Using Science And Sandy Money To Save Wildlife Refuges

Oct 30, 2015

  Some of the Chesapeake Bay’s pristine wildlife refuges are drowning, casualties of erosion and the rising waters caused by climate change. So, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving to save to of Maryland’s prized refuges with money allocated for recovery from superstorm Sandy and new science techniques.

The 28,000 acres of marsh and forests at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge are home to vulnerable species like black rail, saltmarsh sparrow and the Delmarva fox squirrel. But there also are stands of trees slowly dying because of encroaching saltwater.

From a platform in the middle of the marsh you can see open water that used to be tidal marsh and dead trees.

Matt Whitbeck, a Fish and Wildlife biologist, says there’s "no question" that the landscape is changing at great speed and wonders how to "work with the natural process rather than fighting it" to preserve the marsh.

Part of the solution is found in a partnership of Fish and Wildlife, the Conservation Fund and the National Audubon Society to map where the largest marshes are likely to migrate without running into roads or future developments.

They try to project where the largest expanses of marsh are likely to be in 2050 and 2100 and work with nearby landowners and non-governmental organizations to try to protect those areas.

Some lands near Blackwater already have been preserved and Fish and Wildlife is using $5 million, mostly from super storm Sandy funds, to build 25 acres of new salt marsh by dredging the remnants of the old marsh that washed into the Blackwater River.

Fish and Wildlife’s other project is at the Glen Martin National Wildlife Refuge, 10 miles cross Tangier Sound from Crisfield, on the north side of Smith Island.

There, tons of sand, rocks and boulders have been used to create 21,000 feet of living shoreline to protect the marsh from future storms.

Whitbeck says the rock and sand should be in place by mid-November. Then, they’ll "let the acting wind and wave energy kind of shape that sand over the course of the winter" and return to plant vegetation in the spring to finish the $9 million project.

The shoreline will protect wildlife habitat as well as the underwater grasses that are home to the crabs and fish from which the majority of the 270 Smith Islanders make their living. It also will serve as a buffer between the waves of the bay and the tiny town of Ewell.

Pastor Rick Edmund, who has preached at the island’s three Methodist churches for more than a decade, says the islanders will "reap benefits" because the project will "delay the erosion coming into the populated areas, at least Ewell."

Unfortunately, he added, it won’t do much for Rhodes Point or Tylerton, the other towns on the island. But at least Tylerton has a bulkhead. Rhodes Point, however, remains "in need," he said.

Reporting for this story was made possible by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. It was produced as part of WYPR’S collaboration with Delaware Public Media and Virginia Public Radio to examine issues affecting the Chesapeake watershed.