Conservation Reflections

Thoughtful commentary, occasional rantsIMG_0360
and always entertaining writing from
Gerry Smith, professional ornithologist,
conservationist and long time
Onondaga Audubon leader, supporter,
and member.

Nice to Win One:
A Victory for the Birds

As I have previously mentioned, conservation battles may be won but a permanent victory in war is harder to secure. As long as a resource remains exploitable, future efforts to use it for personal gain will inevitably occur. With the January 2017 pending implementation of Plan 2014 for the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario, conservationists got as close to a long-term victory as we could ever achieve. After sixteen years of hard work by a great coalition of organizations, including Onondaga Audubon and Audubon New York, the International Joint Commission (IJC) has seen the light. This regulatory body is shared between the United States and Canada and has replaced the outdated 1950’s regulatory plan with a more balanced approach and recognizes ecological considerations not previously included in management regimes.

The materials from Audubon New York Director, Erin Crotty is posted with this reflection and summarizes the salient points of this victory better than I can. For my part, I am reveling in what concerned citizens can do when they unite. Changes to this regime that will clearly benefit wetlands, wildlife, and future generations of our species are included in this plan. Yet looking beyond the interests of only a limited number of property owners along the southern and eastern shores of Lake Ontario took more than a decade and a half to overcome even when it was clear that change would occur gradually and that shoreline property owners had little to fear. This delay reduced benefits that could have been achieved had matters preceded faster.

The benefits of Plan 2014 clearly outweigh any negatives in my mind. This management regime will more closely mimic the naturally occurring water fluctuations present prior to the interference of humans. While changes do not go as far as I would wish, restoration of over 60,000 acres of damaged riparian wetlands is now probable. Similar to what is occurring in the Florida Everglades, current generations are initiating correction of the catastrophic damage to certain ecosystems caused by our forbearers. Plan 2014 should be seen as the effort in our region to begin the slow and painful processes of repairing at least some of the damage caused by putting progress first without addressing the consequences.

Many who have opposed Plan 2014 claimed to love the lake, and yet the plan they oppose is aimed at restoration efforts to make this lake a whole lot healthier than it has been for much of their lifetime. It is hard to understand how anyone could be more concerned about minor changes to their personal shorelines than providing for one’s own grandchildren and great grandchildren to inherit a healthier Lake Ontario and St Lawrence River. As owners of an already eroding bluff, Derby Hill, along the south shore of Lake Ontario, OAS may itself be impacted by changes due to Plan 2014. OAS understands that there may be limited impacts to Derby Hill (such as a minor increase in erosion), but still support the plan due to the greater number of benefits it can provide to the ecosystem as a whole. Thus are life’s tradeoffs and since the southern and eastern lakeshores are subsiding from the last glaciation it has been expected that erosion along the shoreline will occur naturally anyway. I trust however, that there is plenty of time for hawk watchers to adapt to the changes that may come and it seems unlikely that panic or a large vessel for the hawk counter will be required soon. Obviously I am being facetious, but the hysteria exhibited by some plan 2014 opponents despite reasonable scientific evidence to the contrary has been truly astonishing.

Fortunately, Plan 2014 has finally passed, but I have no doubt that some opponents will seek to continue this battle based on the changes in Washington DC. Fortunately the IJC is a relatively independent organization and, as we have seen, change takes a long time and must involve two countries to implement. In Canada, Plan 2014 faced little opposition so I remain hopeful it will remain in place for some time to come. While we shall remain vigilant, this victory feels more sustainable than most. For my part, I applaud all who fought for needed changes and the wildlife of our region are the true winners in this battle. Let us celebrate the result of our species growing a tiny bit wiser about managing this world on which all life depends.

Here is a link to Audubon New York Executive Director Erin Crotty’s statement about Plan 2014.

