MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program

Archived Posts from this Category

“Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply

Posted by on 01 Oct 2018 | Tagged as: Ashuelot River, Bellows Falls, blueback herring, canal shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, crippled ecosystem, Dead Reach, ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, FERC license, FirstLight, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, fish counts, fish kill, fish kill on the Connecticut, fish passage, fishway windows, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, nuclear power, PSP Investments, Public Law 98-138, pumped storage, Relicensing, resident river fish, Saxtons River, Scott Pruitt, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Society of Environmental Journalists, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Digger, Vermont Yankee

Copyright © 2018 by Karl Meyer All Rights Reserved.

NOTE: the following piece appeared in VTDigger, www.vtdigger.org in September under the heading “Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply when crippling an ecosystem.”

TERMS OF ENTRAINMENT: a Connecticut River History


NOTE:in this photo are over 170 juvenile shad, among the many thousands killed in the recent de-watering of the Turners Falls Power Canal. The power canal is where the bulk of the Connecticut River is diverted into for most months of the year. So, when they drain it, they are killing the river. However, if you look at this photo and multiply that death toll by 10,000 you begin to get some idea of the mortality counts for young-of-the-year shad entrained annually–and un-tallied across nearly five decades, at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. (CLICK, then CLICK twice more to enlarge photos.)

At 2:41 p.m. on May 20, 2018, a lone blueback herring appeared in the windows at Turners Falls Dam among a school of larger American shad. It was a small miracle. Barely a foot long, it was the first blueback here since 2005, and there would not be another this spring. Like those shad, its life had already spanned four springs, swimming thousands of ocean miles in shimmering schools. It re-crossed bays and estuaries of seven states and two provinces before reaching this Connecticut River juncture. In doing so it had survived sprawling drift nets and repeated attacks from sharks, bluefish, spiny dogfish, cormorants, seals and striped bass.

All these fish were seeking to spawn and give their young a head start as far upriver as currents, time and temperature would allow. Unfortunately, five miles upstream sat the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, a river vacuuming machine capable of out-killing all their natural predators. For the next 20 miles they’d be vulnerable to its impacts.

NMPS has inhaled river fish of all species and sizes daily for nearly half a century. Results from a river sampling study Juvenile Shad Assessment in the Connecticut River, were released in June by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. They estimated NMPS’s 2017 operations resulted in losses of some 15 million shad eggs and larvae, plus the deaths of between 1 and 2-1/2 million juvenile shad. That’s for just one species.

On April 20, 1967, years before Northfield was built, federal agencies and four states signed the Statement of Intent for a Cooperative Fishery Restoration Program for the Connecticut River, agreeing to restore runs of American shad, salmon and blueback herring upstream to Bellows Falls, Vermont and beyond. The migratory shortnose sturgeon had already been listed as endangered. Continuing today under Public Law 98-138, its mandate requires utilization of “the full potential of the fishery resources of the Connecticut River including both anadromous and resident species,” providing “high quality sport fishing,” and meeting “the long term needs of the population for seafood.”

American shad are still commercially fished today just 60 miles downriver. They’ve provided seafood to this valley for ages, yet most people in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts don’t know they were promised a “just share of the fishery harvest” back in 1967. All remain without, while shad continue to grace dinner and restaurant tables in Connecticut every spring.

Running on imported power via the buy-low/sell-high model, Northfield can suck the river into reverse for up to a mile downstream. It devours everything captured in that vortex at 15,000 cubic feet per second. Think 15,000 milk crates, for hours, to fill a 5 billion gallon mountain reservoir. The result is 100% mortality for all fish entrained. During peak-use and/or peak-price times—or both, it sends the deadened water back through its turbines as twice-produced electricity.

NOTE: more of the TF Canal kill here in another location–including mostly juvenile shad, but also a bluegill, several mud-puppies, and a young sea lamprey. Again, this is just a whisper of the year round fish kill occurring upstream at Northfield Mountain.

Northfield was built to run off Vermont Yankee’s excess nuclear megawatts. But even after VY closed in 2014, its carnage continued, unchallenged, rather than being relegated to emergency use. Having never produced a watt of its own power, its 46 years of accumulating carnage are yet to be tallied. That herring might have been heading for New Hampshire’s Ashuelot or Vermont’s Saxtons River, and those shad were perhaps steering for the Great Eddy at Bellows Falls. Regardless, any progeny would later face Northfield’s net-loss-power impacts heading downriver come fall.

Currently it pumps mostly at night when Canadian owners PSP Investments can purchase cheap electricity to suction the river uphill. Later it’s released as second-hand juice at peak-of-the-day profits. Promoters claim the benefits of dispersed solar and wind power can’t be realized without first relaying their renewable energy across the region to this lethal storage machine for later resale in markets far beyond the Connecticut Valley. “Clean, renewable” labels don’t apply when crippling an ecosystem.

NMPS boosters include (now-former) EPA Director Scott Pruitt, who made a sweetheart visit there last Valentine’s Day along with Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Neil Chatterjee. That occurred as PSP was requesting to suction yet more water from the Connecticut and applying for a new long-term FERC license. The next day FERC announced a major policy shift, potentially increasing both Northfield’s daytime use and its profits.

Since an 1872 landmark Supreme Court ruling indemnifying Holyoke Dam, all hydro facilities have been required to safely pass the public’s fish, upstream and down. But that 1967 agreement had this warning: “Based on the present fragmentary data available on the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, it appears that this project poses definite limitations to an anadromous fish restoration program. These limitations involve the physical loss of eggs, larvae and young fish of both resident and anadromous species, and an orientation problem for both upstream and downstream migrants attributed to pumping large volumes of water.” Today the 20 mile reach hosting Northfield remains a migration minefield—while some 30 miles of open Vermont/New Hampshire spawning habitat above Vernon Dam sits essentially empty.

Holyoke Dam has annually lifted hundreds of thousands of shad and herring upstream since the 1970s. In 2017 it recorded its second highest shad numbers ever, 537,000 fish. Each spring, half or more of those shad attempt to pass Turners Falls. Less than 10-in-100 will succeed. Of those, some 50% drop from tallies and are never re-counted at Vernon Dam after entering the 20 miles impacted by Northfield. The blueback herring record at Turners Falls was 9,600 in 1986, out of the 517,000 counted 36 miles downstream at Holyoke that year. Of those 9,600 Turners herrings, just 94 reached Vernon Dam. Turners Falls saw another 7,500 blueback herring in 1991; just 383 reappeared upstream at Vernon.

Any new long-term FERC license must comply with federal and state law protecting endangered and public-trust fish. In seeking a new license, PSP’s main proposal for limiting Northfield’s massive carnage has been the test-anchoring of a few yards of Kevlar netting in the riverbed in front of the plant’s suction-and-surge tunnel. Those flag-sized yards of mesh, after a few months deployment, are supposed to effectively model how a 1,000 foot-long “exclusion net”–deployed seasonally in the river over the next decades, might halt the entrainment deaths of out-migrating adult–and millions of juvenile young-of-the year fish, heading back to the sea. Presumably, Northfield’s mouth would remain wide open to the ecosystem’s fish throughout the rest of the year.

In light of longstanding research the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission have set shad passage goals requiring that a minimum of 397,000 pass Turners Falls; and a minimum of 226,000 pass Vernon Dam. It’s a certainty that a new fish lift will be required at Turners Falls under any new license, modeled on the long-term success of Holyoke’s lifts. But the ultimate question is this: can Northfield comply with federal and state law protecting the four-state ecosystem’s fish in order to be granted a new FERC license?

END

Karl Meyer has been a stakeholder and member of the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the current FERC relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects since 2012. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

ONE LAST CHANCE FOR THE CONNECTICUT RIVER

Posted by on 03 Sep 2018 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Clean Water Act, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, Rock Dam Pool, shad, Society of Environmental Journalists, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Yankee, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

ONE LAST CHANCE FOR THE CONNECTICUT RIVER

Copyright © 2018, by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

Empty CT River bed below Turners Falls Dam on September 2, 2018 (CLICK, then CLICK AGAIN, to ENLARGE)

Northfield MA. On Wednesday, September 5, 2018, New England gets one final chance for a restored Connecticut River ecosystem, promised by federal and state fisheries agencies way back in 1967. That’s the day when the National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service and MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife meet at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project for precedent-setting, backroom settlement negotiations to decide the ultimate fate of this ecosystem–long-crippled by the impacts of Northfield’s river-suctioning, power re-generation. They will be representing the public on behalf of New England’s Great River against the interests of FirstLight/PSP Investments of Canada, latest venture capital owners of NMPS. Future generations deserve the living river system promised here long ago.

Closed river gates at Turners Falls Dam, September 2, 2018. (CLICK, the CLICK AGAIN to ENLARGE)

The last time similar negotiations took place was in the 1970s when the agencies misplaced their priorities and Northfield’s nuclear-powered (NMPS was built to run off the excess megawatts produced by the now-closed Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, 15 miles upstream) assault on the river was ignored, scuttling prospects for a river restoration in Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts. Those negotiations led to federal fish hatcheries and ladders for an extinct salmon strain, leaving miles of the Connecticut emptied of flow in Massachusetts, while all migratory shad, blueback herring and lamprey were forced into the industrial labyrinth of the Turners Falls power canal. That also succeeded in leaving the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon with no protections at all on its critical spawning ground.

