Help America’s Endangered Waterways

by Amanda Tai
The Potomac River. Credit: krossbow/Flickr

Yesterday, American Rivers released their 2012 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. Topping the nonprofit’s annual list is none other than the Potomac River, also known as “the nation’s river” and not far from our headquarters here in Washington, D.C. Nearly five million people rely on it for clean drinking water. The main reason the Potomac is considered the most endangered has to do with urban development and pollution in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Although the river is in much better shape than it was 40 years ago when the Clean Water Act was introduced, high levels of agricultural and urban pollution still remain a threat to fish, wildlife and human health. And it’s not just American Rivers that noticed this trend. The Potomac River also received a D letter grade from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Sciences for the second year in a row.

The health of the Potomac is closely related to the health of surrounding green areas and wildlife that rely on the river’s water. Trees and plants play a significant role in mitigating river pollution. They serve as a natural filtration system to clean groundwater from pollution that might otherwise enter a river system.

But there’s also a big policy concern attached to this issue. House Republicans have recently proposed to strike several provisions from the Clean Water Act that help clean up and protect places like the Potomac River headwaters. So far, none of the proposals have been approved, but advocates remain wary of this Congressional attack on the Clean Water Act. One example is the Preserve the Waters of the United States Act (S. 2245 and H.R. 4965), which would weaken the Clean Water Act  by preventing the EPA from using its jurisdiction to protect private waters. It’s clear from this proposed measure that Republicans remain concerned about the administration’s reach and jurisdiction, but if this measure passes, many endangered rivers would remain vulnerable to pollution.

If you’re concerned about this issue and want to get more involved, please visit American Rivers’ website where you can learn more about endangered rivers and urge Congress to save the Clean Water Act.

Batty for Urban Wildlife

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

Every year from mid-March to early November, up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats hang out and make roost under the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin, Texas. As the largest urban bat colony in North America, these bats have created a very unique tourist attraction in the city, as more than 100,000 visitors come each year to check them out, generating millions of dollars in tourism revenue annually. Not to mention that these bats will eat 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects each night during their flights around the city. Thank goodness for bats!

As many of us have likely witnessed, urban environments can offer an array of habitats for exciting wildlife. Growing up, my family saw gorgeous red-tailed hawks looming around our neighborhood, red foxes that would scurry across the streets and coyotes that would sometimes briefly appear in backyards. Living in the D.C. area now, I appreciate that I can visit one of our local urban parks and see a slightly different variety of wildlife.

Urban forests provide critical habitat to wildlife in cities, especially those reliant on corridors for their species’ survival. Corridors are areas that wildlife, such as migratory birds and mammals, use to move from one location to another. They can come in the form of natural urban rivers or streams or in the form of man-made right-of-ways and greenways that connect nature preserves and parks. And, as a 2010 study shows, even small patches of urban forests are often key for migrating birds, such as the Swainson’s thrush, a species that is declining throughout much of its range.

Black-crowned night heron

Black-crowned night heron. Credit: Rennett Stowe/Flickr

Other studies further confirm urban forests as crucial habitat for birds. For example, Baltimore, Maryland, houses a least a third of the bird species that inhabit the entire region, including black-crowned night herons, indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers, white breasted nuthatches and a variety of warblers. In urban areas in Minnesota, approximately 35 bird species nest in or are permanent residents of urban forests, three of which are species of state conservation concern: the northern flicker, chimney swift and brown thrasher.

Just as we manage for our urban forests, we must also manage for the wildlife in those forests. And, different wildlife species require different types of habitats. That is why it is important for urban forests to contain multiple layers of vegetation, including ground cover, understory and canopy, and a variety of tree species. Some species can be selected to encourage specific types of wildlife, such as species with different flowering and fruiting seasons.

Although wildlife can create unique challenges in urban environment (stay tuned for a future blog post), the value of urban wildlife cannot be understated. Not only does urban wildlife provide enjoyment for people and direct economic benefits to cities (think of the bat tourism in Austin), but according to the National Wildlife Federation article “Wild Life in the Concrete Jungle,” national polls have shown that 40 percent of U.S. households do something to attract wildlife to their homes, from installing birdfeeders or ponds to planting certain shrubs and flowers. And, according to the same article, William Shaw, chair of the wildlife fisheries science department at the University of Arizona, says that “promoting urban wildlife is not purely a matter of providing entertainment for people. It is a crucial component for maintaining biodiversity.” Whether we are talking about birds, coyotes, squirrels, insects or bats, urban wildlife is key in helping to maintain stable healthy ecosystems.