Lesser Wilderness Facing Greatest Threat in 50,000 Years

November 2016

New York’s Tug Hill Plateau region is famous for many things. Rising to over 2000 ft. directly east of Lake Ontario, it receives more snow than anywhere east of the Northern Rockies. A land of short growing seasons, this Lesser Wilderness is best suited to growing trees. It’s a tough life on the hill where winter survival for human and wild critter alike is an arduous task. As January winds howl and lake-effect blizzards rage only the foolhardy human is found outside. I cannot imagine the stress of living without indoor plumbing and central heating. As with the greater wilderness, the Adirondacks, this area was not occupied year round by Native Americans for obvious reasons.

When I moved to this region, a quarter century past, it was a place of considerable tranquility for much of the year. Most of the area was then and is now, left to the wildlife. Winter snowmobile traffic and recently increasing ATV use mar the area, as does sloppy forestry practice. Otherwise this thinly settled region, consisting of three land use rings, is little impacted directly by humans. The outer and middle rings are mixed agriculture and forest encircling the large “core forest. Only one road crosses the core forest and there are many large blocks of forest far from any human habitation. Truly this area deserves being considered a wilderness by Eastern North American standards.

Birders have long known this heavily forested region as a place where one can find a great diversity of breeding birds. Famous naturalist and future director of the Smithsonian Clinton Hart Merriam was born nearby and explored the area in the late nineteenth century. Fritz Scheider rediscovered the avian diversity of the region in the 1950s, His counts from the Mad River region of sixty plus Least Flycatchers in a two-mile hike and of many other species present in high densities are fascinating. A wonderful area to bird throughout the seasons, Tug Hills location, 30 to 90 minutes from all parts of the Syracuse, Utica and Watertown metropolitan areas, makes it a prime destination for birders.

Unfortunately this lesser wilderness is now facing the greatest threat to its ecological viability since the last glaciation. A decade ago the first industrial wind complex, Maple Ridge, was permitted in the towns of Martinsburg, Harrisburg and Lowville along the northeastern and eastern slopes of the middle ring of Tug Hill. This nearly two hundred turbine monstrosity sailed through the regulatory process virtually unopposed. The results likely have been significant impacts on both the human and wildlife residents far beyond those documented. One result is that, where raptors were once regularly observed in fall and early winter, within the industrial wind complex footprint, few are seen today.

During the Maple Ridge regulatory process promises were made by the wind industry that turbines would not be placed in the core forest. Currently there are two proposed projects that would place nearly 100 turbines and associated fragmenting roads into this forest. One of these proposed projects is in the towns of Redfield and Worth encompassing the Mad River region of F.G Schneider’s stomping grounds. The resulting fragmentation would have devastating impacts on forest interior birds and wildlife. In addition another 150-200, up to 600 foot tall, turbines are on the drawing for the Northern and northwestern portions of the two outer rings of the hill.


If these projects are permitted life for much of the area on the hill will be altered beyond recognition. As a resident of the town of Pinckney, a future much impacted town, I am deeply concerned about the coming storm. While I may fear lake effect storms, when caught out in one, they pale by comparison to the non-recyclable blades and massive concrete piles marching toward the hill. But what I fear most is the apathy and acceptance amongst the human residents of the area. Tug Hill is economically stressed and there is a regrettable tendency to accept any stupid idea that brings a few jobs and the perception of increased revenues to town governments. Many, particularly those who see their quality of life as poor, see little downsides in permitting large-scale industrial wind alterations to the area. I fear they will drink the cool aid and these projects too will sail through.

If the Lesser Wilderness is not to be altered beyond recognition over the next decade local residents will need a crash course in the perils of industrial wind. But that alone will not be enough. Outside involvement from conservation organizations as well as other concerned citizens and groups is essential. One can hope that state regulators will see the stupidity of at least some of these projects particularly those in the core forest. This is by no means assured and Onondaga Audubon, Audubon New York, The Nature Conservancy and all us must push hard against these misguided attempts driven by human greed to destroy this precious resource. Individuals will also need to get involved if the “feel good environmentalism” of industrial wind doesn’t claim another sacrificial land area.

