Friday, June 21, 2019

Preparing for rising seas

On one of the coldest days of the year, Wenley Ferguson fights the wind at the edge of Quonochontaug Pond in Charlestown. Bundled in a parka and knee-high rubber boots, she watches as workers use two large hydraulic dredges to pump a slurry of sand and water a quarter mile through an orange flexible pipe and onto the adjacent salt marsh in an effort to raise the elevation of the wetland. With flocks of gulls and shorebirds called dunlin gathering at the outflow pipe to forage for tiny marine creatures, two bulldozer drivers push the sandy sediments around on top of the delicate marsh, grading the site to create areas of high- and low-marsh habitat, as well as drainage channels so water does not pool on the surface as the tide recedes.
The habitat restoration coordinator for Save the Bay, Ferguson and Caitlin Chaffee from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council oversee the team of workers as they
Roy Carpenter's Beach after Super Storm Sandy (Michael Cevoli)
endure the challenging conditions to complete the first stage of what officials hope will save the marsh from rising seas.
“It looks a bit like a desert at the moment,” admits Ferguson, who calls the effort a sediment placement project. In a year or two, however, after native marsh plants have been planted and nature has had a chance to carve its signature into the project, the marsh will look and work like it did before sea level began its rapid ascent.
“We’re taking these extreme measures to place sediment on degraded salt marshes because we’ve seen widespread loss of salt marsh vegetation over the last 15 years,” says Ferguson. “A healthy marsh can build elevation through its root matter or through the accretion of sediments, but our marshes aren’t keeping pace with sea level rise.
During the last 20 years, sea level has risen an average of 5 millimeters per year, but local salt marshes are building elevation at just 2 millimeters per year. “And millimeters matter,” Ferguson notes. While salt marsh vegetation thrives on the twice daily influx of water from the tides, the rising sea level has meant that many of the Ocean State’s salt marshes are becoming permanently flooded, killing the vegetation where rare birds nest, and negating the marsh’s ability to cushion surging storms.
The Quonochontaug project follows similar efforts at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown, the Narrow River in Narragansett, and Ninigret Pond in Charlestown.
            A decade ago it would have been unthinkable for Ferguson to stand idly by as dredged material was dumped on a salt marsh. She spent much of the 1990s and 2000s removing fill and other impediments to the natural tidal flow at more than a dozen marshes damaged by human disturbances in the state.  Under normal circumstances, Ferguson may have been one of the first to stand in the way of a heavy bulldozer driving over the fragile marsh plants. But the circumstances these days are anything but normal.
            According to a gauge in Narragansett Bay, sea level has risen 11 inches since 1930, most of it in the last three decades. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently raised its estimates for future sea level rise to five feet by 2050 and more than 11 feet by 2100. During moon tides and major storms, water levels will get even higher. And that means that most of Rhode Island’s salt marshes – and much of the rest of the coastline – will soon become flooded. The changing climate is driving other dramatic changes in the Ocean State as well, from increasingly damaging storm runoff to degraded forests and heat-related illnesses.
             The state of Rhode Island and its coastal communities, along with coastal businesses, residents and some inland towns, are beginning to plan for the inevitable implications of climate change. Structures are being raised, barriers are being built, and numerous other strategies are being deployed in anticipation of....

Read the rest of this story in the June 2019 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

