Three Eastern hognose snakes exhibit mating behavior at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, on April 2, 2017. Native throughout most of the Chesapeake Bay region, the varied coloring of the Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos) can make it difficult to identify, but the characteristic upturned scale at the tip of the snake’s nose is a foolproof indicator.
Despite their tendency to be confused for the venomous cottonmouth, Eastern hognose snakes almost never bite and are quite docile. In fact, only a few bites from the species have ever been documented, with many of them accidental: in one case, a snake’s tooth caught the victim’s arm while the snake was playing dead.
That type of bluffing behavior is another distinctive way to identify the Eastern hognose. Also called the “puff adder,” the snakes have a unique way of confronting predators. When approached, an Eastern hognose will suck in air and spread the skin around its head and neck to mimic a cobra’s hood. If that doesn’t work, the snake will play dead by rolling onto its back and opening its mouth, remaining limp for several minutes. If left undisturbed, it will eventually glance around for the predator, and if the coast is clear, turn right-side-up and wriggle away.
Although secretive and seldom seen, the number of Eastern hognose snakes is fairly stable; however, certain populations have shown declines in areas of high development. Places like Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary and other protected lands can serve as a haven for these and other species. Jug Bay in particular is home to a multitude of species, including rare and uncommon species like bald eagles and least bitterns. Work by Chesapeake Bay Program partners to conserve undeveloped land—particularly the woodlands and coastal areas preferred by the Eastern hognose—can help protect not only these snakes, but countless other wildlife species.
Image by Will Parson
In a watershed whose population has expanded by more than eight million people in the last 50 years, protecting land while allowing urban and suburban growth can pose a challenge. But one piece of Maryland’s land protection puzzle has proven successful in protecting forests and, according to some, could provide guidance to other regions interested in keeping trees on land that is threatened by residential development.
The Maryland Forest Conservation Act was passed under Governor William Donald Schaefer in late 1991 and implemented at the local level by county and municipal governments in 1993. It was designed to reduce forest loss following development and is the only statewide forest conservation regulation in the nation to focus on forest retention and replanting during the construction permitting process.
The Act affects those who propose land use changes on properties of one acre and greater in size and that require a subdivision approval, grading permit or sediment control permit: for example, a homeowner who wants to add a new residence to his property or a developer who wants to build a subdivision. These landowners must work with a licensed forester, licensed landscape architect or other qualified professional to submit their plans to protect trees during construction and to mitigate construction by retaining a portion of existing forest cover or by planting new trees.
By its nature as a required rather than optional regulation, the Act affects and engages a wide swath of landowners in planting trees and protecting land. “We’re more restrictive here [in Maryland than in other states] on what happens [to land] during development. There are a lot of environmental laws at the local level and at the state level that you need in order to get your building permits. Other states aren’t that way,” said Marian Honeczy, Urban & Community Forestry Programs Manager with the Maryland Forest Service.
Some landowners have argued against planting new trees when their proposed developments don’t involve removing them. But as Honeczy explains, the Act was meant to engage everyone in the work of environmental conservation. “Governor Schaefer felt that everyone should bear the burden of protecting the Bay, since we’re all sharing the benefits. It didn’t matter if you had a forested site or a farm field [slated for development]. Everyone had to comply with the law.”
That said, not everyone bears the same burden. Different zoning categories have different afforestation and reforestation thresholds and different forest retention amounts. In other words, those developing a farm field may have to plant fewer trees than those developing a woodlot. “But you’re still planting trees,” Honeczy said.
Healthy forests are critical to a healthy Chesapeake Bay: they protect clean air and water and provide food and habitat to wildlife. (For this reason, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to expanding urban tree canopy by 2,400 acres by 2025.) And for Honeczy, the Forest Conservation Act has “more than accomplished” its intended goal of conserving forests in the face of development. Indeed, research suggests the regulation has had a significant and positive effect on Maryland’s forest cover, and the numbers seem to agree: In the first 20 years of the Forest Conservation Act, 110,701 acres of forest land were put under protection from development. That area is two and a half times bigger than Washington, D.C.!
The Act does face challenges—in the form of finite land and finite funding—but it was “never intended to be the sole answer for all of our forest cover and urban tree issues,” Honeczy said. Just as protecting forests was not intended to be a burden on the shoulders of one landowner, it was also not intended to be a burden on the shoulders of one law, one program or one state agency.
Whether it is through the Woodland Incentive Program—which provides cost-share assistance for tree planting and timber stand improvement on forests between five and 1,000 acres in size—the Lawn to Woodland program—which fully funds the conversion of one- to four-acre lawns to forests—or the Marylanders Plant Trees program—which provides coupons to homeowners who want to purchase trees to plant—the Maryland Forest Service and their partners across the state will continue to connect anyone who wants to plant a tree with people and programs that will help them do so.
“Trees do so much in a cheap, efficient way to protect the Bay,” Honeczy said. “And every person can plant a tree on their property.”
