On the brink

A number of plant and animal species in the Bay region are currently designated as threatened or endangered. Most of these have been impacted by habitat loss and human activity. Among the endangered or threatened species in the region are:

  • Piping plover (threatened). This small, sandpiper-like bird is found on sand flats and mud flats, feeding on worms, crustaceans and other invertebrates. The piping plover nests on open, sandy beaches from Newfoundland to North Carolina. Primary threats to the piping plover include the modification and destruction of habitat from commercial, recreational and residential development.

  • James Spiny Mussel (endangered). This fresh water mussel is found in the James River drainage of Virginia and West Virginia. Once found throughout the drainage, it survives only in upstream tributaries. It is vulnerable to sedimentation, trampling by cattle in streams and toxic contaminants. As with other fresh water mussels, the James spiny mussel is an important indicator of water quality. Its health reflects the overall environmental condition of its native streams.

  • Sensitive Joint-vetch (threatened). This annual legume can be recognized by its yellow flower streaked with red. The leaves fold slightly when touched, hence the name. This plant occurs in freshwater tidal areas on Manokin Creek in Maryland and along the Potomac, Rappahannock, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy and James rivers in Virginia. Two new small populations were found in Maryland in 1994. All populations are threatened by habitat destruction or degradation caused by development, water withdrawal projects, sedimentation and the invasion by exotic plant species.

  • Delmarva Fox Squirrel (endangered). This large, slate-gray tree squirrel has an unusually full, fluffy tail and white belly. Once found throughout the Delmarva peninsula, remnant populations now persist naturally only in portions of Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Dorchester counties in Maryland. Attempts to transplant the animal to other locations in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware have been successful. Threats to the squirrel include timber harvesting, short rotation pine forestry, forest conversion to agriculture, and development.

Back from the brink

Endangered and threatened species can be saved. The following are a few species that have been been brought back from the edge of extinction in the Bay region:

  • Bald Eagle (threatened). After reaching an all-time low in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the bald eagle began recovering after the pesticide DDT was banned and public awareness of the bird’s plight increased. More than 300 nesting pairs now reside in the Bay region. Because of its successful recovery, the bald eagle was recently downlisted from endangered to threatened.

  • Peregrine Falcon (endangered). By the early 1960s, this bird had been wiped out east of the Mississippi River because of the use of DDT. As a result of the DDT ban and a reintroduction program, more than 100 pairs now nest in the East, including many in the Bay region, which are sometimes found nesting on human-built structures such as bridges and buildings. Consideration is now being given to downlisting the peregrine from endangered to threatened.

  • Peters Mountain Mallow (endangered). This species, currently known to occur only on Peters Mountain in Giles County, Va., consisted of 50 individuals in 1927 but had dropped to only three when it was listed in 1986. Federal listing promoted research that determined fire was required for the plant to germinate. The population site was purchased by the Nature Conservancy, which allowed the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to complete controlled burns in appropriate habitat. Since then, hundreds of mallow seedlings have germinated in the burned plots, dramatically improving the outlook for the species.

  • Virginia Round-Leaf Birch (threatened). This tree species is known to exist only on the banks of one creek in southwestern Virginia. Forty-one trees were known to exist in 1975, but by 1985, the population dropped to 11 individuals as a result of vandalism and predation (browsing by deer and rabbits and insect damage). Fencing placed around the trees and stabilization of the stream banks by the Natural Resources Conservation Service have protected the wild population. In partnership with the NRCS, the U.S. Forest Service has established 20 new populations, totaling about 1,400 trees, from greenhouse propagules. As a result of these successful recovery efforts, the species was recently reclassified as threatened.

— Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service