My year of the snake

            Birds captured my imagination almost 40 years ago because of their vibrant colors, great diversity, and ease of seeing them any time of year. After observing most of the species that could be seen in the U.S., I expanded my horizons to focus on butterflies for a few years, then dragonflies, beetles and amphibians.
            I’m calling 2019 my year of the snake, and early summer is the ideal time to find them.
            Snakes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course. In fact, most people are somewhat afraid of them, and a few are downright terrified. But that feeling is one many people developed based
Northern water snake at Round Top fishing area.
largely on misinformation and pop culture hysteria. There is no rational reason to fear snakes here in Rhode Island, where every species is harmless. No venomous snakes have been found in Rhode Island for half a century, when the last population of eastern timber rattlesnakes was eradicated.
            I admit that I was a bit squeamish around snakes for a while myself, but the more time I spent with them, the more I grew to appreciate them. Whenever I came across one in the past, I was often startled due to the unexpected nature of the encounter, and by the time I recovered, my opportunity to observe the animal closely had usually passed.
Yet I’ve always known that snakes are tremendously beneficial creatures. Some species are effective at keeping rodents in check, while others are valuable consumers of other pests.
            In my year of the snake, I’ve already come across four species of native snakes, including several garter snakes, the most likely species to be seen in gardens and backyards, and the beautifully patterned milk snake, whose shiny scales and color bands remind me of glazed terracotta.
            I also saw the Ocean State’s largest snake, thanks to snake whisperer Lou Perrotti, the conservation director at Roger Williams Park Zoo. Lou can find snakes where mere mortals see only leaves and branches and wood piles and stone walls.
He also knows where to look. Lou took me to a historic cemetery where he knows several varieties of snakes are often found. And just outside the cemetery boundary was an absolutely stunning beast – a five-foot long black rat snake.
            A glossy black with a white throat and silvery belly, it didn’t move while I stared wide-eyed at its magnificence. And it didn’t even move when Lou approached it and casually picked it up as if he were picking up a baseball bat. Black rat snakes have a reputation for being docile, and that one behaved as expected.
            Until, that is, I made a motion to grab it from Lou, a motion the snake apparently didn’t expect. And it bit me.
            I’m quite proud of my first snake bite. (Lou claims to have been bitten thousands of times with no ill effects.) It felt like a playful kitten got a little too playful. And then it went back to being docile.
            If Rhode Island’s largest snake bites like a playful kitten, then I can attest that we have nothing whatsoever to fear from snakes in Rhode Island. But don’t just take my word for it. The next time you come across a snake, take a moment to gather your wits, take a deep breath, and focus your attention on its behavior, structure, movement and that extra-sensory tongue. I won’t claim that they’re as cute as a kitten, but they’re just as harmless.

This article first appeared in The Independent on June 20, 2019.

Monday, June 17, 2019

River herring may be added to endangered list

            A decision to add two species of river herring to the federal endangered species list is due from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) later this month, and it could have significant implications for southeastern New England.
            Alewives and blueback herring, collectively called river herring, were once abundant in rivers and nearshore waters from Canada to South Carolina, but dams, climate change and overfishing have contributed to their decline by as much as 98 percent.
            “Historically they used all the big and small rivers on the entire Atlantic seaboard,” said Erica Fuller, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, who has been advocating for increased management of the species for many years. “They were the fish that fed the settlers; they were everywhere. There’s even a story of General Washington feeding the troops with alewives.”
            But, she added, the species have been at historic lows for decades.
            River herring play a vital ecological role, according to scientists. They spawn in
Alewives like this may soon be added to the endangered list (stock)
freshwater rivers and spend a majority of their lives at sea, so they carry nutrients to and from both ecosystems. They also provide food for an abundance of wildlife, from whales and seals to bluefin tuna, striped bass, bluefish and seabirds. But as more and more rivers were dammed, the fish lost access to their spawning grounds and populations declined.
Rhode Island has had a ban on the capture or possession of river herring since 2006, which was imposed following a significant decline in fish numbers returning to local rivers, according to Phillip Edwards, a freshwater fisheries biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Herring numbers returning to area rivers have stabilized in recent years, though they remain well below the numbers seen in the late 1990s.
            Efforts to install fish passageways and remove dams throughout the region, along with improvements in water quality, has opened up hundreds of miles of spawning habitat, but warming waters and drought due to the changing climate have made it difficult for the species to rebuild their populations.
            Fuller said that the biggest factor in the decline of river herring populations in the last 20 years was the arrival in the Northeast of large fishing trawlers targeting mackerel and Atlantic herring.
            “They came to the area in the early 2000s and had huge quotas for mackerel and Atlantic herring, and they scooped up tons of river herring as bycatch,” said Fuller.
Since river herring from the same spawning river tend to swim together when at sea, she said the trawlers may have captured almost all of the river herring that spawn in certain rivers.
“Some river populations haven’t recovered since the advent of mid-water trawlers when all the other factors suggest that they should have rebounded by now,” she said. “I don’t want to put a black hat only on industrial fishing, but it’s one significant factor we need to reduce to rebuild the river herring population.”
            The management of the fisheries for mackerel and Atlantic herring has made it difficult to take steps to protect the river herring. Mackerel are managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, Atlantic herring are managed by the New England Fishery Management Council, and river herring are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The commission is made up of representatives from area states, and the councils are made up of state and federal representatives. Fuller said the federal government is reluctant to manage river herring as a stock in a federal fishery management plan, and the courts have been reluctant to force them to do so.
            In an unexpected turn of events, the populations of mackerel and Atlantic herring experienced dramatic declines in the last year, which will likely result in a drastically lower fishing quota for those species. And that could mean many fewer river herring will be unintentionally captured as a result.
            “The crash of those two fisheries has changed the dynamic,” said Fuller. “It’s very important for those fisheries to limit their catch of river herring, and if quotas are low going forward, we could see an unexpected benefit.”
            That potential benefit could affect the decision to list river herring as endangered.
            The Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the federal government in 2011 to add river herring to the endangered list. Fuller said that blueback herring that spawn in the rivers of the mid-Atlantic states are especially vulnerable to extinction in the absence of federal management of the species due to their depleted status and the high proportion of the population that is caught by trawlers in southern New England waters.
            “One way NMFS can avoid a listing under the Endangered Species Act is if it can show that there are adequate regulatory mechanisms in place, and federal management under a fishery management plan would do that, because the herring would have science-based catch limits, a coast-wide stock assessment, and increased monitoring,” explained Fuller. “Federal oversight could potentially bring that stock back. But, in the absence of adding them to a plan, if they meet the criteria for listing as endangered or threatened, they should be listed.”
            Fuller isn’t optimistic that the species will be added to the endangered list, however, in part because the Trump Administration has actively reduced environmental protections whenever it could.
            “The agency will likely say that river herring don’t meet Endangered Species Act criteria for listing, that their numbers aren’t low enough,” she said, noting that the government’s ongoing review of river herring populations has not been made public. “If they’re listed, it would put a monkey wrench into federal management of mackerel and Atlantic herring. NMFS would do almost anything to avoid the endangered designation because they also manage those fisheries.”
            If the decision is made to list river herring, Fuller said it could have significant implications.
            “Then they’ll have to take reasonable and prudent measures to reduce bycatch,” she said. “That could involve time and area closures, more federal resources for science, more monitoring of the fisheries, more federal money to remove dams and open up more habitat and have better monitoring on the rivers. It would be big.”
            Even if river herring are not added to the endangered list, they still may be in for additional protections. A bill has been introduced in Congress called the Forage Fish Conservation Act, which would provide federal management of river herring and other forage fish.
            “It’s got bipartisan support because there are lots of recreational fishermen on both sides of the aisle who appreciate the value of healthy populations of river herring,” Fuller said.
This article first appeared on on June 14, 2019.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The man of the menagerie

