Thursday, January 19, 2006

Kudos for Governor Blagojevich's Proposed Rule on Mercury Emissions

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In a commentary last year, I pointed out that the State of Illinois addressed the problem of mercury contamination in fish by advising women of childbearing age and children under fifteen not eat much of it.

I also suggested that telling people not to eat the fish they catch is an unreasonably limited solution to the problem of mercury contamination. That’s because we know that forty-some percent of mercury emissions come from coal burning power plants, and that technology exists to reduce those emissions by ninety percent at a reasonable cost.

Well, check this out. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has proposed a rule to make it happen.

The Governor’s rule would require operators of coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions by an average of ninety percent across their entire fleet by 2009, allowing another three years before each individual plant has to meet the new standard.

It’s especially significant that the rule Governor Blagojevich has proposed does not permit power plants to buy allowances or trade mercury emissions credits with other companies or states. While such practices can be reasonable with respect to other pollutants, they are not when it comes to mercury, since they can lead to the creation of toxic “hot-spots.”

Why is it important to reduce mercury in the environment? Mercury ingested by eating contaminated fish inhibits brain development in fetuses and young children, and its impacts appear to be irreversible. Early exposure to unsafe levels of mercury can create problems in balance and coordination, as well as deficits in memory, learning ability, and attention span. In proposing the stricter standard, Governor Blagojevich cites studies indicating that as many as ten percent of babies born each year are exposed to unsafe levels of mercury as fetuses.

While stricter regulations on mercury emissions from power plants in Illinois are to be applauded, it should be remembered that they represent only a second-best option for addressing the problem. We’re talking about an airborne pollutant that can travel far from its source without any regard for state lines, one that really should be regulated nationally. State regulations only became necessary when last year the US EPA failed to require ninety percent cuts in mercury emissions by 2008—despite the fact that its own staff had found such reductions were possible within just a few years, using existing technologies.

The well-crafted rule that Governor Blagojevich has proposed for Illinois is strongly supported by statewide environmental groups, including Prairie Rivers Network, which is based in Champaign. According to Prairie Rivers executive director, Jean Flemma, the new rule “is a huge victory for public health in Illinois, and the Governor should be commended for taking the lead in protecting our citizens, our communities, and our environment.”

The Governor’s proposed rule still needs approval from the Illinois Pollution Control Board and the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

If it is approved, Illinois—which currently ranks fifth among all states for mercury emitted from power plants—will go from being a leading mercury polluter to leading the nation in reducing that pollution.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes at Allerton Park

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When you think about the treasures of the U of I’s Robert Allerton Park near Monticello, you probably don’t think of endangered rattlesnakes. But scientists have recently confirmed that the eastern massasauga, a small, shy rattlesnake native to our region still inhabits parts of Allerton Park south of the Sangamon river.

Now, if the word “rattlesnake” brings to mind the monstrous creatures of old westerns, which lay in wait for unsuspecting cowboys, you’ll be gratified to know that the massasauga is a much smaller and more timid creature.

With adults averaging less than two feet long, the massasauga is one of the smallest rattlesnakes in North America. It is often confused with other common, non-venomous snakes but its tail is tipped with a rattle, which it will rattle as a warning when cornered. Other snakes mimic this action by shaking their tails but they do not have rattles.

Massasaugas use a variety of habitats, from old fields and savannas to floodplain forest, marshland and bogs. They are active from April through October, feeding on small rodents and sunning themselves during the day. In winter massasaugas hibernate, either in burrows created by other animals, especially crayfish, or under rock piles.

At the time of European settlement massasaugas were apparently abundant in the northern two-thirds of Illinois, with a range that extended from New York in the east to Ontario in the north and west into Iowa.

Habitat alteration, drainage of wetlands and intentional killing of snakes resulted in a swift decline for massasaugas in Illinois during the 1800s. Writing in 1893, one observer noted, “On the prairies of Illinois, before the country became thickly populated, these reptiles were extremely abundant, and the killing of two or three dozen in a season was not an unusual thing for a farmer’s boy. Now, in that same region, not one is seen in years.”

