Spanning six states and the District of Columbia, Chesapeake Bay is America's largest and most productive estuary. It is fed by a vast watershed of more than 180,000 miles of rivers and streams including about a third of Pennsylvania, stretching as far west as the Susquehanna River headwaters in Clearfield and Cambria counties.
In the past 30 years, habitat loss, the arrival of non-native and invasive species, agricultural runoff, industrial pollution and fishing pressure have threaten the sustainability of Chesapeake Bay's fisheries.
A major federal and multi-state project to rehabilitate the estuary was signed last month with Pennsylvania among the stakeholders. Co-signers to the Chesapeake Watershed Agreement promise to "restore and sustain naturally reproducing brook trout populations ... with an 8 percent increase in occupied habitat by 2025 ... restore historical fish migratory routes by opening 1,000 additional stream miles ... [and] expand the urban tree canopy by 2,400 acres by 2025."
Jason Detar, a biologist for the state Fish and Boat Commission, said improving the bay will require habitat and industrial improvements in Pennsylvania's central river system, its headwaters and fisheries.
"Brook trout habitats are below historic levels, but they're improving," he said. "The hope is that we can extend those population increases downstream to areas that are now impacted by agriculture."
The goal of an 8 percent increase in brook trout habitat refers to increases from current levels, Detar said. The agreement is certain to have a financial impact on the farming industry, and it is uncertain how the project will be funded.
Management and implementation plans are due in one year.
A municipal advisory in Ben Avon concerning the possible sighting of a timber rattlesnake in Avon Park has some Ohio Township residents afraid to step outside.
But Henry Kacprzyik, curator of reptiles at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, said there's not much to worry about.
"It's not extremely dangerous. There clearly are poisonous snakes in Western Pennsylvania, but you're less likely to find rattlesnakes in the Pittsburgh area than if you go an hour, hour-and-a-half outside of the city," he said. "I tell people that if you do come across one, have a respect for the animal, not a fear of the animal."
The timber rattlesnake, Eastern massasauga rattlesnake and copperhead are Pennsylvania's only poisonous snakes. They are indigenous to the western counties, but generally avoid developed areas. Like other pit vipers, rattlesnakes can be identified by a triangle-shaped head and cat-like vertically elliptical pupils, as well as the distinctive tail rattle.
"Rattlesnakes are not aggressive. That's why they have the rattle," said Kacprzyik. "They want to give you notice -- you're too close, back off."
Outdoors users -- particularly children, who are more susceptible to venom -- should avoid reaching behind or under rocks, wood and industrial structure in spring, summer and fall. Venomous snakebites are rare in Western Pennsylvania, and there's virtually no record of snakebite fatalities in the state since the quick availability of anti-venom. If you are bitten, try to identify the snake and go to a hospital.
If you think you see the snake that has Avon Park all atwitter, back away and report the sighting to the Ohio Township Police Department.