scientists have developed a more efficient system, using bacteria that feed on sugar. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams has more:

Transcript

Scientists have been able to harness energy from bacteria for several years. Now, some scientists
have developed a more efficient system, using bacteria that feed on sugar. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams has more:


It’s called a microbial fuel cell, and it works like this: the bacteria in the fuel cell feed on sugar in
food or lawn waste. In the process, they transfer electrons to an electrode, starting a flow of
electricity.


This new fuel cell is more efficient than older models, bringing the technology one step closer to
everyday use.


Derek Lovley designed the fuel cell. His research is published in the journal Nature
Biotechnology. He says because the U.S. consumes so much energy, he doesn’t think his fuel
cells will be used on a large scale here. But he says, in the future, consumers might be able to use
them in their backyards.


“Say you had an electric lawnmower and you clipped your grass clippings and threw them into
this type of system, and used it to charge up the battery to run your lawnmower the next
weekend.”


Lovley says it’ll be a while before anyone can buy a microbial fuel cell. Right now, the fuel cell
produces just enough energy to power a calculator.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Land Rights Needed to Finish North Country Trail

For the last 23 years, the National Park Service and groups of volunteers have been trying to create a 46-hundred mile hiking trail. Once completed, the North Country National Scenic Trail would meander from New York to North Dakota. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports, organizers hope Congress will pass a bill that will make the trail easier to finish:

Transcript

For the last 23 years, the National Park Service and groups of volunteers have been trying to
create a 4,600 mile hiking trail. Once completed, the North Country National Scenic Trail would
meander from New York to North Dakota. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar
Charney reports, organizers hope Congress will pass a bill that will make the trail easier to finish:


The only way organizers can get land to build the trail on is if people donate it. The legislation
that created this project and a number of similar ones prevents the Park Service from buying land
for the trail, even if there is a willing seller.


Bob Papp is the Executive Director of the North Country Trail Association. He says a bill to let
the Park Service buy land for trails has passed the Senate, now they’re hoping it will pass in the
House.


“There are a number of trails that are involved and there’s a tremendously high percentage of
federal land ownership in western states and so there are a lot of private property rights groups
who see any effort to expand the federal governments ability to acquire land as a bad thing.”


Papp says in the meantime they’re finding ways of partnering with state governments and private
landowners to obtain the rights to continue work on the trail. So far, about 1,700 miles are ready
to be hiked.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamar Charney.

Related Links

Bear Activity in National Park Increases

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore plans to step up its education campaign about the do’s and don’ts of living in bear country. Park officials hope that will end this past summer’s encounters between campers and bears. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson reports:

Transcript

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore plans to step up its education campaign about
the do’s and don’ts of living in bear country. Park officials hope that will end this past summer’s encounters between campers and bears. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike
Simonson reports.


With about 30 bears on Stockton Island, some of them decided to swim for a less-
crowded scrounging area. So, this summer, campers reported bears rummaging through
their food on neighboring islands – forcing the Park Service to close a couple of
campsites.


Apostle Islands Resource Specialist Julie Van Stappen says the bear population may be a
little crowded. And even though there has been an annual hunt of bears since the mid-1990’s, she doesn’t expect much help thinning out the bear population from hunters.


“Very few people do it. You have to get out to the islands and there’s no motorized equipment allowed, so it would be a very different hunt.”


Next summer, Van Stappen says instead of moving bears or closing campsites, the best
bet is to educate campers about storing food, and not attracting bears in the first place.
She says that would be the simplest way to end the close encounters of the bear kind on
the Apostle Islands.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mike Simonson.

Deer Hunt Controversy

With deer populations on the rise throughout the country, many communities are looking for ways to curb their growth. Near Cleveland, some park managers have asked for a permit to shoot deer in a controlled hunt, claiming overpopulated deer herds are damaging park vegetation. But local deer advocates strongly disagree and so far they’ve been able to block the deer hunt in court. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ley Garnett reports: