A closer look at Rochester’s endangered and threatened species

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The Trump Administration plans to make big changes to the the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) — a law aimed at protecting animals from becoming extinct.

The most significant of which is a proposal allowing the economic effects to be weighed in when considering the conservation of an endangered or threatened species, something that’s never been done before, the New York Times reports. This includes considering if enforcing conservation would hurt industries such as oil drilling, mining, and logging. Another proposal aims at ending the service of providing future threatened species with the same protection as endangered species. The administration also has plans on removing protections from a number of endangered species.

Endangered (species at risk of becoming extinct) and threatened (species at risk of becoming endangered) animals may be closer to home than you think. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), New York State has 22 animals listed as endangered under the ESA.

In addition to the ESA, the state has its own list of species that it aims at protecting. The state has 23 species that are not listed as endangered or threatened under ESA, but are endangered under state law. The state’s list also includes 36 threatened species, six of which are listed as nationally threatened.

The Rochester area is home to at least four threatened species and two endangered species under state law. One of these species is listed as federally endangered.

According to Dan Rosenblatt, the wildlife diversity head at the DEC, if the administration’s new proposals were adopted into law, they may impact the New York State, particularly for the protections ESA threatened species receive. “There’s provisions that don’t remove protections for existing threatened species,” Rosenblatt said. “So if that wasn’t the case, it would impact us, as we have a number of federally-listed threatened species in New York.”

However, the state’s own endangered and threatened list offers another form of protection for species at risk. Since all ESA-listed species are automatically part of the state’s own list, if protection is taken away at a national level, the species will still receive protection from the state. “Certainly when both laws come into play, there’s an additional layer of protection. There’s essentially an additional set of eyes,” Rosenblatt said.

The American Endangered Species Act was first created in 1973 to protect species from becoming extinct. The ESA allows federal agencies to use legal authority to ensure the conservation of species listed as endangered, or to a lesser extent, threatened species. Experts credit the ESA for saving wildlife like bald eagles from DDT poisoning in the 1970s and saving gray wolves from overhunting across the United States, as CNN noted.

The proposed legislation the Trump Administration has submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services would rollback on protections on species such as the critically-endangered American burying beetle, the gray wolf in Wyoming, the northern spotted owl, and sage grouse. Both the American burying beetle and the gray wolf used to exist in New York state. However, American burying beetles vanished from the state in the 1920s and gray wolves have not roamed in the state since the late 1800s, due to overhunting for fur and to keep livestock safe.

According Lisa Holt, the rare fish unit leader at the DEC, New York State’s own endangered species regulations work together with the ESA to drive conservation forward on a state level. As Holt pointed out, a species can still be thriving nationally, but be extinct locally. These species can live in a variety of habitats, from freshwater wetlands, to rivers and lakes, and even take residence in cities. “We’ve got lots of really interesting species all over New York State and there a lot people in the Rochester area can go out and see if they went and looked,” Holt said.

Endangered & threatened species in Rochester’s wetlands

Many of the endangered species in New York State live in freshwater wetlands, large areas where water covers the soil. Lakeshore communities, like Rochester, have an abundance of wetlands. “From a state perspective, most of the listed species that do occur in the Rochester area are either wetlands or aquatic organisms,” explained Dan Rosenblatt, the wildlife diversity head at the DEC.

According to Rosenblatt, both of the threatened bird species in the Rochester area and one endangered bird species rely on wetlands or the lakeshore to complete their life cycles.

Freshwater wetlands are home to a diverse number of living creatures, because of their unique location between water and land. They can also absorb water after storms to prevent flooding and filter out toxins in the soil.

According to the DEC’s environmental resource mapper, state-regulated wetlands are present in every town in Monroe County, but not the city. Rosenblatt explained that it’s not very unusual for an area close to a Great Lake to have so many wetlands, since as the glaciers melted to carve out the lakes, they also carved out shallower areas where water can collect.

The only federally endangered species in Rochester, the Great Lakes population of piping plover, uses wetlands as breeding grounds and often nest on shorelines. The only years where piping plover was observed to nest in the New York State Great Lakes was 1983 and 2015. However, this year, a population was spotted in the Town of Greece.

“Just this year, there were reports of piping plover at the restoration area in Braddock Bay,” said Rosenblatt. “And if that was the case, that would be the first time that you had a federally listed bird that was taking up residence within the Rochester vicinity.” 

The two threatened birds in Rochester, pied-billed grebe and least bittern, also breed and forage for food in wetlands. However, according to the DEC, New York state has lost almost half of its wetlands.

Much of this loss is due to the drainage and filling in of wetlands to create farmland. Ever since the NY Freshwater Wetlands Act, passed in 1975, regulated the drainage of wetlands, the destruction of these vulnerable areas has decreased. However, a DEC report found that other factors, such as fertilizer and industrial waste runoff, climate change, and invasive species can harm wetland communities.

Endangered & threatened species in the City of Rochester

One endangered bird in Rochester doesn’t live in the wetlands. It’s the peregrine falcon, a predatory bird that often nests and lives its life in cities. Although peregrine falcons were taken off of the federal endangered species list in 1999, they are considered endangered in the state. Last May, News 8 reported that three pereigine falcons hatched on top of the Time Square Building and that’s not the first time Peregrine Falcons have nested on buildings in in downtown Rochester.

Photo from Rochester Falconcam

The City of Rochester played an important role in the introduction of Peregrine Falcons after the species was nearly wiped out in the 1970s from the use of the insecticide DDT. According to Rochester Falcon Cam, in 1995, the Rochester Peregrine Falcon Project got Kodak’s permission to place a nesting box on top of Kodak Tower.

By 2008, the mother that had lived in the nest, named Mariah, had produced 43 young falcons. In 2008, the city made a new nesting box on top of the Time Square Building. Since then, the mother that nested there, named Beauty, has produced 21 offspring. Rochester Falcon Cam live streamed the birth of three of these birds this year.

Rochester’s Genesee River is also home the threatened fish Lake Sturgeon. These fish live out most of their lives in Lake Ontario, but migrate to the Genesee River from May to June to spawn. According to Holt, one strategy for preserving these fish is releasing sturgeon into the river, bred in hatcheries, to restore healthy populations. 

“Lake sturgeon have been stocked into the Genesee River for several years, beginning back in 2003. And they’ve done very well,” said Holt. “They’ve grown up and matured and we’re expecting them to start spawning in the river any time now.”

Threatened species in Rochester’s forests

One federally threatened species that hasn’t been seen in the Rochester area since 2007 is the northern long eared bat. According to Rosenblatt, the bat species lived in the forests surrounding Rochester, where it lived hollow spots in trees. However, white nose syndrome, a fungus that kills hibernating bats, has destroyed bat populations in Rochester. The disease was first documented in caves in Albany in 2007 and has since killed millions of bats across North America. Rosenblatt believes that one day, northern long eared bat populations will return to Rochester. “If the bats either adapt to white nose syndrome or were able to successfully get it off the landscape, my guess is that northern long eared bats would be able to return to the Rochester area.”

There are also plenty of endangered and threatened animals outside of Rochester. One threatened species is the timber rattlesnake. News 8 had previously reported that a timber rattlesnake was found curled up in the engine of a car in downstate New York.

List of endangered and threatened species in NY

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