The Corps of Discovery

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

“Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia” by Charles Marion Russell

“Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia” by Charles Marion Russell

History books are filled with extraordinary events, fascinating people and unbelievable moments of discovery. Sometimes, all of these things come together, as is the case with one of my favorite moments in history: the westward adventure of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery into uncharted territories and their remarkable return — a journey that began 208 years ago today.

There are many mind-blowing aspects of Lewis and Clark’s famous voyage:

  • The length — 3,700 miles, much of it unmapped, that was navigated solely with the few available maps, a compass and the help of Mother Nature via stars and rivers.
  • The time — 863 days, so long that many feared the explorers died on the journey.
  • The encounters — they met with nearly 50 American Indian tribes, establishing relationships (some for the very first time) and receiving aid during the long voyage.
  • The success — they reached the Pacific as planned and only lost one team member along the way.

But perhaps the biggest long-term impacts were the discoveries: approximately 300 plant and animal species previously unknown to science. And I’m not talking about exotic or uncommon things. Meriwether Lewis, who served as a naturalist on the journey by documenting their scientific discoveries, was the first to describe trees such as bigleaf maple, osage-orange, Pacific madrone, ponderosa pine, Sitka spruce, western red cedar and whitebark pine, among others — not to mention other plant species, like tarragon, a now-popular herb. Then, there are the animals: coyotes; grizzly bears; various woodpeckers; mountain lions; various toads, frogs and snakes; white-tailed deer; American goldfinch’s and other birds; and so many more. The Corps of Discovery introduced the nation to flora and fauna that would become synonymous with the American West. And they did it all without GPS, roads, satellite phones, RVs and other modern luxuries — truly extraordinary. Today, I raise my Lewis and Clark replica compass to these intrepid explorers.

View along the Lewis and Clark Trail

View along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Credit: Dale Chumbley/Flickr

This Week in History
Another historic milestone this week is the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On May 15, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating the USDA. While it’s name may imply that it solely deals with farming issues, the USDA is responsible for so much more, from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to the Office of Tribal Relations (OTR). At American Forests, we’re particularly fond of one particular USDA service: the Forest Service! So, this week, we’re also celebrating 150 years of the USDA.

Birds of a Feather

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Bird flock

Credit: Kumon

What is one of the almost universal things that say nature to us humans? It can wake us up in the morning, relax us on a walk, be a taste of the country in the middle of a city and is even used in movies and television simply to say “it’s a nice day out.” That’s right — birdsong. At American Forests, we’re pretty big fans of birds, whether we’re planting trees to protect the Kirtland’s warbler or other birds, telling you where to go to see your feathered friends or reporting on how birds are faring in today’s changing environment. And the explanation is pretty simple: Birds and trees just go together.

Tomorrow is International Migratory Bird Day, or IMBD (not to be confused with the popular movie site IMDB, where The Birds you’ll find are less than friendly). Always the second Saturday in May, IMBD is a day to celebrate and bring awareness to the many birds that cross our paths, both here and abroad.

Bird migration is one of the most amazing and important natural phenomena that we humans get to witness every year. It can tell us a great deal about a species of bird and also speaks volumes about the state of ecosystems, including levels of prey or whether there have been recent disturbances.

Some birds’ migrations only cover short distances, while others travel much further. The arctic tern, for instance, travels an average of 44,000 miles on a wandering route from its arctic breeding ground to its home in the Antarctic. Some species fly low, while others fly thousands of feet above the ground. Bar-headed geese have been known to reach altitudes of 29,000 feet as they migrate across the Himalayas. That birds can find their way on such long trips continues to amaze both the average observer and the educated scientist. They use the sun, the stars and even the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate their way across continents.

Birds prepare for these often rigorous trips by entering a state called hyperphagia, where they eat almost continuously in the days or weeks leading up to the migration, storing the energy from the food as fat to be used on their journey. Some birds store so much energy that they can double their own body weight!

Geese at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

A flock of geese. Credit: USDA

All of this, work, however, is only worth it if the place the birds are going — whether it is a breeding ground, a warm vacation home to wait out the winter or the promise of an all-you-can-eat buffet — is still a healthy ecosystem when the birds arrive. As habitats continue to fall to development, climate change, wildfires and dozens of other factors, more and more migratory birds face a stark reality instead of a warm welcome when they reach their destination.

