Research Projects - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation

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Research Projects

General Fish and Wildlife Projects

Mercury Contamination in New York

photo of a common loon
Common Loon
Photo by USFWS

Mercury is a serious environmental contaminant. We know it has harmful effects on some of New York's wildlife. The State Department of Health has determined that mercury can pose a danger to humans if wild fish are eaten too often. This project hopes to fill critical gaps in existing data on the harm caused by mercury and how the risk of contamination varies across the state.

Mammal Projects

Winter Roosts and Summer Distribution of Small-footed and Indiana Bats

The small-footed bat is the least common bat encountered during winter surveys in the eastern U.S., and 75 percent occur in New York. The species may be more common than winter counts suggest because it hibernates in hidden locations (under rocks, in crevices). DEC plans to radio-tag a sample of these bats as they enter a major hibernaculum to determine how many are detected during routine surveys. We also plan to radio-tag Indiana and small-footed bats as they emerge from their hibernacula and follow them by airplane to determine summer distribution and habitat preferences.

photo of a small-footed bat
Small-footed bat

Mark-Recapture Study of Indiana Bats

The Indiana bat, a federally endangered species, has declined from roughly 600,000 in the 1960s to about 350,000 today. Population declines in southern portions of its range, primarily Kentucky and Missouri, have far exceeded increases in the north, including New York. We hope to conduct a large scale mark-recapture study to identify causes of the decline and regional differences in population trends. The first step is a feasibility study to determine if we can adequately address assumptions of the study design.

Feasibility of a Statewide Summer Survey of Tree Bats

Tree bats (red, hoary and silver-haired bats) are among the least understood vertebrates in the state. We do not know the current status or distribution of any of these species, and the most comprehensive surveys were conducted more than 100 years ago. Recent technical innovations have increased the reliability of field sampling while reducing costs. We plan to conduct initial surveys to determine the costs and effectiveness of conducting a statewide status survey for tree bats in New York State.

Automated Bat Counter

Counting conspicuous hibernating bats during winter surveys of caves and mines has been the most common form of population monitoring for these species. The method has several shortcomings. It can be very labor intensive, some sites are either unsafe or inaccessible, and disturbing hibernating bats causes them some harm. Some researchers have developed an automated device to count bats as they enter and leave the site but these devices have limitations of their own that prevent widespread application. This project attempts to develop a refined version of an automated optical bat counter that overcomes these limitations and will be usable at a much larger percentage of hibernation sites.

Bird Projects

Spruce Grouse Surveys, Research and Management

The spruce grouse is an endangered species in New York, where some of its spruce-fir forest habitat has been lost due to forest maturation, habitat fragmentation, and logging. Confusion with the more common ruffed grouse has led to accidental hunting, and the species' unwariness has made it vulnerable to human disturbance. Urgently needed are: surveys to determine status and distribution; research to assess factors causing rarity or declines; population or habitat protection and management to secure the species' status; and completion and implementation of a state recovery plan. This project will help address those needs.

Common Loon Migration and Wintering Areas

We know very little about where common loons, a species of special concern in New York State, spend their non-breeding periods. This project will use satellite telemetry to determine migration routes, wintering areas and seasonal movements of loons that summer in New York. The results will help identify potential threats to common loons during non-breeding periods, including coastal energy developments, exposure to Type E botulism in the Great Lakes, ocean contaminants, and commercial fishing gear.

Golden-winged Warbler Habitat and Hybridization Study

photo of a golden-winged warbler
Golden-winged Warbler

The golden-winged warbler has declined at an annual rate of 8 percent for the last 35 years in the northeastern U.S. Possible factors in its decline include reforestation and range expansion of the blue-winged warbler. This project will investigate genetics and habitat segregation among these two species. Results will help to establish whether they should be considered distinct species and provide guidance for habitat management plans to sustain golden-winged warbler populations.

Radar Documentation of Bird and Bat Migrations

Effective conservation of migratory birds and bats, including many species of greatest conservation need, requires better information on their migration patterns through New York State. This information is needed to help plan wind energy developments (or other tall structures) to prevent significant mortality of migratory species. This project will assess the utility of various techniques, including radar studies, acoustic monitoring, and thermal imaging for documenting timing, altitude, corridors or stopover habitats of birds and bats migrating through New York State.

Reptile and Amphibian Projects

Reducing Turtle Mortality During Nesting

Painted turtle

Certain turtle species experience high mortality of females when they migrate from over-wintering locations to traditional egg-laying sites. This project will investigate methods of reducing this mortality through use of subsurface tunnels for crossing roadways, creation of protected nesting sites, and predator exclusions.

Assessment of Factors Affecting Hellbender Status

The hellbender is the largest salamander in New York. It spends its entire life in aquatic habitats and may live for as long as 70 years. In New York, the hellbender is restricted to the Allegheny and Susquehanna River drainage basins. Surveys conducted since 1980 show little evidence of reproductive success. This project will focus on identifying nesting locations, habitat used by larval and immature hellbenders and environmental factors that may be limiting reproductive success, such as water chemistry, siltation, habitat disturbance and impacts of recreational fishing.

Status Assessment and Evaluation of Habitat Quality of Bog Brook Unique Area for the Bog Turtle

The population status of bog turtles is currently unknown, although evidence suggests that the population has declined substantially since the early 1970s. DEC will produce a population assessment of the bog turtles at Bog Brook Unique Area (BBUA) that will include measures of population size, sex ratio and reproductive success. The overall goal for bog turtle management at BBUA is to have a stable or expanding bog turtle population of sufficient size.

