The call of whippoorwills and bobwhites is being replaced by the noise of traffic and construction.
Poor water quality threatens rare mussels and other water creatures.
Development, forest and farming practices are breaking up wildlife haunts.
Birds and animals are being exposed to predators and competition from exotic species.
. . .
A state agency trying to protect bald eagles, black bears and even common, everyday species such as turtles lacks the money and the manpower to do the job.
A two-person office in the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is trying to work with local governments to steer development in the fast-growing state away from sensitive wildlife.
In Powhatan, Loudoun and Richmond counties and elsewhere, the office is trying to meet the lofty goals of a conservation plan that lists 925 creatures as imperiled.
David Whitehurst, director of the department’s wildlife diversity and information and education divisions, is frustrated.
The department should be able to reach out to county supervisors and city councils that decide about rezoning and land use, he said.
“We don’t have the staff,” he said.
To Whitehurst, wildlife health and diversity are a barometer of the quality of life in a state where farms and woodlots of once-rural counties are being turned into subdivisions.
“We run the risk of losing species,” Whitehurst said.
The department’s Wildlife Action Plan, created in 2005, identifies 93 out of Virginia’s 925 most-troubled species as facing “an extremely high risk of extinction.”
. . .
Few people have heard of many of these most-endangered species, such as the shaggy coil, a snail found only in Alleghany and Rockbridge counties.
But others on the list, such as the black-throated green warbler, a migratory songbird, and the loggerhead sea turtle, are more widely known to outdoor enthusiasts.
Even relatively common birds such as the gray catbird and eastern towhee, which visit backyard bird feeders, made the larger list because their numbers are declining, the plan says.
Meanwhile, these Virginia counties were among the fastest growing in the nation from 2000 to 2006: Loudoun, which grew 59 percent; Spotsylvania, 32 percent; and Stafford, 30 percent, according to the Census Bureau.
Open space is shrinking. The Virginia Department of Forestry says Virginia lost 20,000 acres of forest a year from 1998 to 2003. The losses have increased to 26,100 acres per year, leaving the state with 15.8 million acres of forest.
Farmland is vanishing at the rate of 35,000 acres per year – from 8.71 million acres in 2000 to 8.5 million in 2006, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Game department employees Andrew Zadnik and Amy Martin – the two-person office – feel lucky to learn through the grapevine about development projects in time to make a difference.
“In most cases, we won’t even know,” Zadnik said. One example:
* The giant wind farm of 19 electricity-generating windmills in Highland County recently approved by the State Corporation Commission wasn’t on the game department’s radar. Studies elsewhere have shown that the 400-foot-high wind turbines kill bats and migrating songbirds and raptors.
By the time the SCC asked the game department to review the proposal, Zadnik said, the developer had already gotten permission from the county to build.
Zadnik said he would like to monitor the site for three years first to establish baseline data about birds and bats at the high windswept ridge where the turbines will stand.
“It doesn’t look like we’ll get that,” Zadnik said. “We’ll try to work with what we think we have an opportunity for.”
The department is not always playing catch-up:
* When the Richmond County Board of Supervisors on the wildlife-rich Northern Neck held a public hearing last month on a proposal to carve a 260-acre tract of prime bald eagle habitat into 50 lots, Zadnik had already acted.
He made sure each board member’s briefing papers included a map identifying the site as an important bald eagle concentration area along the Rappahannock River. The board voted no on rezoning.
* The department persuaded a Loudoun developer to account for a rare turtle in his plans to build a subdivision. At Zadnik’s recommendation, he preserved a 300-foot-wide buffer zone along a stream so that wood turtles – classified as most endangered – would not be displaced.
The department learned of that proposal just in time. The officials got a copy of a letter that residents wrote to the county about the threatened wood turtle at the site. “That’s the only way I saw it,” Zadnik said.
* In York County, the developer of a new county sports complex is working with the game department’s Martin to protect wetlands that may support a Mabee’s salamander, considered threatened.
* In Chesapeake, the Virginia Department of Transportation agreed to build two underpasses when it realigned U.S. 17 through the fringes of the Great Dismal Swamp.
“Black bears, bobcats and other species now have a safe crossing point,” Zadnik said.
* And in Powhatan, Martin joined a local committee to review the county’s comprehensive plan for land use.
Zadnik said Martin is expected to identify wildlife in the county and suggest how to preserve their habitat.
“We’re not advocating that development be stopped,” said Becky Gwynn, the department’s assistant director for wildlife diversity. “We’re looking for more informed decision-making.”
Gwynn and Whitehurst are lobbying for federal matching grants to help bolster what Zadnik and Martin are doing. “There’s a lot of wildlife habitat at risk,” Gwynn said.
“We don’t have the staff. We haven’t been focused on studying what’s going on with zoning and comprehensive plans in counties and we need more money to do this,” Whitehurst said.
“Twenty-five percent of Virginia’s birds – 96 out of 374 – are listed as species with the greatest conservation needs,” Whitehurst said.
“Half of our reptiles, half of our amphibians and half of our fish are also on that list, and all of our freshwater mussels are in serious decline.”
By Lawrence LatanÃ© III
24 March 2007
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