Patrick Comins, the director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, stands along the perimeter of Guilford’s Leetes Island Marsh and surveys the serene scene: a few stray birds and ducks on a cold, clear morning. But the scene masks the the marsh’s true natural state.
“That’s an example of a drowned marsh. This is really what all of our marshes are at risk of becoming,” Comins says.
He points to the roads and railroad tracks that tightly ring the marsh, preventing it from draining. “Flooding will be coming more often and marshes will start to convert from the high marsh that floods once a month to low marsh that floods every day, to this, which is a drowned marsh.”
Situations like the one at Leetes Island, and the climate change that arguably caused it, are among many contingencies the state is evaluating as part of the first 10-year update of its Wildlife Action Plan.
A massive document required for certain federal grants, it assesses a tangled intersection of environmental factors, habitats and creatures to determine which ones the state needs to care for more vigorously or, in some cases, just give up on.
In 2005 when the first plan was completed, climate change was barely a blip on the scientific radar, let alone thought to be as potentially catastrophic and fast-moving as many scientists now believe.
Diseases such as the deadly white-nose syndrome in bats were not in the picture; infestations of insects such as Emerald Ash Borer and Asian Longhorned Beetle, which threaten to level forests, posed no concern; and ferocious tropical storms that can have devastating environmental impacts were not even imagined.
“What the Wildlife Action Plan requires is that we identify ‘species of greatest conservation need’ in Connecticut; that we identify the habitats of concern in Connecticut; and that we develop conservation actions to address problems,” said Bill Hyatt, natural resources bureau chief at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), which is responsible for updating the wildlife plan.
As such, the plan being drafted now requires predicting the nearly unpredictable over the next 10 years by envisioning how Connecticut’s ecosystems will interact, not only in seemingly “normal” ways, but also in the face of the many unknowns of climate change.
As the Leete’s Island March illustrates, impacts can be oppositional. What helps one species can be devastating to another.
“Interestingly, this has become quite a birding destination. Because of all this shallow open water, it’s a key spot for shorebirds to forage – sandpipers, plovers, plus a whole mess of rare birds have shown up this year,” Comins said. “But as more and more of our marshes become drowned, there’ll be plenty of shorebird foraging habitat, but we’ll lose a lot of the specialized habitat that some of our most endangered birds need.”
Keep common species common
Higher-ups at DEEP like to describe the plan’s key goal with the shorthand: “Keep common species common.”
But in ecosystems, even one subtle change can have a ripple effect, if not a cascade of them, on scores of animals and habitats. So keeping common species common can be more difficult than it sounds, requiring an intricate balancing of dozens of factors.
There are more than 500 species listed in the updated plan (including about 40 plants added for the first time). Most are in jeopardy and are assigned one of three levels of concern. Some are listed even though they are abundant – the point usually being to keep them that way. Their placement in the food chain, for instance, may make them critical to other plants and animals.
But some are over-abundant and may pose threats to other species or habitats. So the point is to figure out mitigation tactics.
Take deer, for example. Considered a success in terms of the number restored to the state in a longstanding conservation program, deer don’t appear on the list as in need of conservation. But the plan notes their impact on habitat as a threat.
“They greatly influence the habitat, particularly the understory (below the tree canopy), and change that habitat’s ability to support a whole host of other species,” Hyatt said.
With species like the black bear, which remains on the list, the conservation community is thrilled with its recovery. In the last 10 years, the number of towns they have been spotted in has just about doubled, and sightings have increased more than 12-fold. But suburban homeowners, faced with backyard bears that destroy bird feeders and rummage through trash – may not be as thrilled.
Of greatest concern are species for which Connecticut has the bulk of the world’s population – New England Cottontail rabbits, Blue-winged Warblers and Saltmarsh Sparrows are top examples.
“Those are species for which Connecticut has a global responsibility,” said Jenny Dickson, a wildlife biologist at DEEP and the overall Wildlife Action Plan coordinator. “So what Connecticut does for those species is critically important, because if we make a mistake, or if we don’t pay attention to those species and they disappear, they’re not just going to disappear from Connecticut, they’re going to disappear from the world.”
