Project seeks to track endangered species; more added to threatened list

The Pennsylvania Game Commission will lead a team to further expand the Motus Wildlife Tracking System in five states for monitoring eight migratory species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is providing $497,929 to help underwrite the wildlife surveillance tracking, which tracks migrating animals with nanotags — radio transmitters so small, they can be fitted to monarch butterflies.

Collaborating member organizations and others are providing more than $225,000 to meet federal matching funding requirements.

The Pennsylvania species being targeted by this fieldwork are Swainson’s thrush, wood thrush, blackpoll warblers, Canada warblers, rusty blackbirds, American woodcock and northern long-eared bats. Other priority species, such as New England’s Bicknell’s thrush, also are targeted by this research.

“This project embodies contemporary wildlife conservation: state and federal government agencies working with private conservation organizations and universities to help species that demand more attention than traditional wildlife management can provide,” state Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans said. “The agency is indebted to partner organizations, such as the Willistown Conservation Trust and the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, for their commitment to wildlife.”

Nanotags, weighing as little as one-eighth the weight of a penny, accomplish what much heavier telemetry gear couldn’t do as recently as 10 years ago, according to officials.

The state already is equipped with receiving stations in some parts of the state that can pick up the nanotag signals. The funding will help establish more of the stations in Pennsylvania and the four other states included in the project — New York, Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware.

“Riding on the back of a migrating bird is the best way to collect migration information,” said Dan Brauning, who supervises the Game Commission’s Wildlife Diversity Division. “And now nanotag transmitters can do that. It’s like a new chapter in migratory bird behavior opening before us, and we all are eager to see what those transmitters continue to detect.”

He said the work has the potential to increase knowledge of one of North America’s most important inland migratory corridors.

“Our general sense is that the migratory process is a dangerous one,” he said. “We have a pretty good sense of where they go for winter. But it’s that step in between. They are literally flying through the air at night. They face a changing environment.”

There exist, he noted, so many questions about the movement of wildlife.

Brauning said the project doesn’t focus on the most threatened species, but those in decline.

On Friday, the board of Game Commissioners took preliminary action to update the state’s list of threatened and endangered species, which includes downgrading three protected cave bat species and reclassifying them as state endangered species.

The three bat species, all of which have been decimated by white-nose syndrome since it appeared in Pennsylvania in 2008, are the northern long-eared bat, tri-colored bat and little brown bat.

The board also took a preliminary vote to upgrade the peregrine falcon’s status from endangered to threatened; upgrade the piping plover from extirpated to endangered, and list the red knot as a threatened species.

The northern long-eared bat was listed as a federal threatened species in April 2015. In addition, tri-colored bats and little brown bats are being considered for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

A state listing allows for the Game Commission to work with industry that might have projects affected by the presence of endangered or threatened species.

The status changes will be brought back to the January meeting for a final vote.

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