Protecting the Planet  –
The EIS Process, Better than Nothing

September 2016

During the heyday of developing modern environmental law, 4-5 decades ago, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process was codified into law. Under federal and state statutes the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), this assessment of environmental impacts of certain development projects was required. While the types of projects needing review varied, the idea was that for the first time the true costs of large-scale development would be considered. The Onondaga Audubon Society activists of that era played a part in supporting passage of what we saw, as much needed legislation. The rest as they say is history and these laws became important tools that could allow government leaders and the public to assess the merits of proposed development projects.

Unfortunately, like so many endeavors of our species, the best intentions of how the EIS process would work have not been realized. While better than nothing, the function of this process is regularly corrupted by greed and politics. For example in New York, a home rule state, where most land use decisions are made at the local level, the process is flawed. A current exception to home rule is large energy projects where Article Ten gives the state a potential override. This constitutionality of this relatively new law has not yet been tested but most other decisions remain at the municipal level. Thus the municipality is usually designated as the lead agency under SEQRA.

This is where problems begin since many towns, particularly small rural ones, lack the resources to adequately assess the impacts of developments. The developers and their hired gun consultants are well funded. Many town planning boards and town boards take information provided to them at face value because of they lack resources to obtain independent data. Thus the process is thus bastardized from moment one. Any assumption that the consulting firms provide objective scientifically based information to their clients and the municipality is fantasy. These folks work for their clients and most see their job as making the clients projects happen. This direct financial link between client and consultant is a flaw that greatly reduces the value of the EIS process as a tool for environmental protection.

In addition to many municipalities any development, short of major landfills or nuclear waste dumps, is acceptable if it produces a couple of jobs and some tax revenue. Thus many local government leaders in New York do not take the SEQRA process seriously. One needs only to review the EIS wildlife work on the Onondaga Lake Amphitheater for an example of garbage in garbage out in the process. As SEQRA lead agency for a project towns may fill out a short form, long form or require that a Draft Environmental Impact Statement be prepared. Requiring a DEIS at least offers the public an opportunity to comment on impacts of the project, whereas the two forms are primarily in house documents that few people know exist. Although the EIS process is flawed requiring the preparation of the DEIS is desirable and may improve the outcome.

Basically the only way to make the overall EIS process work at all is through public involvement. Our resources will not be protected unless we are involved. Those who believe that reviewing agencies and/or consulting professionals will do the job are living in a fantasy world. Boat rocking is rarely a path to career advancement in any regulatory agency although there are some committed professionals who put the resource first. In my half century in conservation, I have observed that these passionate professionals are rarely rarely welcomed by their colleagues and even more rarely rise to positions of power. As for consulting firms the motto of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” regarding the down sides of their clients projects usually applies.

While all parts of most DEIS documents are usually inadequate those pertaining to wildlife are particularly so. In four decades of reviewing such material I have rarely found that I cannot shred both the data and conclusions. The OAS conservation committee in looking at assessments of project impacts on wildlife often finds serious problems. The usual errors of insufficient fieldwork on which to base the conclusions developed and inappropriate data and/or survey methods are common. Insufficient and sloppy best describe many efforts but the developers don’t care as long as the project gets approved as it most often does while they spend few dollars. As for the consulting firms if they meet their client’s budget regardless of quality they can look forward to more work in future. It is the responsibility of the regulatory agencies, often understaffed, and municipal government to hold these folks feet to the fire and make these laws work. Unfortunately lack of resources, incompetence, and greed of win out and development happens that never should have or should have been altered.

So what can a citizen who gives a damn for our fellow critters do? First be aware of what’s going on in your town and push your town board/ planning board for a positive declaration under SEQRA for any major development projects. Express concerns that wildlife be considered, particularly declining species. Review the DEIS and if it’s in our service area the OAS conservation committee may be able to help. Even people with limited field experience can often spot flaws in some materials presented. For example only a few days in the field, use of general off site data such as breeding bird atlas data and /or questionable identification or questionable species are red flags. Such items suggest incompetent assessment done on the cheap. Even such limited public inquiry will hopefully improve the awareness of town government and make developers/consultants more responsible in their conduct

The DEIS process though greatly flawed IS far better than the situation prior to passage of these laws. Unfortunately the greedy and politically connected have learned only too well how to manipulate the system. It’s up to all of us who value birds and the natural world to be involved in the process as would be emulators of the Lorax and speak for the trees and their occupants. Our fellow travelers cannot help these laws work better but we can. In doing so the efforts will contribute to protecting the planet and all of us who travel on it.