Worst of all back then, the agencies failed to protect migratory and resident fish from the year-round deadly assault of NMPS, which sucks the river backward and uphill at 15,000 cubic feet per second. Its vortex can actually yank the Connecticut’s flow into reverse for up to a mile downstream, pulling everything from tiny shad eggs to juvenile fish and adult eels into its turbines on a certain-death Northfield Mountain Sleigh Ride. A USFWS study found that Northfield killed up to 15 million American shad eggs and swallowed between 1 – 2-1/2 million juvenile shad in 2017.

Northfield’s Canadian owners are seeking a new, generations-long operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The relicensing process has now completed its 6th year, with the serious work of safeguarding New England’s largest ecosystem just now coming into focus. This plant is an energy consumer, and has never produced a single watt of its own energy. It’s a bulk-grid power storage and transfer station that can only run for about 6 hours full tilt before it is completely spent and dead in the water. Then, it must go out and suck new virgin power from the bulk grid to begin refilling its reservoir with deadened river water. Its regenerated power is marketed and resold to entities far beyond the borders of the Connecticut River Valley.

New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts have a lot a stake here. Way back in 1967 they were promised a just share of a restored seafood harvest of American shad, all the way upstream to Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH. Safe passage of fish, upstream and down, has been mandated on US rivers since a 1872 Supreme Court case. But no meaningful runs of shad and blueback herring ever materialized upstream of the brutal industrial impacts and flows created at Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls Dam. In 1967 when these agencies signed that Cooperative Fisheries Restoration agreement, 750,000 American shad was the target for passage above Vernon Dam to wide-open Vermont and New Hampshire habitats. The best year, 1991, saw just 37,000 fish.

Northfield’s giant Intake and Entrainment Tunnel (CLICK, then CLICK AGAIN to ENLARGE)

As for those shortnose sturgeon? Well, investigations continue to see if there is a remnant of this river’s population surviving upstream near Vernon. But, in Massachusetts their protection from interference and guaranteed spawning access and flows should have been enforced decades back in the 2-1/2 miles below PSP’s Turners Falls dam. But none of the federal and state agencies took action.

And here, the only non-profit river groups on the Connecticut have long been power-company-friendly and connected–and still accepting their corporate money. Other major river systems have watchdogs without ties to the corporations that cripple them–putting staff lawyers and their enforcement commitments and responsibilities front and center. These go to court repeatedly–the only method leading to lasting, meaningful results. Here, no one takes corporations to court for license violations or requirements under the Endangered Species Act or Clean Water Act. Others might have led a campaign to shut down an ecosystem killing plant the day the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant shut down forever in December 2014.

4-barrel floats above a few yards of experimental test netting that’s supposed to emulate how a 1000 foot-long net might be deployed seasonally over the coming decades to keep millions of baby fish from going on a Northfield Mountain Sleigh Ride. (CLICK, then CLICK AGAIN to ENLARGE)

Thus, it is really is now-or-never time on for a living Connecticut River ecosystem. So, the big question is: are the key agencies going to stand firm under federal and state environmental statute and law, and fulfill their mandate on behalf of future generations?

Here are some of the key questions to be decided at the table that will ultimately tell the four-state Connecticut River ecosystem’s future:

Can Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station—which literally kills millions of fish annually, be operated in such a way that it complies with long-standing federal and state environmental law in order to receive a new FERC license?

Will the US Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries require PSP’s operations to cease during critical times in the spawning cycles of the river’s fish—and only operate as an emergency power source at those times, rather than as a net-power loss, buy-low/sell high profit machine? (This happens on other river systems.)

Will National Marine Fisheries require the necessary 6,500 cubic feet per second flows now absent below Turners Falls Dam—from April through June, to protect the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in its critical spawning ground?

Will the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife at last stand up for river protections in that same 2-1/2 miles of beleaguered river to safeguard over a dozen threatened and endangered plant, fish and aquatic species?

Will the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts protect the full spawning cycle of the shortnose sturgeon by barring all rafts and watercraft from landing on any of the islands in this stretch—and banning all disembarking in the critical Rock Dam Pool spawning area to safeguard young fish, rare plants and freshwater clams?

In deference to recognized New England Native American Peoples, will Massachusetts’s Natural Heritage Program leaders, the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the US Fish & Wildlife ban access to the Connecticut River islands in that embattled 2-1/2 mile reach, where several Tribes have a documented presence and ancient connection to these extremely sensitive sites?

Ultimately, the questions that will soon be answered are these:

Does the river belong to the corporation, or to the people?
Do endangered species matter?
Do ecosystems matter?
Do federal and state environmental laws matter?
And, finally: DO RIVERS MATTER?

Coming generations may soon have their answers on the Connecticut River.

Karl Meyer has been a stakeholder and member of the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the current FERC relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects since 2012. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Due to the non-disclosure agreements requested to take part in these private meetings with PSP Investments, he is not participating in these closed-door settlement discussions. The public is entitled to know.

NOAA has once-in-a-lifetime Recovery Plan opportunity for sturgeon

Posted by on 17 Jan 2017 | Tagged as: Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, ESA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Jack Buckley, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, Mr. John Bullard, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator, Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Rock Dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Wendi Weber

KM-Rock Dam program 4-23-16
(Above:crowd attending shortnose sturgeon program at the Rock Dam spawning site, April 2016. Presenters were Dr. Boyd Kynard and me. CLICK and click again to ENLARGE.)

Below is a letter to Regional NOAA Fisheries Director John Bullard requesting immediate action to gather small funds to take advantage of a unique Recovery Plan Step that has literally been waiting in the wings for 167 years. Small Recovery Plan funds are needed to monitor newly-returning endangered shortnose sturgeon as they regain upstream access to their natural spawning reach in the Connecticut River for the FIRST TIME SINCE 1849! Recovery Plan opportunities and low-cost, critical federal science in the public interest come around but once in a Blue Moon.

Please feel free to copy the text of this letter, paste in your own information noting your concerns, and forward to Mr. Bullard and the two other fisheries directors cc’d here. Help these newly-arriving federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon successfully SPAWN on their ancient home grounds for the first time in over a century and a half!

Karl Meyer
Greenfield, MA
413-773-0006

Mr. John K. Bullard, NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator January 16, 2017
Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office
55 Republic Drive
Gloucester, MA 01930
john.bullard@noaa.gov

Dear Mr. Bullard,

I’m one of many New Englanders anxious to see the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon begin its long-belated recovery here by finally having a chance to regain its documented natural spawning habitat in Turners Falls–and experiencing conditions where it can successfully reproduce. Nine years late license agreements at Holyoke Dam have finally been met allowing SNS to pass upstream in significant numbers. This is literally the first progress made in this species’ name here since it was placed on the original federal Endangered Species List in 1967. And this is the first time since 1849 that these fish will have a real chance at increasing their genetic diversity, as well as their numbers. This is their chance at recovery.

It’s come to my attention that a unique opportunity exists to track SNS in the By Pass Reach of the Connecticut River in Turners Falls this spring. The USGS Conte Lab has proposed a straightforward, acceptable, and verifiable study plan. Apparently all that is needed for this simple study to go forward is $20,000. This is an extremely modest expenditure for your agency. This unique opportunity to collect information in the first season in 167 years that SNS have been able to return upstream to this site will never come around again. This study will document whether these fish are successfully arriving and accessing their chosen age-old spawning habitats. Critical, baseline information.

NOAA’s own banner states it provides science based conservation and management for sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, marine mammals, endangered species, and their habitats. There is no better belated-opportunity to fulfill that mandate vis-à-vis the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon than to provide the small funding this study requires. Members of your endangered species team are aware of this, and have expressed enthusiasm for this study to go forward. Further, your fisheries colleagues from other federal and state agencies share a common mandate and concern for the SNS’s protection and recovery. This modest study will help to further that end, particularly given that in just 15 months a new federal license will be signed with the new Canadian owners of these hydro installation and facilities whose operation will directly impact the recovery and spawning success of SNS.

This time-sensitive request for small funding can demonstrate due diligence by NOAA in its migratory fisheries and habitat protections mandate here. Please make us proud of NOAA’s shortnose sturgeon Recovery Plan efforts and make these funds available immediately so that this key spring work can go forward. Your colleagues, state and regional directors at USFWS and MA Division of Fish & Wildlife may be able contribute as well as both Ms. Weber and Mr. Buckley have hands-on experience with endangered SNS research. They are being cc’d here. Thank you.

Sincerely,
Karl Meyer
Cc: Wendi_Weber@fws.gov; jack.buckley@state.ma.us

(BELOW: the Rock Dam and its adjacent pool to the left–the sole documented natural spawning site for shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut River. USGS Conte Fish Lab is a few hundred yards southeast of this site. CLICK to enlarge; then click again.)
P1000433

Shortnose sturgeon: ignoring published research

Posted by on 04 Apr 2016 | Tagged as: Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC Comments, Jack Buckley, John Bullard, Julie Crocker, Kimberly D. Bose, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Secretary Kimberly Bose, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vince E. Yearick, Wendi Weber

KM-Rock Dam program 4-23-16P1000433

TOP: Rock Dam program, 4-23-16 (click to enlarge)

Bottom: The ROCK DAM: shortnose sturgeon spawning site (click to enlarge)

The following testimony was submitted on March 18, 2016, to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on behalf of the biological needs of the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at its sole documented natural spawning site in the Connecticut River ecosystem.

