Healing habitats: Grant to build comprehensive plan for fish, wildlife

wolf-howe-top-storyMore than a dozen undergraduate and graduate students have a tremendous opportunity to work alongside UW-Green Bay Professors Bob Howe and Amy Wolf on a comprehensive plan to improve fish and wildlife habitat in the region.

Howe, Wolf and UWGB staff, in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), are the recipients of a $471,000 Environmental Protection Agency/Department of Natural Resources grant to study fish and wildlife conditions and threats in what is termed the “Lower Green Bay and Fox River Area of Concern” and its immediately contributing watershed.

“This project is important for our region because it will yield one of the most, if not the most, specific plans for improving fish and wildlife habitat in the lower Bay and Fox River,” said Howe.

Howe considers the assessment, and the recommendations vital to the future regional economy and quality of life.

“Although the AOC is clearly degraded, more and more evidence has shown that this is a ‘world class’ site for freshwater fish, colonial and migratory birds, and other wildlife species,” said Howe. “I view Green Bay as comparable to Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast and San Francisco Bay on the West Coast — places where natural resources have experienced degradation, but places where these resources are still very much alive and are vital to the future local economy and quality of life,” he said.

Lower Green Bay and the Fox River below the DePere Dam comprise one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOC’s) designated in 1987 by the International Joint Commission of Canada and the United States through the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The ultimate goal of the UWGB/TNC project is to help develop a strategy for improving conditions in the AOC so that it can be removed or “de-listed” from its impaired status.

Loss of fish and wildlife habitat is one of the most significant reasons why the Lower Green Bay and Fox River AOC was designated as an AOC. Documented (WDNR) causes of ecological and economic impairment of the Lower Green Bay and Fox River AOC include:
• habitat destruction and fragmentation due to urban and industrial development and stream channelization;
• dredging and filling of aquatic habitats along the Fox River corridor;
• wetland degradation from human activity and changing water levels;
• disruption of hydrologic connectivity by road construction and other human activities;
• loss of submerged aquatic vegetation in the Duck Creek delta area of the lower Bay because of turbid water and hyper eutrophication;
• destruction of barrier islands in the Cat Island Chain by high water and storms;
• reduction in underwater plants and littoral vegetation by invasive carp;
• silt deposition and re-suspension of sediments in the Lower Bay; and
spread of invasive plant species.

Alongside UWGB staff members Erin Giese, Michael Stiefvater, Kimberlee McKeefry, and Bobbie Webster, Howe and Wolf are working with students on this two-year, two-phase project to comprehensively assess existing habitat conditions and formulate a protection and restoration plan in the affected areas.

In each phase, UW-Green Bay students will be able to assist the faculty and staff members and Wisconsin DNR and TNC collaborators in their comprehensive research and development of the plan.

Phase One, the assessment portion of the project, will focus primarily on finding, organizing and evaluating existing data related to fish and wildlife populations in the AOC. Information will be compiled from a wide variety of sources, including local experts, on historical conditions, habitat dynamics, restoration opportunities and threats in the lower Bay and Fox River.

Phase Two goals include synthesis of the information, creating a blueprint for protection and restoration activities; identifying specific opportunities for protection, restoration and rehabilitation of fish and wildlife habitat; cataloging past projects to assess their contribution towards delisting thresholds and developing monitoring protocols for measuring the status of fish and wildlife habitat to document the success or failure of specific remediation projects.

Proposers say the project will “test the utility of objective metrics for the ultimate purpose of informing decision-makers at local, regional and national levels, particularly those making decisions involving the status, protection and restoration of fish and wildlife habitat in other Great Lakes Areas of Concern.”

Work began in fall of 2014 and will continue through August of 2016. This project is particularly significant because it adds to a long-standing and growing involvement of UW-Green Bay scientists and students in solving problems of water quality, ecological health, and economic viability of Green Bay and the Great Lakes in general. Other recent grants by UWGB Natural and Applied Sciences professors Kevin Fermanich, Mike Zorn, Matt Dornbush, Patrick Forsythe and others, demonstrates the important role of UWGB in helping improve environmental quality in the Green Bay ecosystem.