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Small thing, big impact

June 08, 2003|by Chris Copley

chrisc@herald-mail.com

Dick Wiegand is a tall man with a big beard and a sharp eye. He spends his days visiting out-of-the-way scraps of native habitat in Washington County, looking for rare, threatened and endangered species of plants.

He says not all green areas are the same.

"There's a difference between natural and native," he explains, standing in the commuter parking lot on Md. 66 near Interstate 70. He indicates strips of woodland flanking the parking lot.

"This is natural but not native," he says. "Practically all the species you see as you drive along the road are non-native species."

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Wiegand is a field botanist with the Wildlife and Heritage Division of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. He has tramped through woods and along stream banks in Washington and Frederick counties for two decades, looking for species that historically grew in Maryland and noting any invaders.

He says he got into conservation because he was concerned about the impact of humans on the ecosystem. But it's not a black-and-white issue.

"Which species represents the linchpin - the one we should protect to preserve life on the planet? We don't know, so we should protect all species," he says. "But how do you balance that with millions of people going to bed hungry at night? I don't know."

According to lists released by Maryland conservation officials in July 2001, Washington County is home to 138 rare, threatened or endangered plant and animal species - 49 animals and 89 plants.

Some species listed for Washington County are globally rare or endangered, such as the Indiana bat and the Virginia mallow. Other species - including the porcupine, several butterflies and a species of cedar tree - are rare here but common elsewhere.

The animals that get attention from the public are species that are big or pretty, according to Lynn Davidson, a zoologist with the Maryland Heritage program. Davidson calls these species "charismatic mega-fauna."

Some of Washington County's rare, threatened or endangered species are charismatic mega-fauna, but most are not. Davidson emphasizes that obscure does not mean unimportant.

"This is somewhat philosophical and somewhat practical," Davidson says. "On the practical side, these obscure species may be indicator species. They indicate the health of the environment, like the canary in the coal mine. A lot of amphibians are good for that. So are freshwater mussels."

Maryland freshwater mussels include the triangle floater, the Atlantic spike, the yellow lance and the squawfoot - four of the seven freshwater mussels on Washington County's list of rare, threatened or endangered species. These animals live in streams and are affected by the quality of their watery habitat.

"Freshwater mussels are probably the group of animal species that's declining the most rapidly statewide," Davidson says. "If they're declining, we're talking big-picture problems, like pollution and siltation of streambeds."

So the population of freshwater mussels is an indicator of stream water quality. Another group of species - tiny, shrimp-shaped animals called amphipods - is an indicator of the condition of groundwater, Davidson says.

"A lot of these shrimpy things, they live in groundwater," she says. "We can usually find them in upwellings and seepage areas, but we're not finding them anymore."

Groundwater is the source of drinking water for Hancock, Boonsboro, Keedysville, Clear Spring and thousands of rural county residents. Davidson says the amphipods' absence is alarming and raises questions about groundwater quality.

"We test for specific contaminants in groundwater but not everything," she says. "In groundwater, you have multiple chemical combinations and interactions. If you study chemicals individually, there may not be a problem, but, when you study them in groups, there may be a problem.

"So there may be lots going on we don't know about."

And then there's the charismatic mega-fauna. The rare, threatened or endangered list for Washington County includes nine butterfly species, including the northern metalmark, the early hairstreak, the Compton tortoiseshell and the regal fritillary.

"It's definitely related to habitat," Davidson says. "Butterflies need specific food plants for their larvae and lots of times, their food plants are considered rare. A change in one thing causes changes in other things."

So monitoring rare, threatened and endangered species has a practical side. Philosophically, though, conservation officials just don't like seeing species go extinct. It seems wrong. If human activities are to blame, extinction implies we have exceeded our privilege.

"A lot of the mentality in American society is 'me first.' We think we have permission to do whatever we want," says Glenn Therres, associate director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service. "But we're stewards of the plant. We can't ultimately sustain global intergrity if everyone is me first. These species are at our mercy. We have an obligation to sustain as much of the ecological value of the planet. It's kind of a moral thing."

And it's not all philosophical, Therres says. Humans are part of the global ecosystem. If the globe is unhealthy, that impacts humans.

"You could look at the loss of species as pop rivets on a jetliner," he says. "The more pop rivets you lose, the closer you come to a jet crash."

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