A white-tailed deer stands at forest's edge near a resting flock of Canada geese at Terrapin Nature Park in Stevensville, Maryland. Also known as the Virginia deer, the white-tailed deer gets its name from the white underside of its tail, which it will raise like a flag when alarmed.
In the early 1900s, unrestricted hunting, loss of forests and a rapid increase in development lead to a sharp decline in white-tailed deer populations. Over the next few decades, conservation programs in many states helped re-establish deer populations in the Eastern United States. But just as deer populations had previously suffered, the numbers of their natural predators—wolves, coyotes and mountain lions—fell, too. And as deer populations rebounded, a lack of these major predators allowed herds to grow exponentially, bringing with them a multitude of growing pains, including damage to agricultural crops and gardens, a loss of diversity in plant species and dangerous deer-vehicle collisions.
Scientists refer to the maximum population size that can thrive in a given habitat as that area’s “biological carrying capacity”: the amount of individuals in a species that can survive indefinitely on the food, water and other necessities available in the environment. But another concept is the “cultural carrying capacity”: the number of individuals of a species that can coexist comfortably with the local human population. Deer management experts across the Chesapeake Bay watershed are working to solve the complex puzzle of maintaining deer populations at levels that both support a healthy ecosystem and strike a balance with humans.
Image by Will Parson
Today, at the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council, each member spoke to the unique challenges facing their jurisdictions in their work to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Notably, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania committed an additional $28 million to help reduce nutrient pollution in the state.
The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or Bay TMDL, sets limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment allowed to run into the Bay each year. It requires the six watershed states and the District of Columbia to ensure that all pollution-reducing practices needed to fully restore the Bay and its tidal rivers are in place by 2025, with actions in place to achieve at least 60 percent of the reductions by 2017. Nutrient and sediment pollution from Pennsylvania’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed have been reduced, but nitrogen reductions are not on pace to meet Pennsylvania’s 2017 and 2025 goals under the Bay TMDL.
Members of the Executive Council—which represents the seven watershed jurisdictions, a tri-state legislative commission and federal agencies—met to review the state of the Chesapeake Bay Program and set guidance and goals for the coming year at their annual meeting, held at the Virginia State Arboretum in Boyce, Virginia.
“We are seeing real progress through our ongoing collaboration with local, state, regional and national partners to restore the Chesapeake Bay and the creeks and rivers that feed it,” said Executive Council Chair, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. “Our legacy to future generations must include the preservation of this unique resource, which is so crucial to the Commonwealth’s quality of life and our work to build a new Virginia economy.”
The Executive Council also agreed to sign a resolution to support local government engagement: commending the actions taken by local governments to address their wastewater pollution reduction goals and committing to raise awareness about the benefits of investing in protection and restoration efforts at the local level. The Council also elected Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe as Chair for a second term.
After this year’s annual meeting, on October 6th, Governor McAuliffe will meet to discuss recommendations from the local government, citizen and scientific communities with the council’s three advisory committees—the Citizens Advisory Committee, the Local Government Advisory Committee and the Science and Technical Advisory Committee.
Domesticated dogs—particularly retriever breeds—have a long history in the Chesapeake Bay region. The Chesapeake Bay Retriever, often called a “Chessie,” can trace its history in the area back to 1807, when two Newfoundland puppies named Sailor and Canton were rescued from a sinking ship off the coast of Maryland. Each dog was given to a separate owner, where they were bred with area dogs for their sturdy build, endurance and agility.
Bred to be working dogs, Chessies are particularly helpful to waterfowl hunters, as they will happily brave ice-cold waters to retrieve ducks, geese and other birds. As part of the Atlantic Flyway, the Chesapeake Bay region sees millions of migratory birds pass through during their seasonal flights, making the region a haven for hunters. Events like the Waterfowl Festival and Dock Dogs competitions celebrate the skills and intelligence of the four-legged friends who travel alongside them.
Image by Will Parson
The word “pollution” tends to bring to mind images of dark smoke billowing out of smokestacks or fluorescent-colored water spilling out of pipes. But there are other types of pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay region and they come from a somewhat unexpected place: agriculture.
Agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay region. Nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, feed algal blooms that create harmful conditions for the Bay’s fish. Too much sediment can cloud the water and smother bottom-dwelling animals. These pollutants are difficult to control because, instead of spilling out of pipes, they run off of large fields when it rains. Sam Owings, a farmer in Chestertown, Maryland, knew the challenges of controlling agricultural runoff, so he decided to develop his own solution.
Owings knows farming, and he knows stormwater. He grew up on a farm where he worked until he was 30 years old, after which he started a site development contracting business. “I learned a lot about soil erosion and soil conservation in agriculture,” he said, “and then I learned about stormwater control in site development.”
After returning to farming 15 years ago, he combined that knowledge to develop what he calls the “cascading system.” The system, which he built and tested on his farm, is a strip of four 40 by 140 foot trenches in a grass waterway between two of his fields. The grass waterway is an area where rainwater—and farm runoff—naturally collect from over 100 acres of surrounding land and are funneled toward a nearby creek.
“The idea behind it is to reduce stormwater flows from the land into state waters,” Owing said. It’s designed to slow down the flow of water by having it run through the strip of basins, filling up each one before allowing any water to discharge into the creek. After the rain stops, the remaining water sits in the basins to either evaporate or absorb back into the ground. Owings specifically placed the basins in an area that receives concentrated runoff from a large area of over 100 acres.
After receiving a research grant from Maryland Industrial Partnerships, Owings teamed up with University of Maryland professor Dr. Allen Davis to conduct a two year study of the system. The results Davis got were telling: of the water that entered the cascading system, 56 percent was not released out the other end and into the creek. The system also captured 65 percent of sediment and over half the nutrients.
Even with the apparent success of the cascading system, Owings isn’t done. He developed a “chain system,” or what he described as a “filter strip on steroids.” Unlike the cascading system, which was designed for concentrated, high-flow areas, the point of the chain system is to collect regular runoff from fields. “The concept is simple,” he said about both of his systems. “You can take an existing filter strip and retrofit it into these.”
The suitability to existing farms is one of the advantages Owings sees in both of his systems. “With many environmental programs, [farmers] have to give up tillable land,” he explained. But since the cascading and chain systems are in grass waterways, which are generally not utilized by farmers, “you’re just making the land more efficient.”
All in all, the project seems to be working for Owings. Now, he’s working with Earth Data to try and get his cascading system certified as a best management practice, a designation that means it is an efficient and effective practice to combat agricultural runoff.
When asked why he developed these systems, Owings’ answer was straightforward: “Farmers are inherently problem-solvers. Agriculture pollution is a problem, and so why not work on a solution?”
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Video and photo by Will Parson