Botulism in the Eastern Great Lakes –
Today’s Price for Yesterday’s Greed

September 2016

The post World War II period was a free wheeling development dream in which the federal government was a primary player. Unbridled enthusiasm for “progress “brought the interstate system with the Thruway running through the heart of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Incomprehensible to me is the fact, relayed by the late Dr. Harold H Axtell that the state received at total of FIVE letters of complaint about such an outrageous assault on natural values. In such a heady time it is little wonder that progress projects, such as the navigation and power alterations along the St. Lawrence River, flew through Congress as necessary for the security of the nation.

Today’ any such efforts would be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It is hard to believe that the “seaway” project with its environmental and human costs would fly today. The destruction, by submersion, of several villages and other human habitation, primarily in Canada, would likely be met with far less acquiescence than in the mid -1950s. A mere two decades after the passage of NEPA opposition on both sides of the border torpedoed plans by the US Army corps of engineers to make navigation on the river year round. One could hope the playing fields have now changed for the better.

Unfortunately these mega-projects of the recent past have cost us dearly ecologically while the shipping companies raked in the profits. Scientists predicted decades ago that the introduction of invasive species Into the Great Lakes would occur because of improper management of ships ballast water. Even though this was obvious these companies made no changes until forced by regulations since it might cost them a few dollars and harm their profit margin. Only recently have legislators and agencies developed regulations to control introduction of aquatic invasive species. While these efforts are highly desirable and badly needed, to prevent future invasions, it’s a bit like the proverbial locking the barn door after the horse is stolen. Given the problems caused by the navigation and power interests the sins of the fathers (almost all were male), who altered this natural system in the name of progress, are coming home to roost.

During this century what was once an occasional problems for birds along Lake Ontario and Lake Erie has become very serious. That problem is Type E botulism outbreaks, which has killed thousands to tens of thousands of fish eating birds. While the botulism organism is native the primary method of transmission via zebra mussels to round goby to fish eating bird relays on two invaders. The end result of this short food chain seems to be intense toxicity impacting many species. Some waterbirds and waterfowl appear more sensitive than others. In addition the intensity and timing of outbreaks varies apparently largely due to fluctuation in annual weather conditions.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has conducted some monitoring in past years but consistency is lacking. Information that is available suggests that severe mortality occurs during high outbreak years for certain species.


Photo by William Roberts

Common Loon, Long-tailed Duck and Caspian Tern are often among the hardest hit species. As many as ten to fifteen thousand or more Common Loons may have perished on the Eastern Great Lakes in the last decade. These loons originate from the large Canadian and Alaskan Boreal Forest population where their numbers are not monitored. Even though this population is quite large such losses, to a very slowly reproducing long-lived species, must be having adverse population impacts. Frankly the loss of so many of these magnificent creatures because of us makes my stomach churn.

A decade plus is a relatively short time to assess impacts in nature even during the Anthropocene climate change era. . There is a clear need for more intensive monitoring of the botulism situation in the lower lakes and its impact on all species. NYSDEC seems reluctant to spend resources on this as they feel no management action will result. . Well that may be true and staff is limited but this situation needs more attention than it’s getting. For one thing we need to know more about what’s dying and where. Although waterbirds die on the lakes from a variety of causes large numbers of birds found dead in short stretches of beach from mid- summer to early winter are likely victims of type E. Sick and Dying birds often exhibit “limber neck” as if their head is too heavy to hold up. Botulism is primarily active between late June and November. Fresh dead birds at other seasons are likely from other causes. Perhaps resources could be re-directed from Young Forest Initiative to this more pressing need. Given the status of forests in counties bordering the Great Lakes these staff resources would be better spent managing such a project. If staff resources were applied a cooperative citizen science based combined effort would be possible

Such an effort could address this difficult situation particularly in years with heavy mortality. At such times secondary poisoning of eagles and other species that scavenge carcasses is a high probability. Ideally these carcasses would be removed and made unavailable to scavengers. Such a combined government/ private partnership could gather useful data while reducing the likelihood of secondary poisoning through removal. Good volunteer training and DECs legal authority would make such a project feasible. All that is required is the commitment of necessary resources and the will to make it happen.

