Plenty of Species in R.I. have Conservation Needs

By ecoRI News staff

Over the course of the past year, natural resource and wildlife specialists have been working to determine the species of greatest conservation need (SGCN) in Rhode Island. This list identifies species that are in decline or vulnerable with the hope of providing conservation before they become endangered.

The intent is to keep common species common and reverse and recover the declining populations, according to the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

With this SGCN list of fish and wildlife, as well as information concerning habitat and conservation threats, Rhode Island’s Wildlife Action Plan (WAP) for 2015 is well on its way to being updated. A total of 456 species are on the SGCN list and represent each of the major taxonomic classifications — mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates.

Of the 22 mammal species on the SGCN list, almost half are bats. White-nose syndrome, an emerging disease that is usually fatal to its host, has devastated New England’s bat populations. Recognizing these nine vulnerable bat species and this serious threat will help in the planning and protection of these animals in order to prevent further declines in their populations.

Five species are marine mammals, including three large whales that use Rhode Island coast. Several vulnerable small mammals rely on wetlands and emphasize the importance of working toward improved water quality on the land around ponds, rivers and streams that eventually feed into the Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Almost one-third of the 416 species of birds in Rhode Island are considered SGCN and in need of conservation attention. This figure is fairly consistent with nationwide estimates, as almost half of shorebirds and 64 percent of shrubland birds, such as the yellow-breasted chat, are exhibiting population declines.

Long-term declines have resulted in state, regional and national programs to measure and track bird populations. New data from these monitoring programs, coupled with advances in mapping, offer promise for improvements in management and conservation.

Reptiles and amphibians
Rhode Island hosts a total of 45 species of reptiles and amphibians. Their sensitive habitat needs often include healthy aquatic environments, so it’s no surprise that more than half of the state’s reptiles and amphibians (23 species) are listed on the SGCN. Four of the reptiles are federally protected sea turtles.

Maintaining healthy waters is of prime importance in Rhode Island, with more than 400 miles of coastline, 50 lakes and ponds, and 60 rivers. The 45 fish species listed as SGCN help Rhode Island focus on maintaining and improving these waters for future generations. Many of the fish listed are anadromous, meaning that they are born in fresh water, live most of their life in the sea, and return to fresh water to spawn.

The American eel is catadromous and does the opposite during its life span, which can exceed 50 years. As these fish are dependent upon multiple habitat types for their longevity and face perils and barriers such as dams and pollution, the WAP will recommend actions for improving their habitat.

Invertebrates represent over half of the wildlife considered SGCN in Rhode Island, with 240 species listed. Ranging from tiny terrestrial insects to a wide variety of aquatic mussels, invertebrates provide the base of Rhode Island’s natural food chains, and so are especially important as indicators of overall ecosystem health.

From dragonflies and butterflies to the seldom seen burying and tiger beetles, these insects perform valuable functions, such as crop pollination, water filtering, and the recycling of nutrients to forests and grasslands.