Karl Meyer, M.S.

85 School Street # 3

Greenfield, MA  01301                                       March 18, 2016

 

The Honorable Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

88 First Street, NE

Washington, DC  20426

 

SUPPLEMENTAL INFORMATION: RE: P-1889-081 and P-2485-063, and federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, (Acipenser brevirostrum)

Attach to: PROTEST of FERC-sanctioned Revised Plan for Study 3.3.19, issued to FirstLight Power Resources, Inc, in a February 25, 2016 FERC letter to Mr. James P. Donohue of FirstLight, by Vince E. Yearick, FERC Director, Division of Hydropower Relicensing.

Dear Secretary Bose,

This additional information is being submitted subsequent to my receipt of a March 15, 2016 letter from Mr. Vince Yearick, Director, Division of Hydropower Licensing, restating FERC’s intention to sanction spring 2016 test flows that are documented to result in spawning failure and displacement of federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon(SNS), at their sole natural spawning site in this river system. Those findings come from 20 years of research conducted by government scientists from both the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the US Geological Survey.

I am submitting an index and key chapters from this exhaustive body of shortnose sturgeon research published in LIFE HISTORY AND BEHAVIOUR OF CONNECTICUT RIVER SHORTNOSE AND OTHER STURGEONS, 2012, by Boyd Kynard, Paolo Bronzi et al, World Sturgeon Conservation Society: Special Publication # 4. Chapter 3 directly addresses SNS spawning failure and displacement at the Rock Dam in the Connecticut’s By Passed Reach, and clearly indicates that test flows of 1500 cfs will not be protective of a species listed since 1967 under the federal Endangered Species Act.

From P. 107 (PDF-page numbers and numbers in the actual text are the same), “Spawning failure in unregulated rivers likely occurs, but it should be rare because females have adapted to natural fluctuations in the river discharge. Spawning failure (when fish were present) occurred at MontSR due to river regulation, but spawning did not fail due to peaking operations. Regulation created bottom velocities that were too low or exceeded the preference of females or created a low discharge that either prevented female access to the RockD or failed to attract them.”

Findings and data from pages 101 and 102 should provide further guidance to FERC in reexamining this decision. In his response Mr. Yearick argues that the low test flow of 1500 cfs put forth for Study 3.3.19 is somehow key in making correlations to last year’s American shad passage tests from Study 3.3.2. However, that is by no means clear (note–the 3.3.2 results have yet to be made available to Stakeholders) as that study also included tests flows of 1000 cfs and 6300 cfs—flows also not being included in order to make any useful correlation with Study 3.3.19.

Further, in regard to the failure or oversight in the protective responsibilities of the National Marine Fisheries Service to submit objections in this instance (as well as the USFWS and MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who also have federal and state ESA mandates), those failures in no way release the FERC from its own responsibilities under the federal Endangered Species Act. In FERC’s own words, from: Hydropower Relicensing-Get Involved, A GUIDE FOR THE PUBLIC: “Is the Commission subject to other federal laws? Yes. The Commission must comply with a variety of federal laws, such as the Clean Water Act (to protect water quality), the Endangered Species Act (to protect threatened and endangered plant and animal species) and the National Historic Preservation Act (to protect culturally significant places and historic properties).”

Regarding Mr. Yearick’s citing of Article 34 as permitting the harming of protected species in the current license, he fails to note the following tenets included in that self-same Article regarding continuous minimum flows and modifications thereof: “These flows may be modified temporarily: (1) during and to the extent required by operating emergencies beyond the control of the Licensee; and (2) in the interest of recreation and protection of the fisheries resources, upon mutual agreement of the Licensees for Projects 1889 and 2485 and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.”

Please also note that, with the marked improvements shown in American shad passage at Turners Falls in 2015 which appear to correlate well with the significant increases in flow through the By Passed Reach, it is highly unlikely that any of the Stakeholder Agencies would consider requesting a Licensed flow of 1500 cfs when the biological needs and passage of both federal-trust and federally-endangered migratory fish require significantly more volume to fulfill their spawning requirements.

Lastly, 8 years in arrears of its license agreement signed in 2002 for FERC P-2004–to have completed upstream access for federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon by 2008, Holyoke Gas & Electric has completed modifications to its fishway. That should allow SNS their first access and reintroduction to their natural spawning grounds in 168 years. In my mind, it would be patently criminal to greet these endangered fish on their first spawning trip upstream since 1849 with sanctioned flows guaranteed to displace them and cause spawning failure.

Thank you for your careful attention to this critical matter.

Sincerely,

Karl Meyer, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, P-2485 and P-1889

Please see attached chapters in PDF format, as well as included index and book cover.

Cc’d via email to:

Brandon Cherry, FERC

William Connelly, FERC

James Donohue, FirstLight

Julie Crocker, NOAA

Bjorn Lake, NOAA

John Warner, USFWS

Caleb Slater, MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife

John Bullard, Regional Administrator, NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region

Wendi Weber, Director, USFWS Region 7

Jack Buckley, Director, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife

Dr. Boyd Kynard

The Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon

Posted by on 21 Apr 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

 

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

The following piece appeared earlier this April in the Rutland Herald, Vtdigger.org, The Recorder, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Shelburne Falls Independent, and on other sites.

                       The Shortnose Sturgeon and Spring’s Teachable Moment 

There’s a watershed opportunity for teachers investigating migratory fish this spring.  It’s the final season classrooms will raise Atlantic salmon eggs from a massive federal hatchery program, dismantled after 46 years.  It’s a chance to teach kids that “extinct,” in evolutionary biology terms, means exactly that: gone, forever.  It’s a profoundly simple lesson, with ramifications that can be fully grasped in a week.  I’m hoping teachers will put a living dinosaur of a fish in that salmon’s place—one still here, though teetering on the edge of extinction these 46 years: the federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.  As teachable as T. Rex, this marvelously adapted, 3-4 foot fish has survived for 100 million years. 

On April 20, 1967, two federal agencies and four states signed the Cooperative Fisheries Restoration Compact for the Connecticut River.  It specifically targeted American shad and blueback herring, plus salmon–extinct here since Darwin’s birth in 1809. Within two years its emphasis had overwhelmingly veered to conjuring up a new salmon.  Still, with a little help shad and herring populations blossomed.  Combined runs reached 1,000,000 fish in the 1980s; then dropped precipitously.  Bluebacks are now rare as hen’s teeth. 

By 1975, what was then the Federal Power Commission had heard testimony that Long Island Sound had warmed to a point that might prevent cold-water salmon from entering rivers in its basin.  The climate had changed.  Still, in 1980 MA and US Fish and Wildlife Service officials insisted a series of salmon ladders be built, leading all migrants into a power canal at Turners Falls.  It failed instantly; yet skewed logic continued.  In 1983 Congress renamed the restoration The Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission.  It continues today. 

Those extinct salmon had only visited here–the southern tip of their range, for a few centuries.  Importing eggs from Canada and Maine, the program proved futile, costing millions annually.  It left the real problem for native shad, herring and endangered sturgeon—a broken Connecticut River, quietly untended.  Those species had returned here for thousands of years.  Bony-plated sturgeon had been vacuuming-up freshwater mussels eons before the present valley took shape. 

On March 11, 1967, the shortnose was listed as “endangered” in the original Endangered Species Preservation Act.  No one knew how they’d survived, or how many remained.  Shortnose were sometimes landed downstream of the 1849 Holyoke Dam; and a few were recorded upstream below Turners Falls.  By 1980, researchers discovered embryos and larvae upstream–proof shortnose spawned somewhere below Turners Falls.

Beginning in 1990, Dr. Boyd Kynard and colleagues began 17 years of continuous federal and state-funded sturgeon research.  Kynard ultimately uncovered the structure of the population, its migratory patterns, and ancient spawning grounds.  A key finding established that all shortnose head upstream to an ancient spawning pool between Greenfield and Turners Falls known as Rock Dam.  Less than 2,000 survive today.  They exist in two groups of a single genetic population, separated over 150 years ago by the raising of Holyoke Dam—which luckily had left some adults upstream with access to spawning.  Fish trapped downstream were out of luck.  

Today, the bulk of the population lives in the river below Holyoke Dam.  Known as “reproductive nulls,” some 1,500 sturgeon linger in a forced limbo created by agencies charged with protecting them.  If one manages to slip into Holyoke Gas & Electric’s fish lift for a spawning ride upstream, it is trapped and pointedly dropped downstream—per orders of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.  Surviving for 40 years or more, adults will repeatedly attempt to pass the dam until, genetically unfulfilled, they expire.

