- Associated Press - Sunday, April 10, 2016

WOODLAND TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) - Emile DeVito waved a receiver back and forth over the same patch of Pinelands scrub: Beep, beep, beep.

The manager of science and stewardship at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation was tracking a pine snake, a 5-foot-long creature with camouflage that made it invisible among the pine needles and dappled leaves.

DeVito is an expert on endangered species in the 1.1-million-acre Pinelands National Reserve. He studies the rarest plants and animals, from the delicate Pickering’s morning glory to the iconic Pine Barrens tree frog. But increasingly, the emphasis in conservation is to address species in decline before they reach the brink, The Press of Atlantic City reported (https://bit.ly/1N2oOms ). That’s why DeVito was keen on finding the pine snake.

“There she is,” he said.

Finally, the snake’s cryptic black and white markings took shape amid the leaves and branches. Pine snakes are known for their docile dispositions, relying on camouflage instead of aggression like other New Jersey snakes.

Dane C. Ward, assistant director of the Laboratory of Pinelands Research at Drexel University, surgically implanted a transmitter in a captured snake so DeVito and other researchers could identify important habitat, such as winter dens and nesting sites.

“You would never know this snake has $300 in electronics in it,” Wade said after he was finished and the 6-foot-long male snake was ready for release.

More than two-dozen species of wildlife in New Jersey are considered endangered - or at risk of going extinct. Dozens of plants and insects, too, are considered on the brink. For many of these animals, the state protects habitat, funds research and punishes those who would do them harm.

But conservation is working to address the increasing number of species that are still relatively common but showing signs of sharp declines.

“The rarer a species gets, the harder it is to find a negotiable balance,” said David La Puma, director of New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory. “Our goal is to fix the problem before it gets critical. That’s when it’s easiest to fix and you have the least chance of having a conflict.”

Federal wildlife officials granted new protections to the red knot, a shorebird that spends a few weeks each spring on the Delaware Bay where it fattens up on horseshoe crab eggs for its epic migration to the arctic. These protections have already paid for federal beach projects to ensure the crabs have room to lay eggs for the birds.

But La Puma said many other shorebirds also are in sharp decline. Biologists need to be just as concerned about them before ruddy turnstones and semi-palmated sandpipers join the red knot on the brink, he said. Such intervention has saved species such as peregrine falcons, ospreys and bald eagles in New Jersey.

La Puma said New Jersey Audubon’s mission is to connect people to nature and show why they should care. And ecotourism is a half-billion-dollar industry in Cape May County.

“If you ask, ‘Are the birds paying the bills?’ they absolutely are. We know by the numbers of eco-tourists who come to South Jersey,” he said. “It has intrinsic value. The more you take out of it, the more fragile it becomes.”

Some Pinelands plants are disappearing because of the state’s fire-suppression policies. The plants rely on the open ground created after a big wildfire. But most wildfires are quickly doused to protect the state’s 8 million residents.

Ryan Rebozo, director of conservation science at the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said the edges of roads in the Pinelands could take the place of these open areas. But too often road departments are mowing these areas at inopportune times when the plants are flowering.

“We estimate that 11,000 acres of road edges could be suitable habitat for some of our rare plants,” he said.

This includes the Pine Barrens gentian, which needs direct sunlight and flowers later in the fall when mowing is common.

Rebozo is working with towns to limit mowing both during the flowering seasons and leave an 8-foot safety buffer for traffic. More often, towns cut the grass right to the forest edge, he said.

While New Jersey protects the habitat of many of its endangered animals, it typically does not offer the same protections to its rarest plants, Rebozo said.

DeVito said education alone isn’t going to save Pinelands species, especially when more people are enjoying off-road activities in the state’s forests.

None of the plants at risk of disappearing are likely to provide any tangible human benefit such a cure for disease. Even paving over protected lands would have negligible human consequences, he said.

“People have been devastating landscapes for centuries,” DeVito said. “The American prairie is virtually gone. That doesn’t mean you can’t live in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“It’s putting an unreasonable burden on the conservation community to make the individual care about something so low on the totem pole,” he said.

Still, many people do care and are doing what they can to make a difference.

Rosanne Bornholdt, 75, and her husband, John, support Pinelands research. The retired couple from Burlington County bought some of the snake transmitters.

“It’s my favorite snake,” Bornholdt said, eager to hold one of the gentle animals. “They’re beautiful and worth preserving because they’re beautiful,” she said.


Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), https://www.pressofatlanticcity.com

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