Fish, Birds And Mussels Get Their Own Business Plan In Pennsylvania

Apr 12, 2018

A new conservation strategy is underway in Western Pennsylvania. The Western Pennsylvania Business Plan for Restoration of Healthy Forests and Freshwater Habitat prioritizes funding for projects that focus on key species in important ecosystems to ultimately restore healthy forests and freshwater habitat in the region. The plan was developed with numerous conservation groups headed by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The Richard King Mellon Foundation funded the plan’s development and also funds The Allegheny Front.

Late last year, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation along with public and private partners (including the Richard King Mellon Foundation) awarded $1.7 million to 15 conservation projects in the Central Appalachian region, including Pennsylvania. The projects will create habitat for eastern brook trout, American woodcock, golden-winged warblers and cerulean warblers – species that indicate healthy ecosystems. With additional matching funds, the foundation says the total investment will be $3.6 million.

To find out more about their efforts, Kara Holsopple talked with Amanda Bassow, Director of the Northeastern Regional Office of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Kara Holsopple: How are we doing as a region on conservation? Why is this effort this plan needed?

Amanda Bassow: Western Pennsylvania is hugely biologically diverse. It’s the terminus of the last glacial extent which means that it has more biodiversity than places north of it because of the impact of the glaciers.

It has an incredibly rich and diverse salamander populations, for example, and freshwater mussel populations. Within the mid-Atlantic, it has the healthiest, strongest populations of Eastern brook trout, a species that’s representative of the health of our cold water streams (and a super popular sport fishing fish as well).

So it’s a really important area where we’ve been trying to put together a partnership for some time.

KH: So what is the strategy? Give us an overview.

AB: We knew that we wanted to focus on healthy forest systems and healthy freshwater systems. So we identified a handful of species that, if they were there, you could be pretty sure that the system was healthy.

This suite of species includes American woodcock and golden-winged warbler, which are two species that really specialize in young forest habitat; the black-throated blue warbler, which is a bird that specializes in healthy, middle aged forest; and then the cerulean warbler, which really needs a mature forest with some diversity of habitat.

On the freshwater side, we looked at eastern brook trout, which like a really clean, cold, fast moving stream. And then eastern hellbender salamander — they like bigger water bodies, but they also need clean water and big boulders to hide under…good indicators of water quality and a healthy stream system.

Freshwater mussels are indicators of good water quality. We also identified the Louisiana waterthrush, as a species that would make the connection between the upland healthy forest and the aquatic system. If we had those [species], there was a pretty good chance that the system was healthy.

Then we mapped where there was good habitat for these species, and where there might be some threats that were limiting the success of the species right now. We identified what we felt were the best opportunities to invest grant funding on the ground where there were grantees that were active and had the capacity to get work done.

KH: There are 11 geographical areas within Western Pennsylvania where the restoration work will happen. Can you talk a little bit about the threats part for why there needs to be a restoration project?

AB: We looked at land use change –so where development has fragmented forest systems in particular; where polluted runoff from city streets, from agriculture, from roads have degraded water quality.

There are several different strategies to improve eastern brook trout populations. A lot of these brook trout populations that are still healthy are isolated from one another. They’re not able to bolster their genetic population because they can’t find each other because of dams, failing culverts, and in some cases warm or acidic water can be a barrier for the fish to pass. So we invest in projects that replace failing culverts or remove derelict dams.

Western Pennsylvania has really healthy blocks of forest, and so we looked at opportunities to reconnect blocks of forest with wildlife corridors and just more intentional management.

We looked at opportunities to engage in restoration of abandoned mine lands, to restore acid mine drainage on the aquatic habitat side —  really the broad swath of activity on the land impacts water and forest health.

KH: When you’re trying to sell this kind of an idea to funders and to the general population or to farmers who have to make changes to the way they’re doing things, what do you say?

AB: You’re really asking, ‘Why care about conservation?’

Wildlife is actually the language that resonates with a lot of private land owners. It’s a really productive way to start a conversation, but we’re always starting the conversation with, ‘What are your goals for your land?’ and, ‘What kind of conservation might be complementary and help you meet those goals?’ And most times, their goals are actually consistent with our mission.

Farmers are the same way. We’ve been working in this region for a long time, and we learned a decade ago that farmers in this region really care about eastern brook trout. A lot of them will talk about how they remember when they used to have eastern brook trout on their land, and their favorite fishing hole, and they’d really like to have [them] back. And talking to a farmer about eastern brook trout is a much more productive conversation than talking to them about the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.