NMFS, MA NHESP and USFWS claim this protects sturgeon from being sliced up in HG&E’s turbines, if they return downstream after spawning.  All the while HG&E is 5 years in violation of license agreements mandating construction of safe downstream fish passage.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has done nothing to enforce environmental statutes that were key to Holyoke receiving a new hydro license in 1999.

Today, some 300 sturgeon cling to life upstream of Holyoke.  An unknown number are adults.  Some attempt to spawn near Rock Dam each spring (females spawn once every 5 yrs).   According to Kynard et al, success is far from guaranteed.  Unregulated flows emanating from FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls dam and canal imperil that endangered process.  Annually, spawning fails 79% of the time at Rock Dam; and 29% of the time at a default site just downstream.  Fertilized embryos are also killed when waffling flows flush them out, or leave them parching on river banks.  Many years, no young are produced.

Laws ignored; habitats decimated, river groups mum: it’s a blueprint for extinction.  Yet, amazingly, our dinosaurs persist. It’s this spring’s teachable moment.  Anyone up to a challenge? 

Karl Meyer’s Wild Animals of North America won a 2008 Teachers Choice Award for Children’s Books.  He lives in Greenfield, MA.

March 1st Deadline: Comments to FERC on Northfield/Turners Falls Hydro Relicensing

Posted by on 25 Feb 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, EPA, ESA, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Rock Dam, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab

Last Call to send comments and study recommendations to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to guide the Connecticut River conditions mandated in the 2018 relicensing of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project and Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project.  The licenses will the river ecosystem for decades to come.

To file any comments on the relicensing of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project and the Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project you will need to register at: www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/efiling.asp

You must include the following project numbers for Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project and Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project respectively, with any comments: P-2485-063, and P-1889-081.

All comments are due before MARCH 1, 2013.  Be sure to include your full mailing address, phone number, and email address in your comments. (I’ve attached my comments, which are now registered with FERC, below.)

Karl Meyer, M.S. Environmental Science

Greenfield, MA, 01301                                                             February 25, 2013

To: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

RE: Comments on FERC Relicensing Projects: No. P- 2485-063 (Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project) and No. P-1889-081 (Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project)

Dear Commissioners,

Please carefully adhere to the standard FERC relicensing processes and deadlines as you relicense these two projects.  Holding public and agency site visits in early October 2012 may have been deemed convenient for circumventing winter weather that might have affected visits, however it placed invested parties in the difficult position of having to view and judge hydro operations and configurations at both facilities without the benefit of knowing what operational changes and information FirstLight Power Resources was including in its PAD.

Further, of the three FERC group tours at Northfield/Turners Falls, only one group, mine, was able to view the area of the By-Pass Reach and the Turners Falls Canal and head gates from the downstream side of the Turners Falls gate house.  This is a critical area to view, and the excuse being given was that there was construction happening on the Turners Falls Bridge.  However, unrestricted access to view these sites was available to any passing citizen just yards away via a bike and walking path, open to the public.  My group only received access because I made a direct request to FirstLight’s John Howard, who was my former boss.

The two other tour groups did not get to see the confused flows created by the 14 head gates at the upstream end of the Turners Falls Canal.  The canal has been a major disappointment as the upstream conduit for all migratory fish these last 34 years.  Those head gates are open at full bore during much of the upstream fish migration season; they should have been a key component of the tour.  Nor did interested parties get to view the exposed rock bed and de-pauperizing flow regimes created by flood gate manipulations at the Turners Falls Dam that renders the By-Pass Reach a non-river.  FERC should place particular emphasis on any studies that redirect upstream migrating fish away from the confused and failed conditions experienced in the Turners Falls Power Canal, and send them directly upstream to a lift at TF Dam.  That configuration has worked quite effectively at Holyoke Dam these last 58 years.

In late January 2013, GDF-Suez FirstLight Power Resource representatives noted at public hearings that it intends to apply to FERC with a Proposed Study Plan to begin its own investigations of flows in the reach below Turners Falls Dam this April 2013, rather than the 2014 and 2015 study seasons noted in the FERC Relicensing Process.  No study in this critical segment of river known as the By-pass Reach should be undertaken without a full vetting of the proposals.  This section of river is critical spawning habitat for the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, also listed as endangered under the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Act.  It is also the age-old upstream route for spawning federal-trust American shad and blueback herring.  It is noteworthy that in their expedited study application that FirstLight cites the area below Cabot Station as a key shortnose sturgeon spawning location, while the critical site for these fish—used for likely thousands of years, is the natural escarpment in the riverbed known as Rock Dam, a half mile upstream of Cabot Station.

In a letter from FERC to Mr. John Howard of FirstLight Power Resources dated March 12, 2010, the Commission noted that FirstLight had failed to comply with Article 34 of the license for the Turners Falls Project, releasing just 120 cubic feet per second to this segment of the river to protect shortnose sturgeon from the effects of low flows.  The minimum requirement is 125 CFS.

With respect to measured, in-depth, long-term investigations on flow and river regulation in this reach I would direct you to the 17 years of research done by Dr. Boyd Kynard and colleagues at the Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center adjacent to this river segment in Turners Falls, MA.  The work was largely conducted via the federal Conte Lab under the US Fish & Wildlife Service and later, under the US Geological Survey, when it took over responsibilities for Conte Lab after 1999.  These investigations were also supplemented by funds, research and personnel from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

This research is documented in: Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River shortnose and other sturgeons, published in 2102 by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society and produced by Books on Demand, GmbH, Norderstedt, Germany: ISBN 978-3-8448-2801-6.  Copies can be obtained from the North American Sturgeon and Paddlefish Society:

www.nasps-sturgeon.org/#!publications  Chapter 3 concerns the long-term study of flows and river regulation on spawning success of the last 300, spawning-capable, federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in this river system—covering the period of 1993 – 2005.  This is critical, long-term research that includes seven years of findings from the time before Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage and Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project operated as a regulated utility, and the seven years when Northfield’s pumping was unconstrained by regulations and operated to profit from price spikes and drops in the energy spot market using the public’s river.  Deregulation was fully implemented here in 2000 or thereabouts.  All of these issues need careful consideration before sanctioning a rushed study plan in such a critical river reach.

When considering a new license for these facilities, careful consideration of the public’s interest should be made respecting the changes and power generation, flows, and operational practices from the commencement of the current licenses down to the present.  In 2012, Northfield Mountain Station added 40 megawatts of power to its generating facilities through retooling two of its turbines.  This increase nearly equals the total power generated at HG&E’s Holyoke Dam, the next downstream project licensed by FERC.  Two remaining turbines await power up-rates, which is a considerable addition to the generation at this plant, originally proposed and installed at 1,000 megawatts.  Currently, due to mid-license changes, it now produces 1,119 megawatts of power in an unregulated power market. noteworthy and important to be considered in weighing the public’s right to a living ecosystem, upstream fish passage, and protection of endangered species, is that Northfield Mountain’s original license was for a plant used to create “peaking power, and as a reserve unit.”  It can only produce 6-8 hours of stored power before it is spent and needs to purchase replacement power on the open market.  Its stated intention was to peak twice daily in high-demand winter and summer months, and once a day during shoulder months in spring and fall when energy demand is low.  Northfield now generates when demand is present, or—when energy prices will make the greatest profit for investors.  The river and the states have been impoverished by this profound change.

The building of Northfield was based on the availability of current and proposed power from collected regional nuclear sources (New England Power Pool) that included Maine Yankee (closed 1997); Yankee Rowe (closed 1992) Connecticut Yankee’s Haddam Neck (closed 1994), as well as two proposed nuclear plants at Montague, MA (never built.)  Vermont Yankee is currently the only “local” nuclear plant still operating, and its 40 year operating license expired March 21, 2012.  Its continued operation is contingent on findings in the courts.  It is currently operated at a loss by Entergy, and has a failing condenser system which could force its closure.  In short, Northfield is now operated well beyond the bounds of its originally stated purpose.  The public’s river is paying a high price for power, much of it now imported to pump river reserves uphill to Northfield’s reservoir from sources outside the region.  The ecological impacts to fish runs and the damaging flow regimes imperiling endangered species in the river are apparent.

As a facility with great ecological impacts that cannot produce any of its own power–one totally dependent on outside sources for power, one proposal for using this stored power source put before the Federal Power Commission in the 1960s was that Northfield not operate during the spring fish migration due to its impacts on the runs.  It is time to revisit the option of silencing the effects of Northfield Mountain so that towns and cities including Greenfield, Montague, Gill, Turners Falls, and Northfield, MA; and all the towns north to Vernon, Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, VT, and Hinsdale and Walpole, NH receive their share of the river’s ecological bounty.

Northfield does serve a function as an emergency “reserve unit” for ISO New England (Independent Systems Operator) during times of severe heat waves, or high winter demand, to deliver a high volume of power on short notice to accommodate spikes in the power grid.  Northfield could be taken off-line and kept in reserve to be operated by ISO New England solely for that purpose during the low-demand spring energy months when fish are migrating.  This would greatly benefit river ecology, species, and all upstream stakeholders.  New England’s power grid resources are currently rated at 15% above demand.  Removing the damaging effects of these operations on river ecology during critical months is a simple, equitable solution.