So how can you get involved in this year’s International Migratory Bird Day? You can go to any of the dozens of bird-centric events that will be taking place across the country to raise awareness of bird conservation, including several at national wildlife refuges. You can also contribute to organizations that work to protect and restore habitats for birds, including American Forests. However you decide to participate, take some time to celebrate our feathered friends this weekend, and don’t forget to check out Environment for the America’s list of 20 Ways to Conserve Birds, from cutting down on plastic to helping to educating others about the issues facing bird conservation.

The Crown of the Continent

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Mt. Cannon and Lake McDonald at sunset in Glacier National Park

Mt. Cannon and Lake McDonald at sunset in Glacier National Park. Credit: David Restivo/NPS

It’s called the Crown of the Continent, with more than a million acres of preserved forests, alpine meadows, lakes, mountain peaks and glacial-carved valleys. More than a thousand species of vascular plants, including 20 different tree species; nearly 70 species of mammals, including grizzly bears, wolverines, gray wolves and lynx; and more than 270 species of birds, including golden eagles, call it home. Tomorrow, May 11, it celebrates its 112th anniversary. What is this wondrous place? It’s Montana’s Glacier National Park.

National Geographic describes Glacier as “where everything bright and strong and never tamed comes together on high,” and it truly represents some of the most magnificent examples of Mother Nature at work.

First, there are the glaciers and the Rockies. When visiting Glacier, you’re actually looking 10,000 years into the past, as its glacier-formed landscape remains much the same as it was thousands of years ago. The last time the ice sheets reached into America, they carved out deep valleys in Glacier’s mountains, the Rockies. Much of Glacier’s landscape is dominated by North America’s famous mountain chain. The park’s highest peak, Mt. Cleveland, reaches more than 10,000 feet into the air, but an additional 100-plus peaks jut more than 8,000 feet above ground level. The ice still remains in some places, as the park currently has 26 glaciers within its boundaries — although 100 years ago when the park was founded, the number of glaciers was closer to 150.

Thuderbird Mountain as seen from the Hole-in-the-Wall Campground

Thuderbird Mountain as seen from the Hole-in-the-Wall Campground. Credit: David Restivo/NPS

Then, there are the forests. More than half of Glacier is forested, but the types of forest vary across the acres from moist coniferous to dry coniferous to deciduous — and then there are the wetlands, marshes and swamps. It’s estimated that some of the trees in the park’s western lower Avalanche Creek area are more than 500 years old. The park’s flora diversity is a result of Glacier’s unique position on the continent. In its west, the park experiences the cool, moist weather typical of the Pacific Northwest, whereas its eastern portion is dominated by dry, windy, continental air masses.

Also, let’s not forget the wildlife — both animal and human. Glacier is a key habitat for the endangered gray wolf and four of America’s threatened animal species: bald eagles, grizzly bears, lynx and bull trout. Plus, elk, beaver, moose, copious amounts of bird species and more all call the park home. For those of us with two legs, the park offers more than 740 miles of maintained trails that we can use to experience the park’s grandeur up close.

Finally, there’s the water factor. Known for its crystal-clear water, Glacier is at the head of three of the most important watersheds on the continent: the Pacific, Atlantic and Hudson Bay, meaning that water falling within its confines contributes to the drinking water levels for millions of people across the continent. The park houses more than 200 lakes and more than 1,500 miles of streams.

And, just think, I’ve only given you the broad overview of what this national treasure has to offer. So today, I’m thankful that more than 100 years ago, President Taft signed a bill establishing our 10th national park, leading to the preservation of its pristine wilderness for a multitude of generations to come.

Visitors walking the trail from Logan Pass Visitor Center to Hidden Lake Overlook in Glacier National Park

Visitors walking the trail from Logan Pass Visitor Center to Hidden Lake Overlook in Glacier National Park. Credit: David Restivo/NPS

Going With the Flo

by Amanda Tai

San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region/ Flickr

You may have noticed that we have a strong female presence on our blog. It got me thinking about all the environmentally minded women that have blazed a trail for us, the likes of Rachel Carson, Vandana Shiva and Wangari Maathai. I recently heard about another woman who should be on that list. Her life’s work has been dedicated to improving wetlands and wildlife habitat in the San Francisco Bay area. Her name is Florence LaRiviere. Tomorrow, the 88 year old will be presented the 2012 National Wetlands Award for Wetland Community Leader of the Year by the Environmental Law Institute.

Florence and her family would frequently visit the San Francisco Bay area in the 1950s to watch the birds and wildlife in the tidal marshes. Over the years, she noticed that the wetlands were diminishing as a result of nearby development. The thriving habitat once full of wildlife was quickly disappearing, making way for golf courses and an airport. Recognizing the need for wetland protection, Florence and her husband Philip helped coordinate a group that advocated for what would become the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in 1972. It was the nation’s first urban national wildlife refuge. The refuge is now part of a complex of seven national wildlife refuges and protects 30,000 acres of wetlands in the San Francisco Bay area, including the LaRiviere Marsh Trail that’s named in her honor.

Florence and Philip walk through the LaRiviere Marsh. Credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Darryl Bush

Thanks to Florence’s efforts to restore the refuge, wildlife is slowly returning to the area. The refuge serves as critical habitat to species like the endangered California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse. Located along the Pacific Flyway, the refuge also hosts hundreds of migratory bird species throughout the year. Even at the seasoned age of 88, LaRiviere says there’s no stopping her now. “Despite the years I’ve put in, I still look forward to working on the wetlands,” LaRiviere told Palo Alto Online. “The refuge is not yet complete, and there are remaining issues to be addressed. Today, some of the beautiful marshlands of Newark and Redwood City are being threatened.”

It appears, like the old saying goes, that a woman’s work is never done.

Biodiversity: A Lot To Lose

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Longleaf Pine

Longleaf pine, a species that could be in danger of becoming extinct in parts of the southeast. (Photo credit: ChrisM)

With the amount of coverage it receives (and rightfully so) in the media, you probably think that climate change is the single greatest threat to forests. And while it certainly is a serious threat to the stability and survival of all ecosystems, recent research shows that there’s another problem facing forests today that may be just as serious: biodiversity loss.

An ecosystem’s biodiversity is the variety of living things within it. Because only healthy, stable ecosystems can support a great variety of species, biodiversity is generally considered a key indicator of what condition the ecosystem is in. But it works the other way, too. For instance, when a forest loses some of its species, it creates gaps in the food web, and a ripple effect can be felt throughout the entire ecosystem. But just how bad can the consequences of biodiversity loss get?

A team of researchers from nine institutions across the U.S., Canada and Sweden recently published a study that details how extensively the loss of biodiversity of plant species can affect an ecosystem and how that impact compares to those expected from climate change. The team used published data from 192 different experiments to gage how various environmental factors affect two of the most basic processes of all types of ecosystems: plant growth and decomposition. From there, they could determine the scale of the effects on the ecosystem as a whole.

What the researchers found was that in places where species loss is higher, we could see the same scale of effects that we see from climate change. Just as droughts, fires and diseases are changing landscapes around the world, loss of biodiversity can have the same kind of ecosystem-altering effect. When loss of species starts to interfere with the rate of plant growth or decomposition, the domino effect can change the entire ecosystem from the bottom up. The study also determined that in more drastic cases, where 41 to 60 percent of species are driven extinct, the effects can be just as damaging as those from acid rain or nutrient pollution, which can devastate an ecosystem.

Fringed campion

The endangered fringed campion (Photo credit: USFWS)

Extinctions, even on a massive scale, have happened historically. But today, the rate at which Earth is losing species is a lot higher. Urban development, hunting, pollution and other factors have made it all too easy for the planet to lose species much faster than it is used to. The scary thing is that for the widespread effects talked about in this study to occur, species don’t have to go globally extinct — they just have to be wiped out of an area they once populated, and sadly enough, that happens rather often. If we want to avoid the potential fallout from losing species, we’re going to have to work harder to keep them.





How Much Is a Tree Worth?

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Giant sequoia trees in the Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park

Giant sequoia trees in the Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park. Credit: Kreg Wallace/Flickr

Here at American Forests, we love big trees — as is evident by our 70-plus-year-old National Big Tree Program. We love big trees for a variety of reasons, like their size and the histories they tell, but perhaps the biggest reason is the most hidden of all: They’re good for our forests.

