Game Commission takes a broader view of non-game species, but funding is limited
Threatened with extinction by White-nose Syndrome, the little brown bat is among the non-game species managed by the state Game Commission.
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STATE COLLEGE -- Bald eagles get instant recognition and respect. The bald eagle is part of American lore, and everyone knows an adult eagle when fortunate enough to see one.
Wildlife biologists, though, say the eagle's revival is only a part of a broader conservation challenge. To take aim at that challenge, the Game Commission's Wildlife Diversity Division convened the first-ever Wildlife Diversity Forum June 28-29 in State College. Ninety-one scientists, conservationists and communicators from various agencies, universities and organizations met to discuss the state's most pressing wildlife diversity issues and brainstorm strategies to address those problems.
"This is our most important conference of the year," Carl Roe, Game Commission executive director, told attendees. "The Game Commission has a responsibility to conserve all the state's wildlife, including the 88 percent [423 of 480 species] of all birds and mammals that are not considered 'game,' so are not pursued by the state's hunters and trappers."
Most of those species are less well known to the public than popular birds such as the bald eagle. Speakers said some of those birds and mammals are already declining in population, and unless the public understands their needs and supports their conservation they may slip away in the face of threats to their habitats or from invasive exotic competitors or disease.
"Much of the state's wildlife is unknown and overlooked by politicians and the public," said Greg Turner, PGC endangered mammal specialist. "Dozens of small mammals, for example, are hard to see and inconspicuous, yet they contribute to ecological health by controlling insects, dispersing plant seeds and aerating soil."
One of the most immediate threats to healthy wildlife diversity is the recent, rapid spread of White-nose Syndrome (WNS) among populations of bat species across northeastern and Appalachian states. WNS was first detected in Pennsylvania during the winter of 2008-09, but has already destroyed 95 percent of little brown bat populations at various caves and threatens Indiana bats, already listed as a federally endangered species before WNS arrived in the United States, presumably from Europe.
As a first step in the response to WNS, Game Commission wildlife diversity biologists developed a technique that uses ultra-violet light to detect the fungus in caves without disturbing hibernating bats.
Various presenters noted that other species, like the Allegheny woodrat and various songbirds that depend on extensive ridge-top forest cover, may be negatively affected by the recent surge in energy development, notably wind turbines and natural gas extraction.
In group discussions, attendees said that better understanding of these species' habitat needs and proper planning of energy development might reduce the impact on wildlife inhabiting core mountain forests.
Dan Brauning, Game Commission wildlife diversity division chief, said that professionals' thinking about wildlife conservation is changing, and that it is important to convey an understanding of the new approach to the public.
"Wildlife diversity conservation started out by reacting to the plight of endangered and threatened species only," Brauning said. "We found ourselves trying to save only the best of the last. We're now attempting to address conservation with a broader view, by nurturing a regional perspective and engaging local interest. We hope this broader view can head off emergencies in wildlife conservation."
As an example of a regional view of wildlife concerns, Brauning cited Pennsylvania's importance to the scarlet tanager, a brilliantly colored songbird that needs large areas of forest for nesting.
"Pennsylvania lies at the center of the scarlet tanager's range," Brauning said. "Surveys of nesting activity show that 18 percent, nearly one-fifth, of this bird's entire population nests in this state. We have a responsibility to the tanager's national and global well-being."
Recognizing that songbirds move across political borders, the Game Commission provides limited support to the El Jaguar Reserve in Nicaragua, an important site used by tanagers, warblers and other forest birds that nest in Pennsylvania but migrate south each winter.
Cathy Haffner, conservation planning coordinator with PGC's Wildlife Diversity Division, said an objective of the new approach is to "keep common species common."
Forum attendees assembled into discussion groups and identified major thrusts that agencies, organizations, funders and the public could pursue to advance wildlife diversity conservation. Listed among those initiatives were public outreach and education; planning, funding and administration; land protection; habitat management; and scientific research.
Attendees learned that Pennsylvania already has a Wildlife Action Plan, developed by Game Commission personnel to qualify for federal grants to states that support wildlife diversity conservation. Many of those grants, however, require matching money. Pennsylvania has met its match requirement largely through the Wild Resource Conservation Fund (WRCF), which enables state residents to contribute a portion of their state income tax refund to conservation, or by making direct donations. Attendees heard dark news on that front.
"The Wild Resource Conservation Fund is seriously depleted," said WRCF executive director Greg Czarnecki. "We may not be able to provide matching funds for federal grants to the state next year."
Federal grants have helped the Game Commission add more trained biologists to its Wildlife Diversity Division, which now houses five biologists of various specialties, biologist aides, a conservation planner and six regional biologists who assist private landowners in conserving wildlife on their properties. Game Commission revenue from natural gas extraction under and near state game lands also supports wildlife diversity research and conservation.
Several speakers noted, however, that much of the Game Commission's non-game and wildlife diversity effort continues to be supported by hunters' license dollars, and that no general appropriation pays for wildlife conservation work in the state.
Cal DuBrock, PGC wildlife management bureau director, said the wildlife diversity effort would not stop when the forum recessed.
"This is a first step," DuBrock said. "We will engage others, too. We will assemble these ideas and make them available to participants and others to review and augment."
DuBrock said the public can support wildlife diversity by conserving habitat on private lands, by contributing to the Wild Resource Conservation Fund and the Game Commission's Working Together For Wildlife Program, and by learning more about Pennsylvania's diverse wild heritage.
First Published July 15, 2012 12:00 am