So assuming that for the moment there are no practical options for carcass removal without large scale DEC led efforts, what can one do to make a contribution? Well if you are out walking a Great Lakes beach and find a dead waterbird or waterfowl, take three or so photos with your cell phone camera from as many angles as possible. Email me these photos with time and date stamp including the location as best as you can determine it to the address below. I will reply and identity the creature, if needed, as best I can. We will start a database of these photos that may have future value and can be developed with little extra effort.

It is sad that the best we can do is a post mortem on these losses. These birds, and indirectly those of us who enjoy their presence, are paying the long- term freight for the shippers’ greed and neglect. The “St Lawrence Seaway” development is our regions equivalent of attempts to drain the Florida Everglades. All this stupidity was justified by economic progress and Cold War hysteria during the “family” fifties, which leaves us with the current mess. Hopefully such a regrettable mega project would not fly now. But I wonder as I see elements of the ghosts of the mid twentieth century in the arguments for ” progress “presented by the advocates of large-scale poorly considered energy development projects in the twenty first century.

Industrial Wind Threatens Our Birds- Winter Raptors

September 2016

Northwestern Jefferson county is a haven for many “mouse raptors” in winter. Several species including the Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk and New York State threatened Northern Harrier abound. Owl species including the state endangered Short-eared Owl and Snowy Owl are often present in impressive numbers. Nocturnal owls, such as the Long-eared also occur but their secretive habits make them harder to detect. Concentrations of Bald Eagle containing the occasional Golden Eagle are present. Our area hosts some of the largest assemblages of certain species seen in the northeastern United States in winter. Proposals for the Horse Creek and Big Galloo wind complexes place all these magnificent birds at risk.

Many factors, such as prey availability, population fluctuations of prey on breeding and wintering grounds and related breeding success, affect numbers of raptors present locally in any given year. In years when meadow mouse populations are high in our area and food sources to our north fail many species winter in our area. In a good year dozens to hundreds of large birds of prey are concentrated in relatively small areas. While many species of Hawks and Owls are always vulnerable to these extremely tall turbines, large concentrations increase the probability of mortality from these bird-killing monstrosities.

In particular when high raptor numbers are present the frequency of aggressive interactions between birds increase. Some birds are better hunters than others and some try to make a living by stealing prey from their associates. Some species defend winter territories and aggressive interactions occur when boundaries are being contested. During these flights the focus is on the other bird and little attention is played to the surroundings. Aggressive chases may continue for several minutes and rise well into the range of any turbine blades that would be present.

Many winter raptors occur in obvious pairs or form breeding pairs on the wintering grounds. By mid January and beyond pairs may be observed close sitting and in courtship flights to establish or reinforce pair bonds for the coming spring. As the birds’ hormones increase with expanding daylight these flights become more frequent and they will rise high then dive low and rise high again. As we all know when hormones are flowing in any animal the individual may be quite oblivious to other aspects of life. One need only observe the behavior of teen-age humans on a beach for proof of this. Courtship behavior in our raptors has evolved to assure the strong pair bond needed in the breeding season. When turbines are present this formerly adaptive behavior places adults at risk as they pass through the aerial footprint of the blades several times a day.


By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (Short-eared Owl) [CC BY 2.0]

A majority of these raptors are birds of open habitats. Filling quality habitat with six hundred foot tall “trees” has the potential to alter their habitat search image. This search image for prey selection, habitat and other factors of the species ecology impacts on the survival of an individual and the long-term success of the species. For example a Short- eared Owl choosing a night roost in woodland, rather than in tall grass far from woods, has a defective search image for a roost site. There is a high probability that such an individual would be sorted out of the gene pool as lunch for the Local Great Horned Owl before returning to the breeding grounds.