In 1994, massasaugas were listed as a state endangered species in Illinois, and are currently believed to hang on in only three or four small populations, including the one at Allerton Park.

There have been records of massasaugas at Allerton since the 1930s. Legend has it that rattlesnakes found north of the river, in the vicinity of the house and formal gardens, were moved to the restored prairie on the south side.

Recent searches for massasaugas organized by Eric Smith, a regional Heritage Biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, came up empty until Mosheh Wolf found a baby massasauga in 2000. In 2002, researchers from the U of I and the Department of Natural Resources captured an adult male, nicknamed Al, who was large enough to be implanted with a radio transmitter. In the ensuing years, Al has led researchers to two female snakes, which together have given birth to more than twenty young over this period. Tracking Al has also made it possible for Allerton managers to time their prairie burns so as not to put him and other massasaugas at risk.

Speaking of risk, I would emphasize that although Al is venomous, the risk he poses for people who enjoy Allerton’s natural areas is miniscule. Massasaugas prefer to avoid people, and have proven to be very good at doing so.

A special thanks to Chris Phillips, of the Center for Biodiversity at the Illinois Natural History Survey, and Fran Harty of the Nature Conservancy, for their help with today’s story.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Audubon Christmas Bird Count in East Central Illinois

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It was just after 6:00 a.m. on December 17th as I walked into the U of I forestry plantation off of South Race Street in Urbana, and sunrise was still an hour away. But the soft hooting of a great horned owl gave me my first bird for the 2005 Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

The two more expert birders I was on my way to meet had already heard my owl, and when I found them they were busy calling and listening for others. Within a short time we had added both a screech owl and a barred owl to our list, which also came to include a long eared owl that flew in to roost a little later that morning. It was an excellent start to a great day of birding.

The Christmas Bird Count dates back to 1900, when it was conceived of as an alternative to the tradition of the holiday “side hunt,” in which teams competed to see who could shoot the greatest quantity of birds in a day. Twenty-seven people participated in that first count, and they tallied ninety species of birds.

In contrast, recent years have seen upwards of fifty thousand people participating, species counts of more than six hundred, and total numbers of birds around seventy-five million.

In conducting the count, volunteers follow specific routes through a designated fifteen-mile diameter circle, making note of every bird they see or hear for as much of the day as possible. The idea is to record not only how many species are observed, but also roughly how many individuals of each species are present on the count route that day.

Given the variability in the way individual counts are conducted, the information gathered from the Christmas Bird Count is most useful for assessing general trends in populations of wintering birds over time, and short term fluctuations in data are expected.

Altogether thirty-nine people participated in the Champaign County count that I was on, some in the field, and others recording the birds they saw at their backyard feeders. Among us we counted more than eleven thousand birds, with at least one individual from sixty-eight different species.

For me, highlights of the day included seeing a northern goshawk chase pheasants in the restored prairie at Meadowbrook Park, and catching sight of a peregrine falcon as it rode the afternoon wind. But the count is also about keeping tabs on the smaller birds that come down from northern states and Canada to enjoy the central Illinois winter with us: dark-eyed juncos, American trees sparrows, purple finches, and the like.

There are a number of other Christmas Bird Count circles in our area in addition to the one in Champaign County. Count circles in Vermilion County take in Lake Vermilion and the natural areas along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Another circle takes in Clinton Lake in De Witt County. These counts tend to yield larger numbers of species because of the waterfowl habitat and the natural areas they encompass.

I should emphasize that new volunteers for the Christmas Bird Count are always welcome, and that they need not be expert birders. If the idea of participating in a Christmas Bird Count next year appeals to you, you can make contact with local coordinators through the Champaign County Audubon Society, or the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count web pages.

Until then, you’ve got eleven good months to brush up on your bird identification skills.