Brown pelicans establishing themselves as Virginia species

Ten years ago, the sight of a brown pelican in Virginia was unusual.

But the birds began moving north with the growth of development at some of their traditional nesting grounds on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

Today, Fishermans Island off the southern tip of the Eastern Shore has become a prime breeding ground for the birds, with a record 770 nests counted this spring, wildlife officials said.

The secluded habitat is the main reason for the birds' emergence in Virginia. Egg and chick predators such as raccoons are scarce and people are rarely allowed on the island except for infrequent, guided walks.

On a recent day, at least 1,000 pelicans were estimated to be on the island, said volunteer Gary Williamson, who takes a monthly bird survey for the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge.

That's a big change from 1988, when refuge staff recorded only three brown pelicans on Fishermans Island. The next year, the birds began nesting there, building 34 grass and straw platforms.

Every year since, the number of nests has grown. Now the birds are flying farther up the Eastern Shore and even have established a small nesting colony near Ocean City, Md.

The birds also have established regular waterfront haunts in Hampton Roads, said Betsy Nugent, a member of the Virginia Beach Audubon Society. She said she has been seeing them on a Craney Island sand bar in Portsmouth, a favorite site for local bird-watchers.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they began nesting there," she said.

Robert Ake, an Old Dominion University chemistry professor and a bird-watcher, said he sees pelicans along Norfolk's Lafayette River and as far west as the Grandview section of Hampton, although in lesser numbers.

"To see a whole flight of pelicans flying in a line is a gorgeous thing, any time of night or day," Ake said. "And to see a whole string of them sitting in a row is remarkable."

Artificial oyster reefs show promise in Bay

An experimental reef and large, prolific oysters imported to breed there have shown promise this summer for restoring native oysters to the Chesapeake Bay.

Scientists say the Great Wicomico River on Virginia's Northern Neck has been littered with baby oysters, or spat, since the artificial reef was built there last December and stocked with 2,500 bushels of mature oysters.

"This is the brightest thing I've seen in the oyster business since I've been a waterman," said Tommy Leggett, a member of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The state has created oyster reefs before, but none has done so well so soon, said Gene Burreson, director of research at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

VIMS scientists count spat in the Great Wicomico by stringing empty oyster shells together on a rope that lies on the river bed and is attached to a float. To grow, the spat must attach themselves to the shells. The number of spat attached to the shells this summer has ranged from 18 times to 260 times that of two years ago.

The oysters spawned so well because they are very large- 4 to 5 inches long-and because they are resistant to two diseases that have ravaged Chesapeake Bay's oysters in the past decade, Burreson said.

The mollusks grew to maturity in Tangier and Pocomoke sounds before they were transplanted. Oysters in other parts of the Bay are dying before reaching reproductive age, he said.

Scientists objected last September when a small majority of the VMRC voted to allow watermen to harvest oysters from the two sounds. They were needed to stock the artificial reef, the biologists argued.

In a compromise, the commission later voted to allow watermen to harvest the oysters but required them to sell the oysters to the state. The state then moved the oysters to a reef sanctuary in the Great Wicomico with the help of volunteers from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Rob Brumbaugh, a fisheries scientist with the foundation, said the early results suggest the key to bringing oysters back to the Bay may be building reefs with large, disease-resistant oysters. "This is potentially one of the most productive and exciting strategies to emerge for oyster conservation," he said.

Virginia is trying to rebuild an oyster industry that declined from a high of 3 million bushels annually in the 1950s to 15,701 bushels last year. Scientists say oysters are important environmentally as well as economically because they filter the water and provide habitats for other aquatic plants and animals.

Bay crab harvest improves in '97

Crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries has been better this year than in 1996, according to officials in Maryland and Virginia. But conservationists say the harvest rebound does not necessarily indicate the pressure is off the blue crab, which is the mainstay of the Bay's commercial fishing.

Maryland watermen pulled 8.5 million pounds of crabs from the Bay and its tributaries by the end of June, which is more than 3 million pounds ahead of the amount harvested by the same date last year, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

In Virginia, watermen are about 1 million pounds ahead of the 1996 pace, when they harvested about 32.5 million pounds of hard crabs, said Roy Insley, head of fisheries planning for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Crab pickers and boaters noticed the trend. "We're real pleased with the harvest, and I think the watermen are, too," said Carol Haltaman, president of John T. Handy Seafood Co. in Crisfield, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "Last year, we were disappointed all season."

Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said one good season provides little indication of whether the crab stock is at healthy levels. Fluctuations in catch can indicate a species is stressed, he said. "The question is whether we're in ... the midst of a boom and bust cycle," he said.

Wild American shad outnumber hatchery fish in Susquehanna

Wild American shad in the Susquehanna River outnumber their hatchery-born counterparts this year for the first time in more than a decade, state officials report.

Natural-born fish, which had nearly vanished from the river by the early 1970s, now account for about 60 percent of the shad in the river, and biologists with the state Fish and Boat Commission say it's an important milestone in efforts to restore a self-sustaining shad population in the Susquehanna.

"What it's telling us is that the American shad population is able to reproduce successfully, and wants to come back to the Susquehanna to spawn," said a fisheries biologist for the commission, Scott Carney. "The population is getting healthier."

In all, an estimated 60,000 shad that returned this spring to spawn in the Susquehanna were wild-most likely descendants of hatchery-reared fish. The other 40,000 were stocked by the commission's Van Dyke Research Station on the Juniata River. They can be identified by a special tag.

Last year, natural-born shad accounted for only 45 percent of the population. Before that, natural-born shad had not accounted for more than one-third of the population in the river in more than a decade.

Shad are long, silvery fish, popular among sport fishermen, that once heavily populated the Susquehanna.

The largest member of the herring family was a major commodity along the river through the 1830s, but dam building, pollution and other human activities contributed to its decline. By the 1970s, the shad population had fallen to as low as 3,000 fish.

The fish commission has stocked more than 170 million juvenile shad since 1976 but wants to establish a self-sustaining population. Multimillion-dollar fishlifts have been built at three major dams on the river to aid shad migration.

EPA releases $1.2 million to VA

The EPA has sent Virginia $1.2 million that was withheld for 10 months over concerns about state water pollution programs.

The arrival of the money in late August appeared to ease tensions between the federal agency and the state, whose commitment to pollution enforcement has been questioned by the federal agency.

In a letter to state Department of Environmental Quality Director Thomas L. Hopkins, EPA Regional Administrator W. Michael McCabe said he was heartened by Hopkins' "personal assurances" that Virginia would improve its submission of required data.

The EPA had withheld $1.6 million because the state was slow to send industrial pollution reports to the agency. State officials blamed a glitch in state computers that made it difficult to send the reports.

Federal officials also have expressed concern about whether a recent DEQ reorganization would hurt Virginia's ability to control water pollution.

The state assured the EPA that the reorganization posed no problem, said DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden.

McCabe said the EPA would send the remaining $400,000 when the state fulfills certain conditions. Among those conditions, Virginia must send the EPA pollution reports from as far back as 1996 by Sept. 5.

Hayden said Virginia will comply with the conditions and expects to get the remaining money next month.

Much of the federal grant money finances 25 DEQ jobs designed to prevent water pollution. The workers include inspectors, enforcement specialists and permit writers.

Gilmore says, if elected, he would replace Dunlop

Republican Jim Gilmore says he would replace Secretary of Natural Resources Becky Norton Dunlop if he is elected governor.

Gilmore said that he would have a "new secretary of natural resources designee" at the beginning of his term, representing a rare public break with Republican Gov. George Allen.

But he has stopped short of saying he will replace the management team at the Department of Environmental Quality. Environmentalists and Democrats have been highly critical of Dunlop and the DEQ for what they consider the lax enforcement of pollution regulations.

Mark Miner, Gilmore's press secretary, said Gilmore understood that Dunlop was planning to leave at the end of her term, anyway.

Allen would have reappointed Dunlop if he were able to serve a second term, said Allen's press secretary, Ken Stroupe.

"The secretary and her team have been a big part of the improvements we've seen in the environment during the Allen administration," Stroupe said. "I don't think any one governor tries to dictate who his successor should or should not keep, but we stand squarely behind Secretary Dunlop."

Gilmore's Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Don Beyer Jr., has been criticizing Gilmore harshly on environmental issues. Beyer has said he would fire Dunlop and Thomas L. Hopkins, the DEQ's controversial director. Beyer has said that cleaning up the agency would be his first priority if elected governor.

Gilmore's stance on Dunlop was disclosed in a memorandum he sent to four Republicans. A copy of the memo was leaked to the Richmond Times-Dispatch -apparently at the instigation of the Gilmore campaign, the newspaper reported.

Gilmore said he plans to appoint a task force to examine the environment, and asked the four recipients of the memo to serve on the panel.