            When an 800-pound wild Himalayan goat called a takin escaped from its enclosure at Roger Williams Park Zoo last May, it smashed through a reinforced door and injured two staff members before the zoo’s recapture team, overseen by Wakefield resident Tim French, sedated the animal and returned it to its exhibit. The emergency had staff members on edge for an hour, but none more than French, the zoo’s deputy director for animal programs, who is responsible for everything at the zoo that has anything to do with the animals.
            “From the very first day the takins arrived here, they had really nasty attitudes and showed aggression to people,” French said. “We had practiced emergency drills on takin escapes, because that’s one animal I was worried about getting out.”
            And yet the drama of the escape and recapture is something French looks back on fondly for the successful way it was handled.
            “One of the things I like about this place is when we get to the end of an event like that
when something has gone wrong, and I can see that the response was quick and coordinated and we had taken a potentially bad situation and turned it around,” he said. “I get a real sense of satisfaction out of that.”
            Luckily, French hasn’t had to deal with too many escaped animals in his more than three decades working at zoos around the country, including the last 14 years at Roger Williams Park.
He grew up in Endicott, N.Y., and said he “fell into” zoo work a few years after graduating college with a degree in wildlife biology. He started as a zookeeper at the Ross Park Zoo near his hometown, then became the curator of mammals at the Toledo Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio before becoming the director of the Riverside Zoo, a small zoo in western Nebraska. Yearning to return East, he accepted his present position in Providence, where he oversees the veterinary staff, zookeeper staff, animal nutrition, and conservation activities.
“I like the size of the animal collection here – it’s big without being huge, and the physical facilities are, too. It’s decent-sized without being unmanageable,” French said. “When I arrived, the zoo was getting ready to design a new polar bear exhibit and breed elephants, both of which I had just done in the last five years, so my experience fit nicely.”
French starts every day with a status meeting with his zookeepers to make sure they know the day’s schedule of veterinary visits, exhibit repairs and keeper presentations. Every week he meets with his animal management team to discuss medical cases and the status of new exhibits and other programs. And he maintains regular contact with his counterparts at numerous other zoos about the transfer of animals from one facility to another.
His big project for the last three years has been the design and construction of the zoo’s new “Faces of the Rainforest” exhibit, which opened in November. It features a 40-foot tall glass atrium and free-flying aviary housing four kinds of primates – two of which are already breeding – giant otters, sloths, toucans, an anaconda and many more creatures of the Amazon.
“We wanted to accomplish a lot with the exhibit and address a number of weaknesses in our collection,” he said. “We wanted to tell a rainforest story, so it had to be a very diverse collection of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. We also wanted to select species that we thought would give us more breeding opportunities.”
Because so many animals were going to be arriving at the zoo at the same time, French was faced with the logistical challenge of transporting them all to Providence from zoos around the country, getting them through quarantine, making sure their exhibits were completed on time, and carefully introducing the varied species to each other.
“Animals will always find your mistakes and find them quickly,” he said. “One of our golden lion tamarins found an opening in the exhibit that was just a little too big, and he got into a service area. He was back there for a couple of days until we could coax him out. But we got him.”
Now that the rainforest exhibit is open, French can focus more of his attention on construction of a new education building and the establishment of a new commissary for the preparation and storage of food for the animals.
“The commissary is a real big deal for us because right now we’ve got freezers scattered around everywhere,” he said.
Among the groceries he purchases for the animals every year are thousands of dead rodents, hundreds of thousands of crickets and mealworms, several tons of fish of many varieties, many tons of hay, several thousand pounds of horsemeat for the carnivores, four varieties of biscuits for the primates, uncounted servings of “restaurant quality” produce, and bi-monthly deliveries of grains from four vendors.
While the demands of the zoo’s animals don’t leave a great deal of free time, most of French’s time off revolves around his family, especially his eight grandchildren and his “goofy” golden retriever that he takes on hikes. But his mind often wanders back to Roger Williams Park Zoo.
“I really like that I get to do a lot of different things in this job,” he said. “I like the opportunity to create things, like exhibit designs. When you finish something and open it up and see how people react, I get a charge out of that.”
French won’t admit to having a favorite animal at the zoo, but he prefers to spend his time with the bears and otters.
“I’ve had fun working with all different animals,” he said. “But I’m not an aquarium guy. I like looking at fish, but the thought of caring for them does nothing for me.”