Connecticut’s original 2005 plan took more than three years to write. For all that effort, the state gets less than $500,000 a year in State Wildlife Grants. The grant program was originally envisioned as providing $350 million nationally, but Congress has only funded it for less than $60 million.
“It was a broken promise that was made,” said Mark Humpert, wildlife diversity director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
The goal, he explained, is to keep as many animals as possible off federal protection lists by having states do the conservation, but in the last five years the number of petitions to list species has gone up 1,100 percent. To address the situation, the association created a blue ribbon panel to come up with ways for states and regions to collaborate on wildlife conservation – something the Northeast has already started.
“You can’t just do random acts of conservation,” Humpert said. “You need to sit down with experts and see what the highest needs are.”
In Connecticut, one of those needs is brook trout.
A sentinel species
There are plenty of brook trout in Connecticut. It’s the state’s only native stream trout, and mapping done by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shows them all but blanketing freshwater bodies throughout the state.
But they are among the fish listed as most critical in the Wildlife Action Plan. That’s because they thrive in cold water streams, and measurements also done by USGS show many of those streams warming perilously close to the point at which brook trout can no longer survive – 24 degrees Celsius, or a little over 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Average maximum stream temperatures right now run from 18 to 24 degrees Celsius (64.4-75.2 Fahrenheit) according to Ben Letcher, a USGS ecologist based in western Massachusetts. He said a two-degree increase is likely to decrease the probability fish would be there by 50 percent.
“The overall trend is – it’s bad. Streams are starting to warm up a little,” he said, noting that the state has been doing trout and stream monitoring for several decades. The temperature increase has been about a half-degree Celsius each decade for the last two decades, but that rate seems to be speeding up.
“It’s not enough to bump them off yet,” he said.
As improbable as it sounds, the USGS and state officials are looking for ways to stave off stream warming. That means finding those streams that could be most resilient in the face of climate change: those with deep water sources; those that are well-shaded or in places where shade could be added; those not harmed by manmade change, such as the addition of impervious surfaces and development that can induce ground warming; or those that are not overwhelmed with small-mouth bass, an introduced species that competes directly with brook trout.
But what officials refer to as “connectivity” is key. The stream areas cannot be isolated. They need to connect to each other so the trout can move and find food.
Brook trout are not in crisis now. But that’s not an excuse to do nothing, Letcher said. And he is worried. “It can be challenging to convince people to make those kinds of decisions and plan ahead.”
In some cases though, change happened so quickly, there was no time to plan ahead.
Disaster for bats
There’s little question that the most precipitous wildlife decline in the last 10 years involves the state’s bat population. The cause is a mysterious disease, not believed to be related to climate change, called white-nose syndrome, named for a white fungus that appears on the noses of hibernating bats.
It appeared in New York State in 2006 and showed up in Connecticut in 2008. In the absence of treatment, it has killed nearly six million bats, mainly in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada, but it has spread as far south as the Gulf Coast.
Between 2008, and 2014, Dickson said, “we’ve had population declines in a lot of our species of 95 percent or greater, so a number of those species are now on the brink of extinction.”
“The Northern Long-eared Bat, which was once one of our most common species – you could find it in every town in Connecticut – is now being considered for federal listing,” she said.
The ripple effect of their depletion is not fully known, but could be dramatic. For starters, as predators of night-flying insects, it’s not known if and how the insects that don’t get eaten will affect farm crops, other vegetation, and diseases in animals, including humans.
“So in terms of agriculture, that’s probably going to mean that farmers are going to have to rely more on chemical control of insects,” Dickson said. “What is that going mean? Higher costs for them, more environmental impacts in terms of having to increase spraying — so the ripple effect is just phenomenal.”
Not so good for cottontail
Another top concern is for the New England Cottontail. It’s not a catastrophic situation, but the state is the stronghold for the species, and it faces competition from the Eastern Cottontail – a more adaptable rabbit in terms of habitat.