Bog Turtle Dispersal and Population Genetics

Photo of a bog turtle on some fine gravels
Bog Turtle
Photo by USFWS

The globally threatened bog turtle typically occurs in discrete population units of less than 50 individuals. The long life span of individual animals (perhaps 30 years or more) often makes these small units appear to be stable but it's possible that some of these populations are too small and too isolated to persist in the long term. The information necessary to assess population viability of bog turtles is not available and this study attempts to correct that deficiency. It is based in a complex of swamps, fens, and wet meadows within the Taconic highlands of southeastern NY, an expansive valley that supports more than 20 known bog turtle colonies.

Spiny Softshell Turtle Survey and Life History Studies

Little is known about the distribution, life history, seasonal movements, and habitat-use of spiny softshell turtles in New York State. DEC will assess the status and distribution of spiny softshell turtles in the Finger Lakes and the bays on the southern shoreline of Lake Ontario, including the streams and creeks that enter Lake Ontario, in order to make recommendations concerning the management of critical habitats for this species.

Determine Upland Habitat Requirements of the Northern Cricket Frog

The Northern Cricket Frog is listed as Endangered in New York, and is limited to less than a dozen sites in a few southeastern counties. Much of what we know about the species is centered on the time they spend in lakes and ponds, but this small frog is known to move some distance away from water to spend the winter. We need a better understanding of the benefits that these upland habitats provide in order to adequately protect the species. The goal of this study is to determine how far cricket frogs move from water to hibernate and to describe their winter habitat.

Invertebrate Projects

Examining the Variability of Wild Blue Lupine

photo of Karner blue butterfly on wild blue lupine
Karner blue butterfly
on wild blue lupine
Photo by Carly Voight

Wild blue lupine is the only food plant eaten by the Federal and State endangered Karner blue butterfly caterpillars. Managers would like to plant more lupine to improve butterfly habitat but supplies of locally collected seed are limited. This project attempts to tell if lupine from other areas would be equally suitable. If so, it will greatly increase the availability of seed for restoration activities, reduce seed costs, and accelerate the recovery effort for this critically endangered species.

Karner Blue Butterfly Conservation in Glacial Lake Albany: Linking Habitat Restoration with Viability Assessment

Over the past 30 years the federal and state endangered Karner blue butterfly has declined in abundance in New York State by over 90%, largely due to habitat degradation/destruction and loss of its obligate larval host plant, the wild blue lupine. DEC will hire one or more contractors to quantitatively assess the current status of Karner blue butterfly habitat patches, identify site-specific habitat restoration needs and measure habitat restoration success at sites throughout Glacial Lake Albany.

Investigation of Reproductive Failure in Freshwater Mussels

Freshwater mussels are among the most imperiled animal groups in North America. About one third of the 50 or so species originally found in New York are probably gone entirely from the state. Many more are rare or declining and we have little specific information about why. This project will attempt to determine the percentage of mussel populations in southeastern New York that are failing and what is causing their decline.

Fish and Marine Projects

Adirondack Round Whitefish Investigation

Round whitefish are classified as threatened in New York and their recovery plan calls for an investigation of causes for and solutions to their decline. This project will include field studies to develop sampling protocols in Adirondack lakes, evaluate existing stocking efforts, and prioritize historic waters for likelihood of successful reestablishment.

Note: A final report for this project is available. Follow the Important Links in the right column on this page.

Recruitment and Spawning Stock Characteristics of American Eel from the Marine District

photo of an American eel
American Eel
Photo by USFWS

The American eel occupies a key role in the ecological diversity of Atlantic coastal and inland aquatic habitats. Available data and reports from fishermen, resource managers and scientists suggest a dramatic decline in abundance of this species. Objectives of this project are to conduct surveys, collect biological information and examine trends in recruitment and out-migration in order to define escapement rates for silver eels, and if possible, define the nature of the stock/recruitment relationship for American eel.

Coast-wide Study of Horseshoe Crab Movement and Spawning

This project aims to track the movements of spawning horseshoe crabs using a combination of several tracking and data logging technologies. Horseshoe crabs are to be captured prior to spawning. Tracking devices will be attached and automatic data loggers will record the timing, beach use and spawning frequency of the animals.

Oyster Habitat Restoration Project in the Lower Hudson River

Oyster resources in New York State declined as a result of pollution, siltation, dredging and loss of hard bottom. The primary goals of this project are to investigate feasibility of oyster restoration in the Lower Hudson River, identify specific sites that would support oyster restoration, and conduct a small scale oyster habitat restoration demonstration project.

Development of a Plan to Improve the Population Status of Hudson River Atlantic Sturgeon

Atlantic sturgeon spend the majority of their lives living in the ocean, but return to fresh water streams and rivers to spawn. The late 1800's saw a large commercial fishery for Hudson River Atlantic sturgeon but since that time sturgeon fisheries have collapsed all along the east coast. Although the Hudson River population is the largest remaining stock in US waters, it continues to decline at alarming rates. It is thought that many may die when the juveniles migrate out of the river to live in the Atlantic where some are unintentionally caught during commercial harvest of other fish species. This study will enhance our knowledge of the marine migrant stage of juvenile Atlantic sturgeon and evaluate management alternatives to protect them.

Migratory Shorebirds and Horseshoe Crabs: A Look at Species Interactions

Horseshoe crabs are commercially harvested and are also believed to be a key food source for migratory shorebirds. Some of these bird species are in severe decline. Our current scientific understanding of these species and how they interact is lacking. The objectives of this study are to bolster that understanding by monitoring horseshoe crab spawning activity on Long Island, examining the abundance of migratory shorebirds there and assessing importance of horseshoe crab eggs to shorebird diets. This information will help to determine whether current horseshoe crab management is adequate to ensure both a sustainable commercial harvest and provide for the requirements of shorebirds.