Dr. Mike Steele hopes the impact that results from a recently published book on Pennsylvania wildlife species that face conservation risks happens much faster than the six years it took him to put it together.
The 400-page book, titled “Terrestrial Vertebrates of Pennsylvania: A Complete Guide to Species of Conservation Concern” includes 133 species in the state that face risk from a growing list of concerns.
Steele, who is a professor at Wilkes University, said the lengthy process wasn’t just about writing the most comprehensive book on the issue, but it was also about coming up with a plan to prevent each species from disappearing from the state.
“It’s a wake-up call that there are very serious issues on the horizon,” Steele said. “And it’s also a reminder that if we take action we can have a positive impact.”
Steele worked with three other editors on the book, putting together contributions from 75 authors and 40 photographers. The book was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and will be used in its Wildlife Action Plan.
Many of the species in the book are found in Northeastern Pennsylvania, such as the Indiana brown bat, which Steele called one of the most endangered mammals in the state.
“There are only 18 hibernation sites in Pennsylvania, and there is one in Luzerne County that we know of,” he said.
The Northern flying squirrel, which is listed as threatened in the state, is found in the Poconos, Steele said. The species is in jeopardy because its habitat is shrinking, putting it in greater contact with the Southern flying squirrel, which carries a fatal parasite.
The primary threat to most of the species in the book is habitat loss and fragmentation, Steele said.
Fragmentation is a problem that could get worse, he added, as gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale increases.
“It will cause forest fragmentation, and when you break up a habitat you change the dynamics of the forest,” Steele said. “It’s a problem that will likely get worse.”
Other threats include wind turbines and diseases, such as the White-Nose syndrome, which Steele said could eliminate some species of bats in the state.
Rick Koval, a naturalist with the North Branch Land Trust and contributor to the book, said the species in the book are being monitored by biologists, but the public needs to be aware of them as well.
“For some of these species the declines are extremely serious, and this book sheds light on their situation and raises public awareness, which can only help,” Koval said.
Koval said many bat species are at the highest risk in the state because of WNS, as well as the Allegheny wood rat, which is found in the Poconos but is declining, possibly from a brain parasite that is transferred from contact with raccoons.
Carl Roe, executive director of the PGC, said the book is a comprehensive reference guide for any wildlife enthusiast, from novice to expert.
“It provides critical information concerning the basic biology of these terrestrial vertebrates, the requirements for their continued sustainability and a plan for their future research and management,” Roe said.
Steele said there are success stories in the state – such as the bald eagle, fisher and river otter – that serve as proof that awareness and a proactive approach can turn things around. But, he added, there are several examples of what can happen when nothing is done until it is too late.
“The Delmarva fox squirrel, loggerhead shrike and spotted skunk are all believed to be recently extirpated from the state,” Steele said. “A book like this gives us the opportunity to act now and make sure in the next 20 years that we don’t see more species suffer the same fate.”