Little endangered things tell the real story about the Chesapeake region
“Bald Eagle To Be Removed From Maryland’s Threatened List
(Associated Press, Jan. 21).”
It was the news, but not the real story. We’ll always be
eagle-centric, attentive to the “charismatic megafauna,” like
eagles and elephants, whales and sad-eyed seal pups.
But read beyond the tidings of our national symbol’s comeback
from endangerment. Maryland also took action on dozens of other
species scarcely mentioned in the AP story. And their fates tell us
more about the mid-Atlantic’s environment than the eagle, whose
rebound is predominantly due to a nationwide ban on DDT decades
The time had come, scientists decided, to throw in the towel on
the Bridle Shiner, a tiny fish last seen 26 years ago around Havre
de Grace, Md., at the Chesaepeake’s head.
It required clear water to hunt its food and underwater grasses
for habitat, the grasses themselves also dependent on clear water.
By the 1970’s, much of the Chesapeake had turned cloudy and barren
Lately the upper bay has seen grasses come back, but too late
for the Bridle Shiner, which was reclassified in January as
“extirpated—just gone,” explained Gwen Brewer, of Maryland’s
Natural Heritage program.
To which some might reply, “So what?”
“Well, it’s one of the parts of the ecosystem,” Brewer said. “It
eats things and other things eat it, and when you lose it there are
consequences, though they may be small, and we may not even know
what they are for many years.”
For example: a once-common mussel that filtered and cleansed
water in the Susquehanna River has been heading toward extinction
there for no apparent reason. New research indicates it needed
migrating eels to transport its larvae. Dams erected decades ago
blocked eels—and mussel reproduction.
Also officially biting the dust: the Dusky Azure butterfly,
obligated to a few small patches of a single plant to host its
larvae. It succumbed, probably, to widening and paving a road. The
Hoary Elfin, another butterfly tied to a single plant for habitat,
was listed as endangered.
The people in charge of looking after our endangered species
don’t publish the exact locations of rare and endangered species
because of fear that collectors may push them over the edge.
In fact, overzealous scientists from Cornell University may have
inadvertently contributed to extinction of the Maryland Darter,
which existed only in one riffle on Deer Creek in Harford County,
The state years ago let the scientists collect some of the
little fish for research, and they allegedly took dozens. It was
the last anyone saw of the darter.
Sometimes a species becomes less endangered simply because
scientists start looking harder for it. The Sable Clubtail
dragonfly got an upgrade that way from endangered to ‘in need of
Generally though, dragonflies and damselflies, species that need
excellent water quality, didn’t fare well in January’s new
listings: two are now considered threatened, four more endangered,
and two extirpated.
The common theme is almost always habitat loss, Brewer said.
Once that came mainly from clearing for agriculture, but now it’s
often from development.
Development along with farm irrigation can affect habitat
indirectly for some of “the rarest of the rare,” isolated species
of isopods and amphipods, aquatic invertebrates that dwell in tiny
spring-fed seeps that may cover only a few square meters of boggy
Stormwater runoff and groundwater withdrawals can disrupt the
seeps. Three species of isopod and amphipod were added to
Maryland’s endangered list in January, about the same time the
eagle came off the threatened list.
It’s not all bad news even for the spring-seep dependent
species. A plant, the Long-stalked Crowfoot, Ranunculus hederaceus,
was discovered again after it was thought to have vanished. It was
re-listed as endangered.
Sometimes we act in time to afford protection for the fragiler
parts of our ecosystems. Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area
in Baltimore County, Md., an unusual occurrence of serpentine rock
barrens, was preserved years ago. It holds the entire world
population of the Eastern Sedge Barren Leafhopper, just added to
the state endangered list.
Endangered species serve to focus us on the intricate workings
of nature. Some need the ultimate stability of old growth forests,
like the red cockaded woodpecker, which only nested in pines so old
they had heart rot. It vanished from Maryland when the last old
pines were cut 50 years ago.
Other species like the endangered piping plover need the
opposite, the chaotic and ephemeral Atlantic beach sands, where
predators on their eggs are few.
Many endangered species that depend on disrupted habitat are now
found mostly along power line rights of way, Brewer said.
Although the Rock Creek Groundwater Amphipod and its like will
never achieve bald eagle status, protecting them all implies the
same things: protecting natural landscapes, clean water, and an
environment safe for health.
(Tom Horton covered the bay for 33 years for The Sun in
Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He is
currently a freelance writer.)