Northfield and Turners Falls have greatly profited by incremental power increases and operational changes over the past 34 years, while the public has watched flows, regulation, and conditions in the By-pass Reach wither to a brutal, feast-or-famine regime that denies spawning for endangered fish, and passage for upstream migrants.  This situation has effectively privatized the 2-1/2 miles of river, depriving my town, Greenfield, as well as Gill, of its share of fish and a river.  This de-pauperization has impacted all the towns upstream of Cabot Station and Turners Falls dam into central Vermont and New Hampshire.  None of these municipalities have received compensation, though in many states the loss and damage to these fish populations would be considered “take” under state statutes.  Damage in the By-Pass Reach to the Connecticut River’s last 300, spawning-capable Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon carries a significant federal fine, as well as possible imprisonment.

FirstLight’s new requests for more generation at both licensed sites should be rejected, and the damaging mid-license flow and power increases should be reversed in any new license.  Indeed, since there have now been no less than FIVE different owner/operators of this facility in the last 14 years, it would be prudent to grant only the shortest license possible in order to help track and minimize damage to the ecosystem due to operational/managerial changes, and protect the public’s interest in a living river.

Northfield’s impacts have never been fully measured with respect to flows in the By-pass Reach, but it is clear that fish passage is now at, or below, the paltry levels of the 1980s, and just a fraction of the 40 – 60% passage upstream long-targeted by the US Fish & Wildlife Service of fish that had been passed at the Holyoke Fish Lift.  Regulated, continuously monitored flows should be returned to the By-pass Reach at this time, and continuous monitoring should be included in any new licenses issued.  FirstLight has noted that in-stream data loggers for river levels and flow have been subject to vandalism.  Continuous camera monitoring of river levels and open and closed gate positions at the Turners Falls Dam would go a long way toward insuring compliance with any new license conditions.  This is an inexpensive solution that could easily include a back-up system.

With a federally endangered species present in the By-pass Reach, as well as federal-trust migrating American shad and blueback herring, FERC would do well to consider enforcing regulated flows in this stretch in accordance with law and statutes in the current license.  NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has had the USGS Conte Lab findings from studies in the By-Pass reach by Kynard et al, in their possession since 2007.  This agency—as well as the MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, could intervene at any time.  These impacts are also affecting the success of the federal/state Connecticut River Migratory Fisheries Restoration, begun in 1967, which stipulates that all the states share equally in the bounty of migratory fish—as both a recreational and seafood resource.  In several studies by the Massachusetts Cooperative Fisheries Unit at UMass/Amherst from the 1980s it is noted that blueback herring, (Alosa aestivalis) were noted gathering at the base of Turners Falls Dam, and were also noted spawning in the mouth of the Fall River–just 300 feet downstream of the dam, by then Conte Lab Director Steve Rideout.

Further, in the late 1980s, in another mid-license power up-rate, up to 5,000 CFS was redirected out of the By-pass Reach and into the Turners Falls Power Canal for use by Cabot Station and a refurbished Unit # 1, some 1-1/2 miles upstream of Cabot.  This was undoubtedly another blow to the shortnose sturgeon attempting to spawn at their ancient grounds at the Rock Dam, though sturgeon spawning in the Connecticut here was not confirmed until 1993.

In the PAD, it is noted that FERC had not found any compliance issues during its inspections of these two projects.  However, as well as a failure to release minimum flows for sturgeon in 2009, I would direct you the US Environmental Protection Agency’s August 3, 2010 letter and Administrative Order Docket No. 10-016, sent to Mr. James Ginnetti, FirstLight Vice President, noting violations of the federal Clean Water Act.  FirstLight knowingly dumped up to 45,000 cubic square yards of silt into the Connecticut River below its fouled pumped storage plant in an attempt to clear its tunnels and intake.  This illegal enterprise was undertaken by FirstLight after failing to conduct silt removal in a manner consistent with the “due diligence” stated in its operating license.  This dumping took place throughout upstream fish migration season, May 1, 2010, or thereabouts, and continued until the EPA Cease and Desist Order of August 2010.  At that time, FERC then became involved in this egregious license violation, requesting a full report from Mr. John Howard, Plant Manager, in a FERC letter dated August 10, 2010.

In a subsequent fall meeting with agency and non-profit river interests, a FirstLight representative stated that they did not know how to remove silt from their upper reservoir, and that it had never been done successfully.  That admission came after 40 years of operating their plant.  Hence, the public, and FERC are being asked to grant a new license to operators who have not shown they can successfully maintain their facility without profoundly affecting a navigable four-state waterway and a migratory fish highway.  FirstLight has now asked for deadline relief, and is promising to have a study of siltation completed in 2014.  Perhaps all study decisions should be held in abeyance until that time, 2014—which would comply with FERC Licensing Guidelines.

 

Sincerely,

Karl Meyer

Greenfield, MA

IT’S THE DEAD REACH STUPID: the selling of the Connecticut River ecosystem

Posted by on 24 Jul 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, EPA, federal trust fish, FERC license, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, salmon, salmon hatchery, Sanctuary Magazine, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Springfield Republican, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS, Walpole

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer                                   All Rights Reserved.

* The following article first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of the Pioneer Valley News.

                          IT’S THE DEAD REACH, STUPID: the selling of the Connecticut River ecosystem

If you think the Connecticut River is worth saving for your children and their grandchildren, you’d better act fast.  New England’s River is dying in the two-mile stretch directly below the dam in Turners Falls, MA.  Go take a look.  It’s a section subjected, alternately, to channel-starving flows and punishing deluges caused by manipulations at the dam from the Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydropower operations.  Look just to the left, where roiling water churns and hurtles down the Turners Falls Power Canal.  That’s where most of the river’s water goes—into an unnatural conduit that’s the final stop for most of the Connecticut’s migratory fish.  It’s killing this ocean-connected ecosystem, which once stretched north to Walpole, NH and Bellows Falls, VT.

For decades US Fish and Wildlife Service agents, federal scientists at the Conte Fish Lab in Turners Falls, and MA Fisheries & Wildlife officials have ignored this “dead reach” where the river’s only breeding population of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon spawns; and migrating “federal trust” American shad and blueback herring are turned out of their ancient river highway two miles downstream.   That power canal has hydro-turbines slicing through the current at three sites, and warming, silted-in habitats along its middle stretch.  Few fish emerge from that habitat to swim to Vermont and New Hampshire.  An ecosystem dies at Turners Falls.

Yet federal and state fisheries officials don’t monitor the flows, releases and river levels coming down past the Turners Falls dam.  They leave it to the complex’s owners, global giant FirstLight, to police themselves on this critical reach.  They then use what little data the company deigns to give them, often months late—about flow and numbers of migrating fish, in the fisheries science that’s been supposed to restore New England’s migratory fish here these past last 40 years.  Boy is that smart.

Last year, FirstLight surreptitiously dumped 65,000 tons of silt into the Connecticut here after it got clogged in its massive turbines–also fouling the entire, mile-long intake tunnel to its sprawling 5-billion gallon Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir.  They were mucking the sludge out of the reservoir for the first time in 20 years; that’s supposed to happen every five.  On May 3rd FirstLight manager John Howard grossly under-represented the extent of the pollution to the US EPA when he notified them that “silt was entering the river.”   From May 1 – August 4th, FirstLight pushed at least 45,000 cubic square yards of muck into the Connecticut at Northfield.  Daily, between 40 – 50 dump truck loads flowed in.

On June 23, 2010, boater Bruce Miriam called the EPA’s hotline reporting piles of silt in the river.  Yet EPA didn’t make its initial inspection until 3 weeks later, and it wasn’t August 4th that EPA finally ordered them to cease and desist “polluting the navigable waters of the United States.”  Fisheries agencies didn’t pursue the critical matter of that oxygen-and-light-robbing silt.  It was visible from Northfield to the mouth of the Deerfield River.  Silt is known to affect the spawning, eggs and young of endangered sturgeon and federal-trust shad—struggling here in the upper-most stretch that ocean-going migrants can reach in any meaningful numbers.

FirstLight was belatedly ordered to dredge up the mess they’d largely kept from the public by hiding it underwater–keeping the river’s levels at maximum height behind their TF dam gates for months.  Ultimately they sucked out just a third of it, 15,000 cubic square yards.  They were also ordered to come up with a future plan on how they would deal with the sludge clogging their reservoir.  Last November, when EPA Council Michael Wagner was asked who will monitor FirstLight’s actions in the future he replied, “Most compliance happens from the company.  We just expect the company will comply.”   In another river-pollution non-sequitur, FirstLight quietly agreed to spend a few thousand dollars to fund a study of dragonfly larvae, far downstream from their pollution.  That backroom deal was cut with MA Dept. of Environmental Protection, and agreed to by EPA.  It was the public’s recompense.

Though the Connecticut belongs to the United States, Massachusetts, and all New Englanders, it appears its ownership and control has been ceded to FirstLight—who could sell their hydro complex here tomorrow.   The EPA, US F&WS, the US Geological Service’s Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC), MA DEP and MA Div. of Fisheries & Wildlife–agencies charged with protecting this river system for all time, have offered up our river ecosystem to the short-term, profit desires of FirstLight’s shareholders.