Reservoir raises questions

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA have raised questions about the 1,526-acre reservoir proposed in Virginia's King William County, VA.

A permit from the Army Corps of Engineers is also required before the $130 million project can be built. But the USF&WS recently recommended that the Corps deny the permit. "Based on information presented to us, the project did not adequately compensate for the losses it created in terms of wetlands and habitat," said wildlife service biologist Janet Norman.

The EPA, meanwhile, has requested more information, including whether the reservoir would alter salt levels in the river and how the developers would make up for the loss of wetlands.

The reservoir would serve Newport News, Hampton, Poquoson, Williamsburg and James City and York counties. Officials say it is needed to ensure a steady drinking water supply on Virginia's peninsula.

Environmentalists fear damage to the Mattaponi River's ecology. Also, the Mattaponi Indians say the reservoir violates a centuries-old treaty and could hurt the river's shad and herring fisheries.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said it was pleased with the EPA's call for more information. "The wetland destruction alone-438 acres-to build the reservoir project would be the single biggest authorized loss of wetlands in Virginia," said Joseph Maroon, the foundation's Virginia executive director.

Nearly extinct eastern gamagrass making a comeback

Bison grazed on the eastern gamagrass for centuries, but settlers' cattle in the 1800s ate so much of it that the species nearly became extinct.

Now, the eastern gamagrass is making a comeback in a remote field at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center outside Washington.

Researchers Charles Foy and Donald Krizek used this summer's dry spell to prove that the grass could help farmers withstand droughts. They planted the grass in April in a one-acre plot next to corn and soybean.

"Look at this. This corn up here is shot, the soybeans over here are dead, and this, this is doing really well," Foy, a soil scientist, said recently as he walked through the gamagrass.

So what makes the hardy grass useful?

In addition to thriving in dry conditions, it resists cold weather and insects, grows well in inhospitable soils and sends its roots deep into the earth so that it can survive blistering heat and drought and prevent erosion. And it grows in just about any soil.

"This plant can be used to reclaim marginal land that's not being used for anything," Foy said.

The grass could be used by Maryland farmers as a buffer crop to reduce runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. Krizek said state officials have pledged to create buffer strips along 600 miles of waterfront farmland by 2010 to prevent runoff into the Bay.

Finally, the grass could be used as cattle feed as long as the animals are prevented from eating it down to the root.

The grass, which grows in thick clumps, was a wild, plentiful food for the bison herds that roamed the West until the 1860s. But the ranchers and farmers who began to settle the plains about 150 years ago brought in cattle with very different feeding habits.

The bison ate only the top portion of the grass, which allowed the stalks to rejuvenate. But cattle ate the entire stalk- from root to top. The grass needs to grow about 6 inches above the ground to gather sunlight, Foy said.

The grass was rediscovered in 1980, when a Missouri farmer raising bison buffalo discovered a small patch of it thriving during a drought that killed off other grasses. Krizek said word about the gamagrass has been spreading slowly among farmers and researchers ever since.

DuPont donates easement to protect Chesapeake Farms

DuPont will donate a conservation easement on a 3,300 acre farm in Kent County, guaranteeing that the property will be forever protected from development.

The easement on Chesapeake Farms is the largest ever given in Maryland, state officials said.

The donation by Sporting Goods Properties Inc., a Dupont subsidiary, was announced at a Sept. 11 news conference. John Krol, chairman and chief executive officer of DuPont, said the donation "demonstrates our belief that preservation of farmland and greenspace is becoming increasingly important in sustainable growth."

The easement, valued at $3 million, was donated to The Conservation Fund and the American Farmland Trust, two national nonprofit land conservation organizations.

Chesapeake Farms includes 1,100 acres devoted to corn and soybean production as well as 1,700 acres of woodlands and more than 500 acres of other wildlife habitat, including freshwater wetlands and brushy hedgerows.

The property provides habitat for more than 50 species of nesting birds, including two pairs of eagles. It is also home to 20 types of mammals, including the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, and 32 kinds of reptiles and amphibians.

The easement limits use of the property by DuPont or any future owners to agriculture and natural resources research, management and educational activities.

DuPont can continue to operate a small meeting center and build up to five homes on the 5-square-mile property in the future.

"Private, voluntary action such as this easement by DuPont is crucial to protecting this nation's best farmland, which is threatened by development not only in Kent County but in Maryland and throughout the nation," said Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust.