If you’re lucky, you may have seen a bald eagle soaring over Lake Monroe down near Bloomington or a peregrine falcon swooping down from the skyscrapers of Indianapolis. Both are species native to Indiana, and yet both are species that were nearly extinct from the state at one point.
That’s where the Indiana Department of Natural Resources comes in. The agency, over the years, has reintroduced multiple wildlife species back into Indiana’s environment. Many of those animals are thriving again in the state.
But there also are numerous other species that are still struggling and on the decline throughout the state — species that DNR has its eyes on and could be candidates for future recoveries.
As Hoosiers all over the state have taken to the outdoors during the pandemic, they have become all the more interested in Indiana’s forests, rivers and wetlands — and the animals that call them home. That’s evident by the many questions we’ve received on the topic.
For this week’s Scrub Hub, we will be answering Rob Brown’s question. The Carmel resident wants to know: Why are wildlife reintroductions important? And what, if any, species are they thinking about bringing back in the future?
The Short Answer
There are a variety of reasons why a state may want to reintroduce a species, according to Emily Wood, executive director of the Indiana Wildlife Federation, which often partners with DNR on these efforts. One may be to help bring some genetic diversity back into the environment, she said. Or sometimes, a species may be brought back to help control another population. The need to control the elk population is part of the reason why gray wolves were reintroduced in the Rocky Mountains.
There’s one goal, however, that all these efforts have in common: To establish a healthy and self-sustaining population of a species in a place where it is endangered or even extinct in a certain area.
Every species has a crucial role to play in the ecosystem, Wood said. She once remembers reading an analogy that has stuck with her: If we think of our ecosystem as an airplane flying in the air, and think of each species as an individual rivet on the plane holding it all together, then how many rivets can we lose before the plan is at risk of crashing?
It’s the same idea as pulling a thread in a tapestry, taking bricks out of a wall or removing spokes from a wheel. All the species in that ecosystem are important to how it functions, she said, and if even just a couple are lost then the system could collapse.
White tail deer were on the brink of extinction in Indiana nearly a century ago, until they were brought back. Bald eagles and ospreys were all but gone from the state until DNR first started reintroducing them a couple decades ago. And now, many of these species are thriving.
The Long Answer
Though Indiana has some tremendous success stories, reintroducing a species is not easy.
“We are trying to bring them back and for whatever reason they no longer are there,” said Scott Johnson, a wildlife science supervisor in DNR’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. “There is a lot that goes into that, but they are not there for a reason.”
That is the first key, said Johnson, who has worked on many of Indiana’s recovery efforts in recent decades. There often is a lot of work, potentially years of research, that goes into understanding why a species declined.
It could be habitat loss from encroaching development or climate change. There could be a disease spreading throughout a species, as with some of Indiana’s bats. Or perhaps a species’ food source is endangered, causing ripple effects along the chain.
For bald eagles and ospreys, the main culprit was DDT, a chemical that was used as an insecticide in the mid-1900s before people understood the harm it was doing to the environment and wildlife. For many birds and raptors in particular, DDT thinned their eggs, killing their embryos. But once the state was able to get the chemical cleaned up, Johnson said it was able to begin reintroducing eagles.
For otters, there were issues with water quality and unregulated hunting, according to Johnson. But DNR was able to put some systems and regulations in place that helped bring them back.
Not only does the state have to understand what led to the decline, but they have to address that cause before a reintroduction can be successful. Sometimes that isn’t easy, as in cases where habitat has been lost.
These efforts also take a long time and are very resource intensive, Johnson said.
Take the eagles, again. They were first reintroduced in 1989 as eaglets so that they could become familiar with and imprint on the area. That’s important so that they felt comfortable enough with their surroundings by the time they matured to breeding age. But it wasn’t until just last year, in 2020, that bald eagles were removed from the state’s list of species that are endangered or of special concern.
One of the biggest obstacles to this work is funding, according to Tim Maloney, senior policy director with the Hoosier Environmental Council.
The federal Endangered Species Program comes with some funding in grants, he said, but many states don’t put much state funding into these programs to be able to leverage those funds. And those aren’t permanent, dedicated funds, Johnson added — states essentially have to apply and compete for them every year. Indiana usually gets just under $1 million from that program, he said.
Much of Indiana’s state-level funding comes from contributions, Maloney said, either donations or the tax check off. “And we don’t get very much from that,” he said.
There is a new national proposal to fund this type of conservation work called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. It is currently being considered by Congress and has bipartisan support. The act would create some permanent funding — to the tune of $1.4 billion — to states and territories to catalyze proactive efforts to restore essential habitat and implement strategies in line with each state’s wildlife action plan.
States would still need to put in some of their own dollars to maximize funding from the act. But if Indiana could do that, Maloney said, it could receive as much as $16 million each year for this work.
“That would be huge,” he said. According to the National Wildlife Federation, current funding levels are less than 5% of what is necessary.
One major aspect of the wildlife act and its funding is to help at-risk wildlife before it needs more costly and restrictive efforts.
“We compare it to the emergency room versus going to get a wellness check-up,” Wood with Indiana’s Wildlife Federation said. “If we wait till the ER, it will be a lot more expensive and difficult. It’s the same if we wait for a species to be imperiled, there will be fewer options, more expensive options, and some Hail Mary passes.”
That’s the same approach Indiana’s DNR is taking. The hellbender, for example, is a small salamander now found only in the state’s Blue River watershed. It’s an ancient population, but there have not been any documented reproductions in years, Johnson said. So in just the last decade, DNR has been working with zoos and universities across the states to rear hellbenders in a controlled setting and release them into the wild to hopefully reestablish the population.
DNR also has its eyes on freshwater mussels across the state, and is working to protect and augment the populations that remain. But with more than 100 species “of greatest conservation need” on the state’s endangered and special concern list, Johnson said there is always more work to be done.
“How I think most wildlife agencies are thinking these days is that we don’t want to get in a position where we have to have a reintroduction,” said DNR’s Johnson. “So we’re looking more at reinforcement or to bolster populations that we currently have.”
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.