A study released this week in the online science journal PloS ONE reveals the exact extent of big trees’ impact on their ecosystems. It turns out that trees three-plus feet in diameter account for almost half of the biomass in the 63-acre section in Yosemite National Park that was studied, but are only one percent of the trees growing there. Now, what does this mean to those of us who didn’t major in ecology? Well, ecosystems at their most basic level are comprised of living (plants, animals, organisms) and non-living things (air, sunlight, minerals). Biomass represents the living side of that equation; all of the things that are alive and kicking (or were recently alive and kicking) make up an ecosystem’s biomass. So back to that conclusion earlier, if you had a forest area of 100,000 trees, just 1,000 big trees in that area would be responsible for 50 percent of the area’s biomass. That’s just crazy, right?

Actually, not so crazy.

Let’s start with the trees themselves. They’re big, so they take in more light than other trees nearby, which means more photosynthesis, carbon sequestration, transpiration (the absorption and dispersal of water through their roots and leaves) and other activities. When you combine all of these activities, the big trees actually can form their own microclimate. Then, there are the animals that love to use these big trees as their homes, burrowing into their trunks and making nests in their canopies — plus, the animals that use the trees for food. And, then there are all of the insects and microscopic organisms that feast on and around these trees. Basically, the bigger the tree, the more living things that can flock to it.

Ponderosa pine in Leidig Meadow in Yosemite Valley

Ponderosa pine in Leidig Meadow in Yosemite Valley. Credit: Sumedha Swamy/Flickr

But, this alone isn’t what accounts for big trees’ 50 percent of the biomass — they contribute in death, too. When any tree falls in the forest, it becomes a woody haven for the earthbound organisms of the forest, and the bigger the tree, the more it can support. Plants and trees can grow from fallen trunks. Even animal species that won’t set foot in a big tree’s canopy can find comfy digs in it once it’s on the ground. And, of course, they continue to store carbon and nutrients, as they slowly release them back into the environment.

Basically, a big tree is a big deal to life in at least temperate forests, where this study was conducted. Which means, big trees — and conversely, old trees since you can’t get big without some years on you — need to be protected. This also calls into question the paradigm for many development projects: cutting down a tree even if you’re going to plant a new tree in its place does not an even exchange make. As this study shows, we lose a whole lot more than one tree when old, big trees are lost. That’s why we’re fighting the good fight and honor our big trees every year with our National Register of Big Trees so that the biggest trees in the country can be recognized and appreciated for the value they provide.

After the Flames

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Post-fire Habitat Oregon Cascades

Post-fire habitat in the Oregon Cascades (Photo credit: US Forest Service)

When you think of protecting a habitat for an animal, you probably think of a place that is green and full of life. A forest, a jungle, a grassland or others. What you probably don’t think of — and what I didn’t either, until recently — are the blackened remains of a post-fire forest. This razed landscape with its charred trees doesn’t look like it could support much life. But contrary to what we might think, this post-fire landscape is a habitat in its own right, not only capable of supporting life, but in the case of the black-backed woodpecker, vital to it.

When a forest burns, the trees become susceptible to a variety of pests, including wood-boring beetles that burrow into the bark to lay their eggs. The black-backed woodpeckers feed on these insects and their larvae — so where we see a forest laid to waste, they see a smorgasbord. When nature takes its course, fires occur every so often in a forest, burning enough to create this type of habitat and support it for a few years. By the time a forest recovers enough to no longer play host to the woodpeckers’ food, another fire would have already taken place somewhere within their range. The problem that the woodpecker faces now is that nature hasn’t taken its course in quite some time.

About a century of fire suppression has thrown the natural cycles of fire in those forests out of whack. Instead of frequent, low-intensity burns, fires are becoming fewer and farther between, but often more intense. This means that there is a smaller amount of this bird’s habitat — the post-fire forest — to begin with. The other side of the problem is that where the habitat does exist, it doesn’t remain untouched for very long. Today, when a fire occurs, humans are swarming the forest before the flames go out. After the smoke clears, crews use the damaged forest for salvage logging, taking down the trees that the insects — and in turn, the woodpeckers — rely on.

Black Backed Woodpecker

The black-backed woodpecker (Photo credit: USFWS North)

Although the black-backed woodpecker has been a native to North America since the last ice age, there are very few left in the U.S. today. Scientists estimate that only 1,000 pairs of the bird remain in Oregon and California, and less than 500 pairs are left in the Black Hills region of Wyoming and South Dakota. With numbers like that, things look pretty bleak for the black-backed woodpecker. That’s why several conservation groups have filed a petition to have the bird listed under the Endangered Species Act in their historic range across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Oregon’s eastern Cascades and the Black Hills region. The petition marks the very first time that the federal government has been asked to recognize and grant protection to a post-fire habitat.