This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of South County Life magazine.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The fight to protect our forests

            In mid-April, pine warblers had taken over the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge in Exeter. Their high-pitched, insect-like buzzy songs could be heard everywhere one turned, from the parking lot to the pond to the densest woodland.
But they weren’t the only birds making themselves heard and seen during the early days of spring migration. A pair of red-shouldered hawks called out to each other as they soared overhead and performed their mating ritual in anticipation of nesting in the refuge in the
A stroll through Fisherville Brook (Glenn Osmundson)
ensuing weeks. A pair of eastern phoebes had nearly completed construction of their nest on a support beam of the informational kiosk. And red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, black-capped chickadees and several other forest-nesting species appeared to be making plans for the future.
Fisherville, a mosaic of five properties acquired since 1988 that now totals 1,010-acres, is an ideal place to observe the important role that forests play in providing habitat for a diversity of wildlife. It’s also representative of the abundance of ecosystem services that forests contribute to the region’s human population, from protecting the water quality in local aquifers and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere to cooling the environment, reducing soil erosion and providing a stress-free place for rest, recreation and rejuvenation.
“Fisherville protects the headwaters of the Queen River, one of the most biodiverse rivers in the state,” said Scott Ruhren, Audubon’s senior conservation director. “And the reason it’s one of the most biodiverse rivers in the state is because it runs through protected forests almost all the way to the Pawcatuck River, including through our Eppley Wildlife Refuge.”
Large undisturbed tracts of forest are especially valuable in supporting wildlife and the services that people require.
“Humans have a history of fragmenting forests into smaller patches, but small woodlots lose diversity, they get warmer more quickly, they tend to get invaded by pests, and they’re less able to store and filter water,” Ruhren said. “We take them for granted, but it’s vitally important that we protect large, intact forest ecosystems.”
Audubon’s executive director Larry Taft agrees. When asked what he likes most about Fisherville, he said, “its bigness.”
While size is indeed important when it comes to forest conservation, what is equally important today in Rhode Island is that the state acknowledge the vital role forests play in the region and establish a process to protect essential forest habitats. That’s why Audubon worked with partners to develop the Rhode Island Woodland Preservation and Stewardship Act of 2019, a bill that was introduced to the General Assembly in April by Rep. Arthur Handy and Sen. Bridget Valverde. When passed, the legislation will give the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management the authority to promote the stewardship of forests and woodlands in partnership with cities, towns and private landowners.
“Wetlands, farmland, coastal lands and soils are all protected in the state, but not upland woods,” said Taft as he walked through Fisherville. “Forests like this have no standing under the law in Rhode Island. There is no grand plan or incentive for people to use or protect or appreciate the environmental services they provide.”
Forested lands have been under increasing threat in recent years. Over the past century, the primary threat to Rhode Island’s wildlife and their habitats... 

Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2019 issue of Audubon Report.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Caring for the wild ones

            When Christine Cummings was a child in Illinois, she pretended to be a baby bird that had fallen from her nest whenever it was bedtime. Her parents had to place her back in her “nest” every night to get her to go to sleep. It’s a process that came to be called re-nesting, and it was a sign of what was to come.
            Today, Cummings is the founder of A Place Called Hope, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Killingworth that cares for injured birds of prey and those that have fallen from their nests until they can be returned to the wild. Her husband, Todd, has learned to climb tall trees to re-nest the baby raptors as soon as possible, which sometimes involves building replacement nests if the original becomes damaged in a storm.
            “I was destined to do this; there’s no question,” said Cummings, who admits about 600 hawks, owls, falcons and vultures to her facility each year and re-nested 23 great horned owl
Wildlife rehabilitator Amanda Morgillo releases a hawk.
chicks in just the first three months of 2019. “We don’t let nature take its course here, because 98 percent of the injuries are caused by humans,” mostly from vehicle collisions.
            It takes great dedication – not to mention a lengthy certification process – to become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, but those like Cummings who have completed the process say it is a tremendously fulfilling endeavor that meets a significant need in the community. It starts with attendance at a four-hour seminar sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and taught by members of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.
            According to Vickie Silvia, who began the process of becoming a rehabilitator in 2016, the class covers a wide variety of topics, from diet and critical care to animal diseases and caging for most of the wildlife found in the state. A retired police officer who lives in Old Lyme, Silvia said the exam that followed the class wasn’t especially difficult, but it required that she pay close attention during class and study the manual.
            After passing the exam, trainees are required to volunteer for at least 40 hours with a licensed rehabilitator having at least three years of experience, and identify a veterinarian who has agreed to provide guidance and emergency care as needed.
            For Amanda Morgillo, finding a willing vet was the easy part. She works at a veterinary hospital in North Branford. Both Morgillo and Silvia spent most of their volunteer hours with Cummings at A Place Called Hope.
            “I always learn something new every time I’m there,” Morgillo said. “Every day is a new experience and a new lesson.”
            They initially spent most of their time cleaning cages, preparing food, and observing Cummings handle and care for the birds before getting the chance to get hands-on with the raptors themselves. Eventually they were allowed to help rescue birds in the field and process those delivered to the facility.
            “My advice is this: when it’s time to get your volunteer hours, don’t get them all at one place,” Cummings said. “Get your hours at places with different kinds of animals until you know what you want to do.”
            After receiving their initial license – officially called the standard rehabilitator appointment – Morgillo and Silvia were allowed to care for a limited variety of species on their own, including rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and opossums. But they chose to pursue wildlife rehabilitation in different ways.
Despite living in an apartment with her parents, Morgillo began caring for whatever animals her home could accommodate. “I know my limits,” she said. “I don’t have a huge space, I can’t build caging, I can’t have a possum and a squirrel at the same time. So I take in what I can, rescue what I can, and help Christine as much as I can.”
            Silvia knew immediately that she wasn’t going to establish her own rehabilitation facility at her home. Her interest was in raptors, so she chose to continue volunteering at A Place Called Hope.
            “The reality of working here and seeing how much they need and what goes into it made me realize that I was more interested in staying here and doing what I could for this organization,” said Silvia. “Unless she throws me out, there’s no way I’m leaving.”
            Rehabilitating birds requires a federal migratory bird rehabilitation permit, which Silvia has not yet obtained. But as long as she continues to volunteer at A Place Called Hope, she can help rehabilitate raptors under Cummings’ permit. (Rehabilitating animals that can transmit rabies, like raccoons, skunks and foxes, requires another level of authorization – and a series of rabies vaccinations.)
            Many newly-certified rehabilitators soon realize that the time and cost involved in caring for animals at home may be more than they can handle on their own. But Cummings said that demand for rehabilitation services is overwhelming, and volunteers are needed for a wide variety of activities, from rescues in the field and animal transportation to educating the public and caring for the hundreds of infant rabbits and squirrels that need assistance during baby season in the spring and summer. It’s not necessary that every rehabilitator open their home to wildlife.
            “Once you know what animals you want to work with, I recommend joining up with others who are interested in the same animals,” Cummings said. “Don’t do it alone or you’ll burn out.”
            The Wildlife Rehabilitators Association provides support to new rehabilitators through networking opportunities and additional training, including classes Cummings teaches on wildlife rescue and transport, raptor intake and re-nesting.
            Morgillo and Silvia agree that every minute of the work is worthwhile.
            “There’s no way to describe the smile that comes across your face from being so close to these amazing creatures,” concluded Morgillo. “That they let you in their presence to help them grow and get them back out there on their own is awe-inspiring.”