What’s more, they are about to concede this river’s ecosystem disaster to the power company for all time–decades after they should have conducted the independent science and required that changes be instituted here that would have taken the river off life-support.  That should have been in 1998–the halfway point in the current federal operating license.  If they succeed, it will ensure the ecosystem remains comatose for generations.

In behind-the-scenes negotiations that should be subject to open-meeting laws and public input, federal and state fisheries officials are talking with FirstLight owners about permanently accepting the diversion of the bulk of the river’s flow and fish out of the riverbed–sending the mass of migratory fish into the trap they co-created with Northeast Utilities back in 1978: the treacherous currents and warming muck that’s the Turners Falls Power Canal.

An ample flow of natural seasonal current left in the river–leading fish directly upstream to a fish elevator at the dam would instantly revive the Connecticut’s dead reach.  That’s what they’ve done downstream at Holyoke since 1955.  It’s the East Coast’s most successful fish passage.  Between 40 – 60% of the fish would quickly be able to pass Turners Falls, according to statements from US Conte Lab fish scientist Alex Haro at a 2010 fish passage symposium held at the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Region V Headquarters in early 2011.  That passage would send meaningful numbers of American shad upstream toward VT and NH for the first time since John Adams was president.  No honest fish scientist disputes this.

But instead, federal fish scientists including Haro’s colleague at Conte, Ted Castro-Santos, are prioritizing building a fish lift at the foot of the Turners Falls Power Canal—continuing to sentence embattled fish into a migratory limbo few emerge from.   Both Haro and Castro-Santos are salaried federal employees, but up to half the money they’ve accepted for doing fish passage studies that center on keeping fish in the power canal comes from FirstLight.  If federal and state fisheries officials sell-out the dead reach once more, it will be the fourth time in as many decades that watchdog agencies have failed our river here.

That power canal fish diversion was put in place by forerunners of these agents in 1978.  It’s the Roach Motel of fish passage: millions of shad have checked in, but hardly a fish checks out the other side.  A 1988 study conducted by John O’Leary of the Massachusetts Cooperative Fisheries Unit and supervised by Dr. Boyd Kynard, spelled out the failure of using that canal for fish passage.  Successful passage that year came in at a whopping 5.4% at the Turners Falls Gatehouse–after years of tinkering with the hopeless system.  The study’s summary sized-up the situation succinctly, “Remarks:  “Upriver Passage: None.”

But FirstLight makes electricity along this 5-mile reach in a deregulated market, and works to maximize profits for shareholders.  Conversely, it sends pulses of water downstream from its giant Northfield generators through this industrial reach into critical spawning and migratory habitats while taking advantage of price spikes the energy “spot market.”   Ironically, the Northfield plant actually requires more energy to run than it produces.  But when prices and demand climbs, they quickly spill punishing flows downstream at the dam; while at other times their hydro gates close and the river is left treacherously de-watered.  Migrating shad and (formerly) blueback herring swim to this reach in numbers of at least 100,000 fish annually.  But just a few get beyond Turners Falls dam, in place here since 1798.  Whole seasons of just-spawned shortnose sturgeon eggs and young have been washed out of the riverbed by surges in this broken stretch—where most migrating shad are conveniently shunted out of the river into miserable canal habitat.  US F&WS and MA Fisheries & Wildlife leaders sit on their hands.

Caleb Slater, from MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Technical Committee Chair and fish passage subcommittee leader at the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) is one of those talking to FirstLight.  With Massachusetts personnel negotiating on behalf of our interests, “open meetings laws” should apply.  But there’s no public input or access.  There’s been an unfilled MA “public sector” seat at the CRASC table since 2008.  It’s a rubber stamp position anyway, really concerned with keeping money flowing for CRASC’s massively-failed, half-billion-dollar salmon restoration and hatchery program.  After 40 years, a few dozen hybrid salmon return.  The other federal officials charged with representing our interests include John Warner of the US F&WS Field Office, Julie Crocker of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and NOAA attorney Kevin Collins.  All are charged with protecting the ecosystem for our grandkids, not the power company of the day.

FirstLight only leases the use of some of our river’s water—subject to conditions in the current federal operating (FERC) license, in place until 2018.  That license requires them to protect and improve passage for the migratory federal trust fish impacted by their facilities and operations.  By law they must maintain conditions and construct new fish passage that protects the public’s migrating and spawning fish—or they can be ordered to cease generating.

But the company has a powerful incentive to keep as many fish as possible out of the river–as it would be inconvenient to shareholders not to maximize profits by having to tailor flow regimes in the river at certain seasons to the needs of the ecosystem’s fish.  If this backroom deal gets made it offers FirstLight–or the power company-of-the-moment, carte blanch to continue profiting from free-wheeling, unmonitored operations on the dead reach–where FirstLight and its predecessors have been notably out of compliance with respect to pollution, flows, fish passage and federal trust species.  Those activities go unchallenged.

Federal fisheries leaders and scientists at the nearby $12 million dollar Conte Anadramous Fish Lab, located on that canal, also have a powerful motive for wanting the fish to continue to be shunted into that debased canal habitat. It’s where their lab is and where they do their fish science, though the bulk of it involves studying baby, hatchery-produced, hybrid salmon.  The results after 20 years of lab operations are abysmal: 100 returning adult salmon this year—in a program that has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions.  The public won’t be willing to fund this white elephant forever.

Which sort-of leaves the federal Conte Lab scrambling for a reason to exist.  They’ve now even begun studying freshwater fish that are non-migratory–to fill the rather large hole in their failed collective purpose here.  Just like FirstLight, it would be best to keep those formerly-ignored shad coming up into that canal and past their lab.  They can then look like they are doing something.  So, with renewed energy, they are once again conducting studies remarkably similar to ones done in past decades–to answer a question that seems more like a children’s riddle at this point: Why can’t fish taken out of their true riverbed habitats find their way through the labyrinth and roiling waters of a warming power canal—and then jump up into flows from a higher pond at the dam to swim to Vermont and New Hampshire?   Like the power company, there’s a money motive here to.  It’s a co-dependency that’s developed over decades.

At a 2010 meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Vermont CRASC Tech Committee Member Jay McMenemy expressed surprise that four hybrid Atlantic salmon—the season’s entire free-swimming crop at Turners Falls, had reached the site by swimming directly up the dead reach of river, by-passing the power canal.  With Northfield shut down, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone.  I’d first noted the looming disaster at Turners Falls in print a dozen years prior, and in 2007 had written a front-page story about the impacts of the Northfield plant’s operations on dying shad passage in the Springfield Republican.  I’d put shad and Northfield impacts on the cover of Massachusetts Audubon’s Sanctuary Magazine again in 2009.

With FirstLight keeping river levels behind the dam as high as possible to cover their silt piles upstream, they tried to divert the rest of the river’s water into the canal—their preferred route for struggling fish.  But a canal is a finite conduit: it can only carry just so much water.  It started raining really hard here in late-May; and flows from heavy late-spring rains kept coming downstream through June.  That forced FirstLight to spill water over their dam–releasing substantial and steady flows to the river’s natural bed: the dead reach.  Apparently even million-dollar, hatchery-hybrid salmon can tell a true river current from a by-pass trick.  They followed their noses straight upstream to use the rarely-accessed fish ladder at the dam to pass Turners Falls.

So did the American shad.

When I enquired of FirstLight’s Bob Stira about the already 600-800% increase in shad passing Turners Falls at a June 22, 2010 CRASC meeting—trying to find out how many had been recorded swimming directly upstream to the dam and ladder at the top of that dead reach, he was hesitant, downplaying his answer, “Oh, maybe three or four thousand.”  In fact, allowing that 4,000 American shad had likely passed upstream by this route alone was hugely significant: yearly averages had dropped to a paltry 2,000 – 3,000 fish making it through the fish passage system at Turners Falls in the past decade.

Yet in 2010, with Northfield down–and FirstLight’s releasing public fish tallies lagging weeks behind the daily figures available from Holyoke, 10,000 shad had already made it past Turners Falls dam.  When I pointedly noted the relationship between the Northfield outage and record shad passage at Turners Falls, commissioners at the CRASC table had little in the way of response.  Ultimately it was months before FirstLight released their final fish tallies for shad passage, which included numbers swimming up the dead reach, and ascending the ladder directly at the dam.  In 2010, some 16,768 fish passed Turners Falls—the most fish recorded since 1995.

But even that number is highly suspect and likely low.  FirstLight’s fish counting equipment failed on 35 different occasions—with 17 of those failures occurring at the dam’s spillway ladder.    Those cameras record the fish that swim up the riverbed when they have ample flow through their natural migration corridor—that mostly-dead reach of river ecosystem.  FirstLight’s figures are the data Conte Lab and federal and state fisheries biologists use in their science.  As I first noted about these instititutions to the Greenfield Recorder’s Gary Sanderson last June, “Do you think they’re hiding something?”

FirstLight and Conte researcher Ted Castro-Santos appeared anxious last year to attribute the huge increase in shad passage at Turners Falls to experiments they’d done changing the exit opening for shad in their preferred upstream fish passage route—the canal.  But that new hole had first been cut three years prior, with the subsequent results admittedly “poor.”

