Silver spot butterfly among 281 species proposed for Md. protection

November 15, 1990|By Phillip Davis

The silver spot butterfly was a common sight over the meadows of Baltimore and Cecil counties a decade ago. During the last two years, only five have been spotted in all of Maryland.

The butterfly is just one of a staggering 281 species that the state is planning to add to its listing of endangered and threatened species.

The state's proposal, which is up for public comment until Monday, would nearly double to 618 the number of plant and animal species whose continued existence in Maryland is considered questionable, said Gene Cooley, a data base botanist with the state Department of Natural Resources' 10-year-old Natural Heritage Program.

The designation has been used as a weapon to rein in development, which Mr. Cooley and other biologists blame, along with pollution, for the species' decline. Destruction of natural habitats by relentless development has placed barriers between members of species and thwarted reproduction.

For the past two years, the state has been reviewing all the animals and plants in the middle and western parts of the state.

"It has been shocking," Mr. Cooley said of the scientists' findings. The surveyors used inventories in museums and universities and old records to chart the progress of animals and plants.

Despite the state's relatively small size, it boasts several distinct habitats, from Delmarva marsh to the mountainous climate of Western Maryland.

Yet because of this diversity, the number of species on the decline is greater, Mr. Cooley said.

From the northern goshawk to the barking tree frog to the Eastern wood rat, hundreds of species seem to be losing population, and more need watching, Mr. Cooley said.

The northern goshawk used to breed in Western Maryland, and was common around the turn of the century. But its habitat was in spruce and hemlock stands, and those were decimated by logging. With the trees went the bird, Mr. Cooley said.

The Eastern wood rat is a pack rat that builds nests with colorful feathers, sticks, even bottle caps and other items it finds. It was once common in Garrett County. Yet it, too, has inexplicably begun to disappear.

The barking tree frog was only recently discovered in bogs in Caroline County. Mr. Cooley, who can claim he actually held one of the rare animals in his hand, says the frog's mating call sounds like a sea lion barking and can be heard a quarter-mile away. It, too, will be placed on the list.

Since the DNR's last inventory in 1987, which concentrated on the Chesapeake Bay region of the state, only two species have rebounded off the list, both birds, Mr. Cooley said. They are the little blue heron, a relative of the great blue heron, and the American oysterfisher.

Many more species have disappeared from the state since European colonization began, including the passenger pigeon, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the gray wolf and the eastern mountain lion.

"We've lost 200 species in Maryland since it became a state. To me, that means we live in a much poorer environment than Maryland used to be," Mr. Cooley said.

The state has four levels of endangerment for an animal or plant: in need of conservation, threatened, no longer found in the state and endangered.

Most of the species currently on the list are so rare that fewer than five populations of the species can be found in the state.

The state hopes that by placing species on the endangered list, and on the less serious "threatened" or "in need of conservation" lists, it will heighten public awareness and slow the wholesale destruction of delicate habitats.

Mr. Cooley added that certain land-use restrictions take effect if a threatened species is found on state land slated for development. There are no restrictions concerning development on private land.

Nonetheless, the presence of rare animals is one of the factors considered by authorities when determining the environmental impact of proposed development projects. State and local officials may require protection measures for rare species and their habitats.

If a private owner finds an endangered species on his land and takes steps to conserve it, he can register the species with the Natural Areas Registry of the Nature Conservancy, a private conservation group. The conservancy verifies the property owner's efforts to preserve the species and presents him with a plaque in recognition.

Even though most people have never seen most of the species on the list and probably wouldn't recognize them if they did, they're still important, Mr. Cooley said.

"If species are disappearing, and it's happening in a 10-year period, that should cause us to take two steps back and be concerned for our own well-being," Mr. Cooley said. "We could be vulnerable to the same environmental conditions as well."

Where to call

If you think you may have a rare, endangered plant or animal living on your property, you can check by writing:

The Maryland Natural Heritage Division

B-2 Tawes State Office Bldg.

Annapolis, Md. 21401

Telephone: 974-2870

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