The fragmentation of our open areas by turbines and associated access roads could have very serious consequences beyond mortality for these populations.

Virtually no one is addressing the potential for large-scale habitat degradation or the cumulative impacts of industrial wind complexes. The potential for Horse Creek and Big Galloo to degrade or destroy high quality raptor habitat is very real. The raptor concentrations in Northwestern Jefferson county have potential tourism benefits for birders. Thus the proposed turbine complexes have additional economic as well as ecological downsides. Most of these raptors reproduce slowing and their populations exhibit cyclic fluctuations. Mortality and habitat loss due to anthropogenic causes may threaten regional population viability. The winter hawk and owl concentrations are another reason to just say NO to proposed industrial wind complexes here.

Conservation Birthday Wishes

August 2016

 This summer marks the birthdays of a couple of icons of conservation in North America. As with all of us that are getting a bit long in the tooth, these events mark significant achievements as well as some things one wishes to forget. This can be said for both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916 and that relative child Smokey Bear. Both entities have greatly impacted conservation practice during the last century and this one.

The MTBA was born of the efforts of many pioneer conservationists from luminaries, including US president Teddy Roosevelt, to lesser-known citizens. It was the result of revulsion by thinking citizens to the massive slaughter of wildlife, ranging from Bison to warblers, during the market-hunting era. These foresighted folks were often seen as quacks by many in society and regularly accused of causing economic hardship for some of their fellow citizens. After all, many viewed wildlife as an inexhaustible resource even though the best scientists of the day suggested otherwise. This all sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it?

Fortunately the presence of a president and other high-powered wealthy citizens gave credibility to this first “environmental ” movement. Audubon societies and other wildlife protection organizations formed at the end of the nineteenth century and the push for change began. The murder of Audubon warden Guy Bradley, while protecting a remaining egret colony in Florida, caused public outrage and soon many more progressive states were passing bird protection laws. After a two-decade political struggle the MTBA and associated treaty with Canada and Mexico came into force and the rest is history. As always some were unhappy such as a senator from Dixie who complained about all the fuss over long legged birds (egrets) who live in mosquito infested swamps and eat frogs.

While the MTBA has served conservation well over the last century it is not without problems. Most notably the US Fish and Wildlife Service as lead agency often engage in selective enforcement of the taking (killing or other disruption) provisions. Industrial wind farms receive little scrutiny but an oil spill will be vigorously prosecuted. The occasional event of the spill should be appropriately dealt with, but the long-term impacts of ongoing spinning turbines may be equally severe. Also shorebirds are considered game species in Latin America something that needs to be renegotiated given the declines occurring in many species. These shortcomings aside, the MTBA remains a hallmark of Conservation legislation. We should toast our predecessors for their foresight that preserved many bird species we enjoy today.

The second birthday, that of the iconic Smokey Bear, is a bit more nuanced in its impact on North American conservation practice. Conceived amidst the Second World War, when timber and other resources were precious, Smokey delivered an unambiguous message. The public learned that all forest fires were bad and must be fought will all resources at hand while you do your part in preventing fires. While encouraging people not to accidentally start wildfires is desirable the rest of the subliminal message was not. While poor Smokey and his handlers cannot be held totally responsible for the downside of the anti- forest fire message, they definitely played a part in the publics aversion to wildfire.

This public antithesis to wildfire combined with agency intransigence resulted in poor management of fire adapted ecosystems. As we have seen for the last quarter century in the American west the previous policy has had huge consequences. The super fires of recent decades, in places like Yellowstone, are a clear result of previous fire suppression policies. Fortunately managers have learned from the errors of their predecessors and these policies have changed. Unfortunately one of their greatest challenges is overcoming seventy years of messages from the bear in the forest service hat. Smokey continues to deliver pretty much the same message he has for seventy plus years so perhaps his current bosses should gently push the old boy into a retirement villa in the Adirondacks where fires are rare and his message appropriate.

Whenever one sees an egret or even the abundant gull species give thanks for the MTBA and those that made it happen.