To me it seemed obvious they were trying to steal the credit and credibility that belongs to nature: water in the actual riverbed, and a large population of American shad that has wanted to follow the river upstream to Vermont and New Hampshire for centuries now.

Managers and engineers at the Northfield-Turners Falls complex have been operating dam gates and manipulating flows along this five-mile stretch for decades.  They operate their gates day and night.  Federal and state fisheries managers and scientists don’t monitor the impacts.  Operating with few constraints, it’s certainly possible to create conditions that move struggling fish in any direction you want them to go.  For the fish, that’s usually a trip through the power canal.  Rarely–when flows vary, it can be something else…

Way back in the early 1980s hundreds of shad found enough current in the riverbed to follow it straight upstream to the dam.  But operators wanted more water elsewhere—to fill their mountaintop reservoir upstream, and the power canal flowing just east of the river.  They closed the dam’s gates and shut off flow.  Without flow and water left in the river to find a path downstream, hundreds of shad perished in the warming, oxygen-starved pools they got trapped in.  Needless to say, that visible configuration was never seen again.

Today, both FirstLight and federal Conte Fish Lab scientist find themselves in a bit of a bind over the choked ecosystem and fish passage.  It’s important to each to show that the best thing for those migratory fish is to be shoved out of the riverbed and into the power canal.  They want to build a fish lift there first–at the foot of the canal, to keep that system in place.  And it’s today’s paltry flows coming downstream through the dead reach that allow this to happen.  That status quo solution would keep everybody comfortably remunerated.

But with the anomaly of record numbers of shad passing Turners Falls while Northfield Mountain was down last year, you can’t just return to business as usual.  With those parching or punishing flows through the dead reach now a matter of public record–through recent news articles and OpEds, what you can do is try and optimize conditions that get a few more fish through that dismal system.  This season there has been a dismally small, but consistent, current spilling downstream at Turners Falls dam, noted by the public.  It seems mainly for show.

But downstream at Holyoke there has been a full 33% increase in American shad passage this year.  Sadly for Mr. Castro-Santos and the canal-route proponents–the corresponding increase that should have followed at Turners Falls if their new exit strategy was indeed the savior of those migratory runs, has not occured.  The numbers at Turners Falls were flat this year—actually down by a few hundred from last year.  They are below the shad numbers passing Turners Falls dam a quarter century back, when John O’Leary’s study characterized similar failing fish passage the “Remarks” section of his 1988 study as: “Upriver Passage: None.”

Sending fish into a power canal won’t fix the Connecticut River’s broken ecosystem—the ocean connection and its shad and herring runs that once swam north to Vermont and New Hampshire.  Only real flows in the dead reach and a single fish lift directly upstream at the dam will make that possible.  That needs to happen today–should’ve happened a decade back.  It remains a debt under requirements in the current license.

But that would require integrity, determination, leadership—even a bit of courage, something citizens have come to no longer expect from the people charged with protecting their river.  And some of the folks making deals on the river today may be the same people in charge when a new federal license—also ostensibly designed to improve the river ecosystem, comes up for retooling in 2018.  It’s the recipe for a failed ecosystem for your great-grandchildren.

I recently spoke with the US F&WS’s Ken Sprankle, the Connecticut River Coordinator and fish researcher who works from a Sunderland office.  Ken seems to have some integrity.  He’s trying to do some of the catch-up science that was left a decade in arrears at the federal Conte Lab.  Last year he spent months cobbling together grant monies that enabled him to pay for a study that electronically tagged 100 American shad this year, to follow document their upstream migration patterns.  He says he’s getting lots of data.

But, when I questioned Ken about whether he is getting the critical independent data about flows, levels, and releases into the dead reach at Turners Falls dam—the ancient route for fish up the river, he said he is not.  He’s asked FirstLight’s Bob Stira for that information.  It’s been promised, but he doesn’t know when he’ll get it.

This is virtually the only real independent data and science that matters.  It’s the stuff that measures the damage to endangered shortnose sturgeon spawning populations and migrating federal trust fish that have always required a Connecticut River with water in it.  I was disheartened to hear this.  As other fisheries people tell me, however dedicated Ken might be, his work will only get as far as his US F&WS Region V supervisors allow him to go.

So, it appears the task of saving the Connecticut River ecosystem has been left up to New England citizens.  You and me.  Environmental groups have remained largely mute for decades.  Most accept power company funding, and many have boards of directors littered with former power company managers.  Though it would take just one with the courage to stand apart to perhaps change the course of this river’s history, I wouldn’t bet on it.

But you can act.  Contact your Congressmen and state representatives.  Ask them about open meeting laws and to hold hearings on protecting the federal trust and the river’s ecosystem at Turners Falls.  Ask them about the wisdom of spending $10 million a year on a failed salmon program that produces a few dozen fish—while endangered sturgeon go unprotected and federal trust shad runs remain dead to Vermont and New Hampshire, stuck behind Turners Falls dam since 1798. Write a letter to the paper. And, where’s the independent environmental watchdog that’s publicly going to go to bat for the river’s dead reach?  That might begin with you.

As research, take a ride to the Turners Falls dam and look south into the dead reach, then to the left at that churning canal.  Then, beginning around September 10, 2011, go south in Turners Falls and cross the canal on the 11th Street Bridge.  Head downstream along the public roads following the canal to where the paved road is called Migratory Way.  That’s where our federal fish lab is.  You may have to walk; they sometimes close the gates to cars.

But, beginning September 12th, that canal is set to be dredged of its muck by FirstLight.  Take a good look–before and after, at the muck-filled expanse.  Then, decide for yourself whether this is a suitable place to send even a few of the future’s precious remaining fish.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA writes on many topics as freelance journalist. He has written for national and regional publications and been featured on public radio’s MarketPlace. Meyer is also an award-winning non-fiction children’s author. He holds an MS in Environmental Science from Antioch New England University and writes often about Connecticut River issues. Read his blog at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com  Contact him about writing and school and environmental presentations at: karl@karlmeyerwriting.com .

 

 

“In encounters where snake identity comes into question, the snakes always lose.”

Posted by on 16 Apr 2010 | Tagged as: Deerfield River, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, Nature, nighthawks, snakes

The following piece appears in the Spring issue of Sanctuary, Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

© 2009, Karl Meyer

The State of the Snake

A black racer saved me once.  Not to over-glamorize it, that snake was dead.  Still, it came between me and the fast-closing mongrel bent on ripping me from my bicycle on a lovely spring day.  It was inches from my calf when it suddenly yelped, screeched to a halt, and circled back timidly–the fur raised on its neck.  I too had noted the large snake looped along the pavement.  But I knew something the canine didn’t–I’d examined the beautiful gray-black scales of that mostly-intact black racer corpse the previous afternoon.

Where snakes are concerned, I’m a lot like that dog.  Our shared mammalian fear of snakes, ophidiophobia, appears to be a hard-wired survival trait harkening back to an age when reptiles were far more prominent. “Fables about snakes far outmatch reality,” herpetologist Tom Tyning will tell you.  None of Massachusetts’ fourteen species provoke much fear in Tyning.  He’s studied snakes for four decades and today is one of the Bay State’s staunchest advocates for preserving populations and critical habitats for increasingly rare species, “Since Europeans arrived in North America our response to snakes can be summed up on one word: persecution.”

Tyning authored the Stokes Nature Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles.  His UMass graduate work included radio-telemetry tracking of timber rattlesnakes.  For the past decade Tyning’s been a professor of environmental science at Berkshire Community College–on the heels of 24 years as a touted trip leader and master naturalist with Mass Audubon.  Our inordinate snake fear is evident in the near extirpation of the state’s two venomous species, copperheads and timber rattlesnakes, but all species suffer persecution and, “In encounters where snake identity comes into question, the snakes always lose.”

Common patterned species like northern water snakes and milk snakes are often misidentified and killed—yet the chances of someone happening across a venomous snake, even in their few remaining habitats, are minuscule.  “There have only been two recorded snake bite deaths in Massachusetts in over 200 years,” Tyning notes.  Curiously, venomous species are not even the rarest snakes in the Commonwealth.

Five native snakes are today protected by penalties of hefty fines and/or imprisonment– it’s illegal to “harass, kill, collect, or possess” them.  “Geographically challenged,” is how Tom Tyning describes the state-threatened worm snake’s predicament.  At just 7-11 inches, these sandy soil burrowers both prey-on, and resemble, earthworms.  The worm snake is a more southern and western species whose biological footprint brushes just north into the metro-Springfield area.

As habitat and size goes, black rat snakes are at the other end of the spectrum.  With a few specimens measuring over six feet, they are the state’s longest snake.  Endangered rat snakes are noteworthy for their climbing ability, even laying eggs in the rotting cores of trees.  Black rat snakes are found in pockets of habitat in central Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley.  But most of us, even if we stare up into the sun-dappled May woods for the rest of our days, will never see one.

“The coolest thing about them is their climbing ability,” researcher Peter Mirick will tell you.  Mirick is widely known for his nearly 30 years as editor of Massachusetts Wildlife, the Commonwealth’s quarterly on natural history, conservation, hunting, and fishing from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.  But few know that his biology studies in grad school focused on reptiles and amphibians.  Today, Mirick’s field work continues–including an ongoing study of a population of endangered rat snakes in Sturbridge begun in 1997.

