The latest update for this article is written by Lindsay Podolak.
With its sundry beaches, mountainous ranges and open plains, New Jersey is an attractive destination for diverse wildlife; which makes it one of the country’s best places to spend Earth Day. Sadly, some of the Garden State’s indigenous species are now endangered. Luckily, there are ways we can help save these creatures. Best of NJ spoke to local environmental protection expert, John Morano, to learn how we can save these animals.
John Morano is a Professor of Journalism at Monmouth University. Morano, who is passionate about environmental protection, has been at Monmouth for 30 years. At the start of his career, he began publishing his Eco-Adventure environmental series. The continuing series personifies the stories of endangered and extinct animals. Each inspiring tale illustrates the lives of threatened creatures and their struggle to survive.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) categorizes an endangered species as those whose prospects for survival are in immediate danger. This danger is often due to one or a number of factors; loss or degradation of habitat, exploitation, predation, competition and disease, among others, can all contribute to a species’ demise. Currently in NJ, birds, reptiles and mammals are losing an environmental battle; but there’s still time to turn it all around.
Endangered Animal #1: The Black Rail
The black rail, a bird who calls Southern New Jersey home, has been struggling for several years. In just the past 20 years, experts believe the bird’s population may have declined by as much as 75 percent. In 2014, the black rail was placed on the State of the Birds Watch List by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative.
“For about 90 percent of these situations – certainly not all of them – if you can only do one thing, it’s protect habitat,” Morano advises.
Black rails are often found in tidal marshes on the coast, or grassy marshes inland. The bird is no larger than a common sparrow, so it favors very shallow water or damp soil. The black rail nests in the high ground of coastal marshes, because they are less likely to flood. Unfortunately, these are ideal locations for developers in coastal areas. This has led to significant habitat loss and degradation of breeding areas for the birds.
Local residents can help the black rail survive without even leaving their property. “On a more local level, those who make their backyards more hospitable to whatever wildlife is in the area can make a huge difference,” says Morano.
With just some small yard adjustments, we can easily accommodate endangered species. “Consider what type of landscaping you’re using. Is it something that is natural to the area? Is it something that the birds that live around your house might normally nest in? Does it have buds that they would normally eat?” Moran continued.
New Jersey reptiles are facing a similar fate due to the development of their habitats. However, there are larger concerns threatening their existence, as well.
Endangered Animal #2: The Bog Turtle
The bog turtle has become one of the most popular reptiles found in New Jersey, despite its declining population. It is the smallest turtle living in the United States; the largest one ever found measured just four and a half inches long. But currently, these cute little creatures are on the verge of extinction.
We often think of turtles as strong, durable animals; but measuring only a couple inches long, the bog turtle doesn’t meet this description. It’s a delicate animal, and very sensitive to the erratic weather patterns its species has been experiencing in recent years. Altering hydrological cycles can either completely dry out or conversely inundate the species’ habitat, leading to its extinction.
NJ residents can make small lifestyle adjustments that, as a community, add up to major, positive environmental changes.
“Sometimes people think that little things don’t make big differences, but they absolutely do,” Morano stated. “If enough people are doing something, it will make a huge difference. Like recycling—it matters. Anything you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is helpful.”
It may seem strange, but taking care of our land also improves the lives of ocean creatures. Litter and pollution are destroying not just our land, but the water and the creatures living in them.
“Right now, you’re seeing whales washing to shore dead, and their stomachs are full of plastic,” says Morano. “And where does that plastic come from? It only comes from one source; it comes from us. So our waste is taking a toll.”
Endangered Animal #3: The North Atlantic Right Whale
North Atlantic right whales, as their name implies, are mostly found in the North Atlantic Ocean. It’s believed there are fewer than 350 of these whales remaining, and their population continues to decline. Much like their fellow humpback whales, efforts to save the species are often difficult.
“Shipping lanes are an issue,” Morano says. “It’s interesting, because it is almost a double-edged sword.
“My wife and I were walking along the boardwalk in Long Branch in September,” he continued. “We looked out over to the ocean, and there was a pod of about half a dozen humpback whales; and they swam alongside us out in the water for almost five miles.”
Why is this important? “One of the reasons they’re around is because, over the years, there’s been some success with cleaning up the ocean. So that’s a wonderful thing, because now they’re back,” Morano mentions. “The water is cleaner, and it means that there is more food for them in the area. So now they’re here, but now they also are in the shipping lanes, and that can be a real problem.”
More Issues Facing the North Atlantic Right Whale
The threats facing the North Atlantic right whale continue past ship collisions, unfortunately. With so few whales remaining, natural breeding is also becoming a major concern. But since this aspect is outside of our control, Morano offers the following advice.
“What most folks can do is take inventory of what their own personal abilities are and use that to make a difference.”
The adjustments made at home can make a world of difference. One of the most important actions you can take is to spread awareness, giving a voice to the voiceless. Fortunately, in the digital age, you don’t have to travel very far to do that.
“Think globally, act locally,” Morano suggests.
A hopeful sign, though, was reported by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in early 2019– four newborn North Atlantic right whale calves were spotted along the East Coast.
Endangered Animal #4: The Bobcat
The bobcat, an animal restricted to North America, was once found in abundance throughout all parts of the Garden State. Unfortunately, though, times have changed, and in 1991 the bobcat was listed as an endangered species in New Jersey.
Factors found to be contributing to the decline of the bobcat population are hunting, plus a rise in major development and deforestation. In 2017, 11 bobcats were killed by vehicles.
Some estimate that there are only around 250 bobcats left in the state, but that number is difficult to determine. Humans rarely spot Bobcats, as they are extremely shy creatures. They remain as the only wild feline species left in New Jersey.
In order to help give bobcats a chance to thrive, The Nature Conservancy has pledged to create “Bobcat Alley,” a 32,000 acre corridor of protected land between the Appalachians and the Highlands where bobcats can roam freely and raise their offspring.
So far the conservancy has protected approximately ⅓ of the land designated as Bobcat Alley, with a goal of protecting another 3,500 acres by 2020.
Hero (Top) Feature Image: © U.S. Fish & Wildlife Southeast Region / Flickr
Other Images ©:
Tom Johnson / Macaulay Library
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Headquarters / Flickr
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association / Website
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association / Website
New Jersey Nature Conservancy / Facebook