WASHINGTON – Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore is one of 10 refuges across the country “jeopardized by imminent threats,” according to a report released Wednesday by the National Audubon Society.
The 10 refuges were chosen because they illustrate problems facing the national wildlife refuge system in general, the report said, highlighted by a $1.6 billion backlog of maintenance and operation needs.
The report also identified development pressures, infestation by foreign plant and animal species and water pollution as major environmental threats facing the refuges.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, the new chair of the House subcommittee overseeing the refuge system, pledged that fixing the system is a top priority for his committee. Gilchrest said he would meet with President Bush, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, “and anyone else who might be useful.”
The Audubon report said that Blackwater in Dorchester County has already lost 7,000 acres of marshland due to infestation by nutria, a beaver-like rodent originally introduced into the United States from South America for its fur.
Today, Blackwater consists of 23,000 acres of tidal salt marshlands, freshwater ponds, and mixed evergreen and deciduous forest.
Glen Carowan agreed with the report’s findings on Blackwater. Carowan is project leader of the 30,000-acre Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Blackwater, the Susquehanna National Wildlife Refuge and the Chesapeake Islands Unit-Martin National Wildlife Refuge.
“The number one problem affecting Blackwater is habitat loss,” Carowan said.
He blamed the problem on sea level rise, land subsidence, saltwater intrusion, excessive grazing by nutria and other species and water pollution.
Carowan said nutria differ from the native rodent species, the muskrat, in how they graze. Nutria “excavate” the marsh, which leads to the marsh’s disappearance.
“They are very aggressive and unlike native muskrat, these critters actually excavate the marsh. They dig the bulrush plant up and eat the root,” he said. “These eat-out areas are then influenced by saltwater intrusion and sea- level rise.”
The resulting pools of salty water react chemically with the peat marshlands, destroying the marsh substrate, turning the marsh to open water.
“The black rail and other marsh-dwelling species are adversely influenced because of loss of habitat,” Carowan said.
The Audubon report claims that 500 to 1,000 acres of Blackwater marsh are lost annually because of nutria grazing.
Carowan said Blackwater does not have the development pressures that other refuges face. The forested buffer around the refuge offers protection and the farmers and other property owners in the surrounding area are “good stewards of private land.”
Carowan said the lack of money for both operational activities and general maintenance is a significant problem. The lack of operational funding means there is insufficient staff and inadequate scientific research in areas of concern.
“(These) concerns include inventories, life history research studies (such as) species abundance, distribution, habitat requirements,” he said. “Some of these species, like the black rail, we know very little about.”
But Carowan said that very little of his operational budget is available for research or wildlife management.
Gilchrest said he hopes to get a 75 percent increase in the budget for the refuges as a way of meeting the $1.6 billion backlog in operations and maintenance.
“There was a 50 percent increase in the last Congress, and we’d like to see another 75 percent increase,” he said.
There are more than 530 refuges throughout the United States occupying some 94 million acres, an area about the size of Montana and larger than the National Park System. For fiscal 2001, the total budget for the refuge system is $300 million, including $225 million for operations and $75 million for maintenance, said Megan Durham, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Gilchrest praised Carowan and others who run the refuge system.
“The managers are doing an extraordinary job on such limited resources, and they can’t control what goes on one inch outside the refuges,” Gilchrest said.
By tackling the problem, Gilchrest said Congress can act in “the same spirit as Teddy Roosevelt.”
“Future generations will continue to benefit from the nationwide ecological infrastructure our refuge system provides,” he said.