The New England rabbit needs shrubby land adjacent to forest for protection from predators and access to food. But the simple passage of time has turned a lot of the state’s shrubland into forest, and to protect species like the New England Cottontail, as well as certain birds, the state and others have been pro-actively cutting back forests to a younger growth status. The White Memorial Foundation in Litchfield County has done just that, using a strategy from the 2005 Action Plan.
To protect the New England Cottontail, the Foundation removed trees and created brush piles on about 50 acres. “We just chewed it up and laid it down,” said James Fischer, the foundation’s research director. Invasive species were also removed and replaced with native ones. “We just reset the clock.”
He said that clock probably has another 15 to 20 years before the habitat needs to be re-evaluated. Without such action, he said: “Eastern would have stayed, and we would have lost the New England Cottontail.”
But such actions prescribed by the Wildlife Action Plan can come with controversy as interests compete over land use. One hot-button issue continues to be the development of Rentschler Field in East Hartford. When the University of Connecticut’s football stadium opened there in 2003, it displaced what environmentalists viewed as prime bird and other wildlife habitat. A swap was worked out to set aside habitat on what had been prison farmland in Somers.
That solution touched on another contentious issue: open space versus farmland. Agriculture advocates saw the Rentschler action, along with other set-asides of open space habitat, as taking away potential farmland.
“Which priority do you pursue?” asked Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau. “Managing for habit and managing for agriculture don’t always align perfectly.”
State Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky had a similar sentiment.
“What concerns me is all the compelling reasons people will have to take farmland for habitat,” he said. “I don’t think there are any easy answers. There are always conflicting uses and unintended consequences.
“You have to balance them.”
Regime shift in the Sound
In Long Island Sound the general belief is that climate change is warming the water and therefore calling the wildlife conservation shots. The upshot is that the species that can survive in the Sound are shifting. “Regime shift,” it’s called, and not much can be done to stop it.
“I can happily say nothing has disappeared,” said Penny Howell, senior fisheries biologist for the marine fisheries division of DEEP. “Basically it’s a story of new species expanding their range. Several animals have declined in overall population, but none to the point where they’re virtually gone.”
Right now all wildlife officials can really do is manage whatever happens to be in the Sound. And what’s there now are more warm-water species, like black sea and striped bass, and fewer cold-water ones, like winter and windowpane flounder, and lobster – what Howell calls the poster child for climate change.
The lobster population is down more than 95 percent from its peak in 1998.
But regime shift brings many ripple effects, such as new predator and prey relationships. For instance, Howell explained, Alewife and Blueback Herring are now top conservation concerns. “They’ve been munched down by 60-pound striped bass that now are overwintering,” she said.
While there’s almost nothing that can be done locally to lower the water temperature, one habitat issue that can be managed is breeding areas – especially those around salt marshes and the mouths of rivers. If they can be maintained or even reconstituted, then there’s some hope for building back certain fish populations.
But not always.
“Blackfish is one — Tautog – they’re our only reef species,” Howell said. “We’re concerned that habitat may be deteriorating in some way that we don’t understand. “The animals just are not reproducing very well.”
Lost causes in the air
Judging by the 2015 changes to the list of species of greatest conservation need, it would seem birds are in better shape than they were 10 years ago. Nearly 50 birds have been removed from the list. A few, such as the Red-shouldered Hawk are off because they’re success stories.
But many of the birds are gone from the list because they’re pretty much gone from Connecticut.
Saltmarsh Sparrows, Black Rail, Purple Finch and Blue-winged Warblers are considered lost causes. Veerys, some Vireos, Clapper Rails and many more could be close behind. The trend was foretold earlier this year in a sobering assessment by the National Audubon Society, Audubon Connecticut’s parent organization. It pointed to a national loss of more than 300 species by the end of the century because of climate change alone.
For Connecticut’s birds, the attacks are coming on multiple fronts – some manageable, some not. Loss of habitat is a primary issue, but the reasons vary. Some is climate change-related – vegetation that can no longer survive.
But there is also shrubland that has matured into forest. That can be remedied as it has been for the New England Cottontail. There is loss of land to development – more politically than physically difficult to remedy in some cases. And then there is the shoreline and salt marsh issue that had Audubon Connecticut’s Comins so worried.
