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Spotlight- Collaboration, Research Keys To Managing Plants And Wildlife In Pennsylvania

Effectively managing Pennsylvania’s plant and wildlife resources depends upon having knowledge and putting that knowledge to use—including information about the rare and unique species that depend upon the diversity of habitats that Pennsylvania offers.
           State agencies, nonprofit conservation groups, businesses and landowners need information about the distribution, habitat, and ecological needs of species of concern in order to make informed decisions regarding the management of their land and projects.
            Information on species of conservation concern is collected and stored in the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory (PNDI) database.  The Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program (PNHP) manages the PNDI database and inventory collection.
            The PNHP is a partnership between the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Game Commission and the Fish and Boat Commission.
            The PNDI database is used as part of the environmental review process for state permitting and funding of development projects of all kinds.  It is accessible to the public through an online tool that screens projects for potential impacts to species of conservation concern.  Additionally, information from PNDI helps to inform local government planning.
            The Conservancy works under contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to provide PNHP services, including the management of the PNDI database and collection of information on Pennsylvania’s natural communities and rare and endangered species. 
            WPC collects species and habitat data available from other sources (such as herbaria and natural history museums) and through its own research, including the County Natural Heritage Inventories (now completed for all but one county in the state).  
            Although a great deal is known about many native species, knowledge about our rarest species is far from complete.  
            The 2005 State Wildlife Action Plan for Pennsylvania spells out, species by species, the need for additional habitat and species information.  PNHP works with its agency partners, as do universities and independent researchers, to undertake projects that will answer critical questions about specific species and their ecology. 
            For example, PNHP scientists are undertaking a study of freshwater mussels in the Susquehanna River Watershed to gather information and advance understanding of our species of greatest concern in that watershed. 
            Freshwater mussels are in decline, with more than a third of the species known from the state now considered threatened or endangered by the Pennsylvania Biological Survey.  Loss of habitat due to dams, removal of gravel, sedimentation and pollution have all contributed to their decline.  
            Numerous studies and surveys have followed since A.E. Ortmann’s seminal work in the early 1900s, but the status of over a dozen species of freshwater mussels is still not clear.  
            This is true for the Susquehanna River watershed–Pennsylvania’s largest watershed—where a lack of information about freshwater mussels makes it difficult to effectively prioritize and manage habitats in the over 20,000 square-mile watershed.
            To develop this critical information, PNHP staff members at WPC are working in partnership with the Fish and Boat Commission and DCNR.  The research is designed to shed light on the distribution and health of the mussel communities throughout the Susquehanna basin.
            Beginning in the upper section of the basin at the New York border, WPC biologists have proceeded downstream over three years, logging all mussels discovered while methodically sampling habitats in the main stem and all major tributaries of the river down to the Maryland border. 
            The survey work included all mussel species, but focused particularly on the yellow lampmussel—a species that has the heart of its range in Pennsylvania.  Although not as rare as many of its cousins, its fate is strongly tied to the habitats that it occupies.  Consequently, it has earned the status of a ‘responsibility species’ as designated in the State Wildlife Action Plan.  State Wildlife Grants and funds supplied by DCNR to support PNHP research made this study possible.
            The information gathered in researching the freshwater mussels in the Susquehanna watershed will be incorporated in the PNDI database. This is only one example of the types of research projects that take place year after year to protect rare, endangered and species of concern in Pennsylvania under the WPC-PNHP contract with DCNR.  
            By documenting species distribution, habitat preferences and population genetics, projects like these will improve the ability of resource managers to make well-informed conservation decisions regarding plant and wildlife species of concern.

(Contributed by the PA Natural Heritage Program, Western PA Conservancy.)


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