August 23, 2012
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Did you know that Alabama has more than 80 species of crayfish? I thought all those crawfish we scooped out of the ditches and sloughs to use for bait on a trotline were about the extent of the crawfish diversity.
However, there is a group of dedicated wildlife and fisheries scientists and specialists who take great pride in identifying and conserving the great biodiversity of animals and aquatic species in Alabama and around the nation.
A few weeks ago, many of those scientists and specialists convened at the Third Alabama Nongame Wildlife Conference at Auburn to update the status of the species that were identified at the 2002 conference of the same name. That 2002 conference produced a four-volume publication, “Alabama Wildlife,” which provided conservation and management guidelines for imperiled species in Alabama.
The specialists were asked to review data on the relative abundance of the different species and give each species a ranking in terms of numbers and how imperiled the species is.
The rankings are: Priority 1 – highest conservation concern. The species is critically imperiled and at risk of extinction/extirpation because of extreme rarity, restricted distribution, decreasing population trend/viability problems, and specialized habitat needs due to natural or human-caused factors and immediate research and conservation action is required. Examples are the Alabama red-bellied turtle or cerulean warbler. Priority 2 – high conservation concern. Examples are the long-tailed weasel or speckled kingsnake. Priority 3 - moderate conservation concern; for example, the bald eagle. Priority 4 – low conservation concern, like the striped skunk. Priority 5 – lowest conservation concern. Examples are the raccoon or white-tailed deer.
Mark Sasser, Nongame Wildlife Program Coordinator with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, said in the 10 years since the last conference conservation and management techniques have changed, and the status of some species has changed. More than 160 people participated in the 2012 conference to help with the update process.
“We had a wide variety of people at the conference,” Sasser said. “Some were wildlife and fisheries biologists, aquatics experts, college professors, representatives from various governmental agencies and conservation associations. Their input helps us keep up with the changing landscapes in the field. They re-evaluated every species that was on the list in 2002 and some new ones. We didn’t have a crayfish committee back then.
“Not everything was upgraded to a higher priority or stayed the same. Some were downlisted. Some species were doing well enough that they were moved to a lower priority. One example is the alligator snapping turtle. We protect all of our Priority 1 and Priority 2 species. The alligator snapping turtle is still protected even though it was moved to Priority 3. We wouldn’t want it to be exploited again.”
Sasser said a requirement of the State Wildlife Grant (SWG) program is to re-evaluate the Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (CWCS) every 10 years, and a revised CWCS is due in 2015. The primary purpose of the Third Conference was to re-evaluate the species for revision of the CWCS. The SWG program obtains funding through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to comprehensively conserve wildlife species through the development of CWCS. The CWCS defines those wildlife species in greatest need of conservation in Alabama and describes the action necessary for their restoration.
“Funds from the State Wildlife Grant Program funds made possible the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center in Marion,” said Traci Wood, WFF’s State Wildlife Grant Coordinator. “It is the largest state non-game recovery program of its kind in the United States. Its mission is to promote the conservation and restoration of rare freshwater species in Alabama waters, which will in turn restore cleaner water to Alabama"s streams.”
Wood also pointed out that Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries was a recent recipient of a Competitive State Wildlife Grant to enhance and restore longleaf pine ecosystem habitat on private lands, Barbour WMA and the Coosa Forever Wild Tract for the benefit of 31 Greatest Conservation Need species. Only seven project proposals were selected out of 16 competitive applications for the entire country. Alabama was one of those recipients, and the only project proposal selected for funding from the Southeast.
Another SWG project that received national attention and involved a number of federal and state partners has been the re-introduction of the threatened Eastern Indigo Snake in Conecuh National Forest.
Keith Hudson, WFF Nongame Wildlife Biologist, said the mammal committee considered 74 species at the 2012 Nongame Conference. Six mammals increased in priority ranking, while two decreased. At total of 20 mammals were ranked as Priority 1 or 2. Those mammals ranked in Priority 1 included six bat species, the Perdido Key and Alabama beach mice, the American black bear and the West Indian manatee. Several small animals were included in Priority 2, including the Appalachian cottontail, marsh rabbit, and a new species identified as the smoky shrew.
The mammal committee also highlighted the uncertainty of some of the bat species with the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that can wipe out whole colonies.
“Our main concern is that now that white-nose syndrome has been documented in one bat population in north Alabama, we don’t know how that’s going to affect our populations in the state,” Hudson said. “Unfortunately, some of these rankings may change if white-nose spreads.”
Eric Soehren of the State Lands Division chaired the bird committee, which included everything from songbirds to shore birds and waterfowl. The bird committee identified eight species in the Priority 1 category, including three species of plover, red-cockaded woodpecker and the American oystercatcher, which was upgraded from Priority 2. The Priority 2 species included the several rail species, the American black duck and wood stork. The mottled duck, golden eagle, red knot, gull-billed tern, loggerhead shrike and rusty blackbird were all upgraded to Priority 2. The good news is three species were downlisted from Priority 2 to Priority 3 – northern harrier, American kestrel and American woodcock.
Dr. Paul Johnson, Director of the aforementioned Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center, said that 52 mussels and 25 gastropods (snails and slugs) are listed in the Priority 1 category, while 22 mussels and 23 gastropods fall into the Priority 2 category. The center is on the forefront of re-establishing the threatened mollusks to Alabama’s rivers and streams.
WFF Aquatic Resources Biologist Steve Rider headed the fish committee and said 10 species were upgraded from Priority 2 to Priority 1, including Alabama shad, blue shiner, ghost shiner, dusky shiner, suckermouth minnow, broadstripe shiner, frecklebelly madtom, shoal bass and bluebreast darter. The southern walleye, which was not considered a separate species in 2002, was listed as a Priority 1. Also, the bluestripe shiner went from Priority 3 to Priority 1. One fish species, the lipstick darter, was downlisted to Priority 3. Tallapoosa sculpin, muscadine darter and northern walleye were downlisted to Priority 2.
Some of the species better known to the general public fall into the categories of amphibians and reptiles.
Roger Clay, WFF Nongame Wildlife Biologist, said those categories had no species elevated to Priority 1 during the re-evaluation, and that one species was a significant success story. The American alligator, once a Priority 1, is now a Priority 5. Clay said the wood frog was elevated to Priority 2, as were the smallmouth salamander, eastern tiger salamander, southern red-back salamander, the eastern glass lizard and the Escambia map turtle. In the snake category, the rainbow snake and eastern coral snake were elevated from Priority 2 to Priority 1.
PHOTOS: (Courtesy of USFWS) White-nose syndrome is seen in this little brown myotis, a species of highest conservation concern in Alabama. Nongame biologists are concerned that many other bat species may be affected if the syndrome, a fungal infection, continues to spread. It has been documented in only one Alabama cave near the Tennessee border. On the opposite end of the state, the American oystercatcher has been moved up one notch to Priority 1, the category for species with the highest conservation concern.