A spring peeper’s throat swells as it makes its signature call in a vernal pool at Kings Gap State Park in Thurmont, Pennsylvania, on March 25, 2016. As its name implies, the spring peeper’s “peeping” call is one of the first signs of spring in the Chesapeake region.
Calling the sound a “peep” might make it seem like a small, subdued noise. In actuality, the call has been likened to a car alarm—and when hundreds of frogs sing in a single location, as they often do, the noise can be almost deafening. A high-quality call is extremely important during breeding season, as it influences which mate a female will choose.
In early spring, the arrival of vernal pools spurs peepers to mate. Vernal pools are temporary ponds, fed by snow, rain or groundwater and blanketed in leaves from a healthy forest. They only last for a handful of months each year, but stay wet long enough to host a multitude of breeding frogs, toads and salamanders. Because the pools aren’t directly connected to a waterway, they’re free from the fish that would otherwise prey on amphibian eggs and larvae.
While best-known for their springtime symphonies, spring peepers spend the rest of the year on land. Their dependence on marshy woodlands for habitat makes spring peepers particularly vulnerable to the loss of forests and wetlands. Work by Chesapeake Bay Program partners to conserve land across the watershed provides habitat not only peepers, but other wildlife that live in the region.
Image by Will Parson
Since our formation in 1983, the Chesapeake Bay Program has been leading the effort to reduce pollution and restore ecosystem health across the Chesapeake Bay region. Whether through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, signed in 2014, or the Bay’s ‘pollution diet’—i.e., the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)—our partners have continued to work collaboratively toward our shared goal of a healthy Bay.
With decades-worth of environmental data, our scientists are able to study how the health of the nation’s largest estuary is changing over time. Below, learn about a few of the ways the Bay and its rivers have been showing signs of resilience.
Underwater grasses, also called submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV, grow in the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. They provide food and habitat to wildlife, add oxygen to the water and trap and absorb pollution. Because of their sensitivity to pollution, the abundance of underwater grasses can serve as an indicator of restoration progress.
Between 2014 and 2015, more than 92,000 acres of underwater grasses were observed in the Chesapeake Bay. An increase of 21 percent from the previous year, it marked the highest amount ever recorded in the nearly 30 years the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has conducted their aerial survey. Part of this increase was due to the expansion of widgeon grass—often referred to as a “boom or bust” species because its abundance can rise and fall from year to year—but other species like wild celery and eelgrass also saw a recovery.
The blue crab is one of the most iconic species in the Chesapeake Bay, supporting commercial and recreational fisheries in the region. But vulnerability to pollution, loss of habitat and harvest pressure have led their abundance to fluctuate over time; in 2014, adult female blue crabs were considered depleted.
Joint management between Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission has helped maintain the Bay’s blue crab stock at sustainable levels. At the start of last year’s crabbing season, there were an estimated 194 million adult female blue crabs in the Bay—a 92 percent increase from the previous year. And according to the 2016 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, the blue crab stock was not depleted and overfishing was not occurring.
Just like humans, crabs, fish and other underwater animals that live in the Bay need oxygen to survive. Dissolved oxygen is a measurement of how much oxygen is present in the water; as dissolved oxygen levels decrease, it becomes more difficult for animals to get the oxygen they need.
As reported in the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s most recent Chesapeake Bay report card, dissolved oxygen levels in many regions of the Bay were frequently in “good condition” (scores of 60 percent or higher) in 2015, and no regions were below “moderately good” levels. Additionally, 2016 marked the second consecutive year that there were no measured anoxic areas—or areas with no dissolved oxygen—in the main portion of the Bay.
Organisms that live at the bottom of the Bay and its rivers and streams are known as “benthos.” Benthic communities are made up of worms, clams, oysters, shrimp-like crustaceans and other underwater invertebrates, and they provide food for crabs and bottom-feeding fish.
In 2015, almost two-thirds of the bottom habitat in the tidal Bay was home to a healthy community of benthic organisms, an increase from 59 percent in 2014. In addition, the area of degraded and severely degraded habitat—or areas that are home to more pollution-tolerant species, fewer species overall, fewer large organisms deep in the sediment and a lower total mass of organisms—was the lowest it has been since 1996. Scientists attributed this improvement to increases in dissolved oxygen.
While some nutrients and sediment are a natural part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, too much can be harmful to fish, shellfish and other underwater life. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which can lead to low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Sediment can cloud the water, preventing sunlight from reaching underwater plants and smothering bottom-dwelling species.
According to data from the Bay Program and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loads to the Bay were below the long-term average in 2015. Additionally, since 1985, long-term trends in nitrogen pollution have improved at six of the nine monitoring stations located along the biggest rivers that feed into the Bay, including at stations in the region’s four largest rivers: the Susquehanna, Potomac, James and Rappahannock.
Want to learn more about our work toward achieving the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement? Visit ChesapeakeProgress.