If the bird is deemed endangered, and its habitat protected, it could have some fairly widespread impacts. Some areas traditionally open to salvage logging after fires would be closed, which could affect local economies. At the same time, the birds could also put a real dent in the spreading population of one of their favorite snacks: the mountain pine beetle, which has caused no end of devastation in western U.S. forests. When infested stands are used for logging, the trees are removed, but this practice hasn’t resulted in much of a decrease in beetles. Since the birds feed on the beetles’ larvae, they could act as natural bug-fighters, if given the chance.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a few months to determine if the black-backed woodpecker warrants an endangered listing. With so many other factors tied up in the fate of this one bird, and other post-fire-habitat-dependent species waiting in line to see what decision is made, it will be interesting to see if the powers that be will continue to see scorched forests as habitats that have been destroyed, or recognize them as distinct and valuable habitats in their own right.

Python-hunting Dogs to the Rescue

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Snakes creep me out. I get goosebumps looking at their pictures. I hid my face during any sequence in the last few Harry Potter films involving a large digitized snake. Yep, I’m a wuss when it comes to snakes. Yet, for the last few years, I’ve been fascinated by the story of Burmese pythons in Florida’s Everglades National Park — and a new twist involving some talented canines makes the story even better.

Burmese python

Burmese python. Credit: Skip Snow/NPS

For those of you who haven’t been following this ecological conundrum, Burmese pythons are taking over the Everglades. I’m not exaggerating. The pythons, a non-native species to the U.S., came to this country as pets — until their owners decided that having a snake in their house that could grow to more than 20 feet in length wasn’t the best idea. So what to do with an unwanted snake from a foreign country? They dump it in the wilderness, which has spelled bad things for the Everglades.

Unlike many national parks throughout the country that were preserved because of combination of their gorgeous landscapes and important ecosystems, the Everglades is protected mainly because of its biodiversity. It’s a swampy, marshy, water-based ecosystem that is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S., housing many rare and endangered species. It’s an unusual place where crocodiles and alligators actually live side by side. Thousands of wading birds use it for migration and breeding. And the pythons are threatening it.

Since 2000, mammal populations in the Everglades have seen a rapid decline. Bobcat, opossum and raccoon sightings have decreased in frequency by more than 87 percent, and rabbits and foxes aren’t seen anymore at all, according to a study released in January. According to study co-author John Willson, “The effects of declining mammal populations on the overall Everglades ecosystem, which extends well beyond the national park boundaries, are likely profound … Studies examining such effects are sorely needed to more fully understand the impacts pythons are having on one of our most unique and valued national parks.” And, mammals aren’t the only species at risk as pythons have also been documented to eat full-grown alligators (watch the video below from PBS’ “Nature” to see an alligator and python collide) and birds. Basically, to preserve the native wildlife that calls the Everglades home, the python population has to be controlled. But pythons are very skilled at camouflaging themselves, so how do you manage something you can’t find? By employing something that has a keener nose than you.

Watch Alligator Versus Python on PBS. See more from Nature.

For years, dogs have been employed to sniff out drugs and bombs, but now, their super sniffers are being turned to ecological uses: They’re being trained to hunt pythons. For three years, multiple departments at Auburn University have been working on a program called EcoDogs, which is designed to “train detection dogs to find plant and animal species, or their sign [such as their scat or dung], in the field for the benefit of ecological research, management or conservation.” These dogs are being trained to specialize in tracking things like scat from a variety of mammals such as skunks, black bears, weasels, bobcats and foxes to invasive root fungi that’s threatening pine trees in Alabama. Black labs Jake and Ivy, though, have living targets: Burmese pythons.

The dogs were trained for six months to prepare their bodies for the physical task and condition their brains in search patterns and distinguishing the smell of pythons. Then, they were taken into the Everglades for a field test, having been trained to “alert” their handlers of a python’s presence by sitting down when they got within five meters of one, at which point the dogs went in the truck and the human snake wranglers went to work. The Auburn program is still young, but Jake and Ivy have already helped researchers catch 19 pythons in the Everglades. Researchers hope that by adding these dogs to the list of tools available to hunt and capture pythons, the management of the Everglades python invasion will become easier. Good dogs!