“In spring they are very arboreal, looking for birds and squirrels,” he says, “They’ll stick to a pine tree like Velcro.”  A kid’s enthusiasm creeps into his voice, “They have a whole different set of muscles.  They’re shaped like a loaf of bread in cross-section.”  Peter Mirick devoted nearly an entire issue of Massachusetts Wildlife to a guide describing the Commonwealth’s snake species in 2009.  Thanks to radio-tracking, he once witnessed the combat “dance” between two male rat snakes, “They intertwined from end to end.  They don’t bite each other, they wrestle. The point seemed to be holding your opponent’s head down.”  Once the loser skulked off, the winner went into a hollow log, “Apparently to mate with the female.”

Peter Mirick says common snakes like garter, ring-necked and northern water snakes seem to be doing fine, but populations of state-listed species, including the Eastern hognose snake–which receives only minimum protection, all face challenges.  He notes that decades of public and private land protection work has made great strides in protecting habitats, but speaks at a time when the MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and the state’s ability to protect rare species have come under attack.

The attacks include both a private lawsuit and a legislative challenge to the state’s powers.  House Bill 4167, the Coakley-Rivera bill, was backed by an unusually large and somewhat unlikely group of Western MA state representatives.  The bill is largely viewed as spearheaded by complaints about development rights raised by Springfield WWLP TV Channel 22 Vice President and General Manager William Pepin.  Pepin objects to restrictions or changes that might be required through Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program considerations as he seeks to build a luxury retirement home–plus a second house on a smaller parcel, on 36 acres of land purchased with his wife in April 2009 in Hampden, MA.  Parts of the tract turned out to be the habitat of the increasingly rare Eastern Box Turtle.  Pepin is currently challenging NHESP powers in court.

Many business and development interests—and legislators in the Channel 22 viewing region, are rooting for the heavy-handed challenge to the state’s species protections in Coakley-Rivera.  But those worried about the viability rare populations see the bill as a knee-jerk, statutory-response to problems that could be addressed via minor procedural changes.  If passed as written, House Bill 4167 would strip the state’s NHESP of significant review powers—including long-held-and-rarely-used failsafe tools that are critical to ensuring the Commonwealth’s biological heritage will be protected for future generations.  Peter Mirick describes today’s species protection work in the face of developer demands as doing ‘wildlife triage’, “There’s only so much habitat to go around—with them wanting everything.”

Last September 30th, Dave Small, the state’s Assistant Regional Director of the Ware River Watershed at Quabbin Reservoir, received a call and then an email about snakes.  He was out the door in a heartbeat, “I told my boss I had to leave,” he chuckles.  The reason for the departure: baby Eastern hognose snakes.  Small zipped over to a sandy Quabbin site where friends hovered over marvelously patterned hognoses, each barely six inches long.  The snakes moved cryptically in grass and sand, just off the pavement’s edge.  They counted four in all, but one was dead–likely crushed by a pedestrian or passing cyclist.

Dave Small, President of the Athol Bird and Nature Club since 1988, is also Acting Executive Director of the Millers River Environmental Center.  They stood vigil until the snakes retreated to sandy burrows with the day’s setting sun, but worried more would be lost if they were using the pavement for warmth.  The next morning, October 1, 2009, Small and a friend were back.  Gingerly walking the pavement edge, they spotted three tiny hognoses; then another two—five in all.  They circled outward and returned: and five snakes had morphed into seven.  What happened next is described in Small’s blog, “Almost immediately movement caught our attention as another snake appeared from below ground, than another and another. Fourteen in all!”

The tiny, adult-look-alikes burrowed straight up through sand, moving “in fits and starts out into the undergrowth shedding their skins along the way.”  Bulky-bodied hognose snakes rely on their fabulous coloration—ranging from mustard to gray, to black and brown, for protection.  These harmless snakes specialize in consuming toads in their sandy habitats.  But if surprised or challenged, they will inflate an almost cobra-like hood and hiss, feigning strikes to fool predators.  If that doesn’t work they may simply loll over, playing dead in a singularly unappetizing display.

As the rarity of watching snakes hatch sank in with Small, he phoned Peter Mirick–partly to share the event, but also to check with the biologist about what was taking place, “I was on the cell phone with Peter making sure what I was observing; I wanted to fully understand it.”  In retrospect, “I just felt so privileged to be there,” Small says.  Like many of us, Small has a healthy snake phobia, “I’m definitely not one that has to pick up every snake,” he laughs. Yet if conditions permit each March 31st, he spends his birthday looking for snakes.

Though the Eastern hognose snake is mentioned beside our rare species in NHESP documents, “It’s a snake that is, at the moment, totally unprotected,” says Tom Tying.

At UMass, researchers are currently satellite-tracking six hognose snakes, he notes, “They tend to be big fat snakes that people notice, and kill.  They are truly uncommon.” Peter Mirick says he wouldn’t be surprised if the hognose was proposed for listing as a species of special concern, “It is probably at that level.”  And Dave Small–fascinated for decades by birds, butterflies, and all manner of herps since he was growing up in Athol, agrees about the hognose, and notes anecdotally, “Overall, there just aren’t as many snakes around as there used to be.”

Anne Stengle will also be out on spring’s earliest days searching for snakes.  The UMass undergrad got interested in them partly through her job at a Southampton exotic pet shop (it no longer offers reptiles), and later as a Holyoke Community College student where she signed on to do research work on the black rat snake under Tom Tyning’s guidance.  It was the first study of the black rat snake in the western Massachusetts.  It got into her blood, “Rat snakes are incredibly gorgeous, especially when you see them coiled up in a tree. They can go back and find the same spot year after year.”

At 24, Stengle’s among the new generation of herp researchers.  She worked on surveying native snakes in the Holyoke Range in 2007, incorporating radio-tagging.  That field work is done, but she continues working up data.  Meanwhile, she has moved on to tagging and studying endangered timber rattlers in the Berkshires—snakes Peter Mirick calls, “Our number one wilderness animal.”

Asked about any snake phobias, Stengle replies, “Nope—never,” She notes that most people think of snakes as egg-layers, yet half the state’s species have live births.  Stengle loves getting out to the places where those rare study species reside.  Though she favors rattlesnakes, one of her most memorable sightings was a litter of newly-born copperheads, “There were seven of them they were a muted gray–they hadn’t shed yet.  We just sat and watched.”  What amazes Stengle in her rattlesnake studies is also part of what makes this species vulnerable, “Female timbers go almost two years without eating in order to give birth—they don’t eat their entire gravid year.”

Tom Tyning’s work on snakes is providing new information on timber rattlers, copperheads and rat snakes–some of it through genetics.  In some rugged habitats where populations still exist he’s finding distributions and combinations of co-habiting snakes that begin to look like a little the Galapagos Archipelago, “We don’t know why they all coexist in some places together, but we get these oddball distribution maps that don’t quite fit what we would have guessed.”  Without further habitat protection its unknown how increasingly small, genetically-isolated populations can do, “Work in Sweden has shown that these populations can go fine for a while, and then crash,” he says, “Last year’s cool, wet summer here resulted in lots of reports of dead females or partially developed young.”

Tyning will continue mapping genes on species that can live 20 – 30 years, but only breed every two years.  Swedish biologists are making progress introducing new gene-mixing techniques in their rare populations.  But Tyning also notes a troubling development in some rare species here: anecdotal reports of disease similar to the “white nose syndrome” that has decimated the Northeast’s hibernating bat populations.  “Some claim they are seeing a health issue with some species—a fungus or bacterium.”  The worry again is that human visits and disturbance in these isolated habitats and hibernacula are possible vectors in distributing a catastrophic pathogen.  Global warming could also prove part of the scenario, “If these diseases are a real factor,” says Tyning, “We need to try and get a handle on this and inoculate or isolate populations.”

One bedrock necessity is simple enough: habitat for snakes to go about life cycles unmolested by ever-widening human consumptive patterns.  Smaller, less mobile populations like worm snakes may require just a few protected acres to remain viable.  But, for sunning, hunting, breeding, and hibernating, the sometimes-intermixed populations of copperheads, timber rattlers and rat snakes may require relatively-untrammeled tracts of hundreds—or even 1,000 acre, to continue into the future.  That means an absence of ridgetop houses, ATVs, mountain bikes and poorly chosen windmill sites with attendant road networks.  It may mean leaving the dog at home.

Tom Tyning notes with relief that one notorious rattlesnake poacher, Rudy Komarek–who reportedly removed thousands of timber rattlers from New England sites for his carnival barker lifestyle, passed away in Florida just a few years back.  But what ultimately is most needed is perhaps a simple acknowledgement that snakes have a right to exist as life forms, co-evolved with humans across millions of years on earth.  “We fail to ask the right questions,” Tyning insists, “They have their own intrinsic value. These are creatures that live without arms and legs; they hunt animals, and navigate in complete darkness.  They are nothing short of miraculous.  We are lucky to be alive with them at this time.”

Karl Meyer’s story about an encounter with Common Nighthawks along the Deerfield River will appear in the May/June 2010 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.