This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Sound & Country magazine.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Reptiles, amphibians in need of "urgent conservation" in Rhode Island

            When Scott Buchanan was hired as a wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management last year, he became the first full-time herpetologist on the state payroll. It’s a sign, he said, that reptiles and amphibians are in need of management and conservation in the state.
            “To be in herpetology is to be on the front lines of the global biodiversity crisis,” he said. “We’re at risk of losing, globally, roughly half of the reptile and amphibian species on Earth in the next 100 years. Turtles and frogs are in a neck-and-neck competition for the unfortunate title of being the most endangered wildlife taxa.”
            While Rhode Island’s reptiles and amphibians have not experienced the level of habitat loss and disease that occurs in Southeast Asia or the Tropics, Buchanan said “the crisis is very real in New England. The mission is very urgent, and we need to do everything we can here in Rhode Island.”
            About 40 species of turtles, snakes, frogs, toads and salamanders call the Ocean State
Northern leopard frogs are disappearing from Rhode Island (stock)
home. All face issues of habitat loss, road mortality and disease, but turtles are also faced with high demand from collectors for the pet trade.
            While monitoring a rare population of wood turtles this spring, herpetologist Lou Perrotti, director of conservation at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, observed a small specimen he estimated to be five or six years old.
            “I love to see the little ones,” he said, “but I worry that someone would put this one in their pocket and take it home.”
            It’s such a concern that Buchanan is co-chair of a collaborative group of biologists, law enforcement officials and legal experts from up and down the East Coast working to combat the illegal trade in native turtles. The objective, he said, is to raise the profile of the issue and encourage the law enforcement community to be aware that a black market in native turtles exists in the region.
            The illegal trade in wildlife is valued at about $19 billion annually, according to the World Wildlife Fund's TRAFFIC program, which monitors the trade.
            “It’s something I worry a lot about,” said Buchanan, who conducted research on spotted turtles for his doctorate at the University of Rhode Island. “If you know where they are, turtles are pretty easy to pick up, take home, keep alive, and get them into the black market. All of our native species are vulnerable, though some are more prized than others.”
            A Pennsylvania man was arrested last year for smuggling 3,500 rare diamondback terrapins from marshes in New Jersey and selling them online. Although no cases have been adjudicated in Rhode Island, Buchanan said there is evidence of the illegal turtle trade in the state.
            Buchanan is also involved in region-wide efforts to study spotted turtles and box turtles in Rhode Island, two species that are considered to be of significant conservation concern. He is conducting surveys of both species this spring to gather as much data as possible about their distribution, abundance, demography and population genetics.
            In collaboration with the zoo and Brown University, he is also investigating the presence of disease in local populations of reptiles and amphibians.
            “We need to improve our understanding of where the diseases are and what species are harboring them to get a sense of their susceptibility,” he said. “There’s chitrid [a common amphibian disease in the Tropics] in our environment, though our frogs don’t seem to be susceptible, but there hasn’t been a lot of testing. And there’s a similar disease for salamanders that has had bad outbreaks in Europe, and we’re worried about it coming overseas.”
            Two species of amphibian – the spadefoot toad and northern leopard frog – are on the verge of disappearing from Rhode Island. Both have only one known population. The toad is only found at one site in Richmond, though efforts are under way to create habitat to establish additional populations. The frog is found only on the border of Bristol and Warren, and Buchanan said there is little that can be done to help it recover.
            “The northern leopard frog might be the best example of a species that’s about to disappear from the state,” he said, noting that the species faces multiple threats from habitat loss, pollution and invasive species. “It could happen this year, next year, or in five years, but all indications are it’s going to happen soon. And there’s not a tool in my toolbox at the moment that I can use to confront the situation.”

This article first appeared on on June 1, 2019.