Salt marshes are nature’s sponge for soaking up excess water. They are particularly useful to help handle the sea level rise already apparent in Long Island Sound. As water rises, salt marshes migrate landward, but if there’s a road or a housing development in the way, the marshes have nowhere to go. So they turn into all water – such as the Leetes Island drowned marsh – altering permanently the habitat and what can live in it.
But that’s only part of the problem climate change presents Connecticut’s shoreline birds. The intense tropical-style storms Irene and Sandy disrupted bird-nesting areas. The storms washed away nesting habitat for Roseate Terns on Falkner Island, though they made Long Beach in Stratford even better for Least Terns and Piping Plovers.
The storms, coupled with warmer water in the Sound, have disrupted food sources for terns in particular. “After the storms, the forage fish populations in Long Island Sound seemed to be at depressed levels,” Comins said. “This summer we were finding terns bringing back dragonflies and insects. They’ve been bringing back fish that aren’t the right size. So something’s changed.”
More worrisome is the potential for so-called synchronicity problems thought to be related to climate change. With seasonal shifts common in recent years – earlier springs in particular – migrating birds that return to the area at their normal times may find they are too late for their customary food sources.
“It can be a real problem when things get out of balance,” Comins said. “If we’re messing with the balancing act in nature, it’s usually not a good thing.”
Among the many flying insects on the species list – invertebrates are the largest group with 241– bees are one of the most concerning. Colony collapse disorder has decimated bee populations worldwide, including here. The cause or causes remain unclear, and so there’s no prevention.
In the meantime, without bees to do the bulk of the pollination for wild plants and agriculture, food sources for animals and humans have been disrupted.
Controlling the uncontrollable
Many other species concerns have arisen since the 2005 plan. Multiple diseases in amphibians and reptiles, including a new snake fungal disease, have popped up in addition to the usual road mortality problems and illegal collecting.
Warming water threatens to harm some salamander species as well as open them up to threat from new predators.
The Emerald Ash Borer is infesting ash trees statewide, and no one is sure what that will mean for birds, though it could be a boon for woodpeckers. If the years-long fight to keep out Asian Long-horned Beetle fails, all bets are off for what that could mean to tree habitats for many species.
“When we first wrote the plan in 2005, we didn’t have to worry about things like Emerald Ash Borer or Asian Long-horned Beetle,” DEEP’s Dickson said. “Those were things that weren’t here yet. Now they are listed as threats.”
Climate change is more central to the updated plan than it was 10 years ago – leading to the thorny question of how to plan for something unpredictable. But perhaps the thorniest of all questions is when to give up on an animal.
Stewart Hudson, executive director of Audubon Connecticut, said we know enough about climate-change fallout to make a plan. “Even if we don’t know the exact issues of sea level rise, we know it’s accelerating,” he said “Even if we don’t know the specific degrees of impact, we know it directionally.
“The danger is when you get to a point where the word ‘triage’ starts to be used. It’s the most difficult place of all – none of us wants to give up on species. Sometimes you have to make value choices.”
The goal is to create the strongest habitats possible for existing species so when the climate changes, animals will be resilient. For long-term change, that means animals will have a better shot at adapting. And for catastrophic events like storms, they’ll be better able to bounce back.
“You do what you can to restore the habitat . . . ” said DEEP’s Hyatt. “There are obviously going be some losers as the habitat changes.”
“Letting go and giving up on a species or a habitat is not something that we’re trained to do or necessarily do well. It’s not a bright line: ‘We’re not doing this anymore.’ It’s simply a natural progression that occurs as conservation threats are evaluated and actions are prioritized.”
For Audubon Connecticut’s Comins on that cold morning at Leetes Island Marsh, he in fact saw one of the birds on the species watch list — an American Black Duck. It served as some proof that planning wildlife conservation is still possible even in the face of unpredictable changes.
“If something’s going to kill half of something, you’d rather it kill half of 1,000 than half of 100,” he said. “You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” ♦
Jan Ellen Spiegel is the environmental reporter at the Connecticut Mirror. Illustration and development by Alvin Chang.