Watershed Heroes: David Wheeler talks saving vital species through the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ
Horseshoe crabs are life-saving and played a role in the COVID-19 vaccine. Here’s how one org is saving endangered animals in New Jersey.
Green Philly: What is your title and your work?
David Wheeler: I’m the executive director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation. Our organization works to protect rare, at-risk wildlife in the New Jersey region and beyond. Our biologists have been a part of major recoveries like the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon that’s nesting in downtown Philadelphia right now. We’ve also worked to stave off extinction for a wide range of declining species like red knots and horseshoe crabs in the Delaware Bay, a number of bat species, and others.
My role as executive director is to continue to expand our reach as an organization (funding, expanding our projects, working with different partners, etc) and engaging the public with our education program.
What do you think has been your organization’s greatest accomplishment?
David Wheeler: Two things come to mind. One is our work in helping raptors recover here in the Northeast, in particular, Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and ospreys. Depending on the bird, they were fully gone or nearly gone from the Northeast. Peregrine Falcons, the fastest animal on Earth, were completely gone east of the Mississippi River. Bald Eagles were down to just a nesting pair in New Jersey and ospreys just down to a few dozen pairs as recently as the early 80s. Our scientists and incredible volunteers have worked with a number of partners to help those birds recover to the point where they’re really thriving now across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware. That’s in large part a testament to the science and really active stewardship of our biologists and volunteers. Being a part of that solution when so much wildlife and nature is in jeopardy has been phenomenal.
The project that is really inspiring is our work in Delaware Bay at the mouth of the Delaware River, dividing Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. This estuary holds one of the largest gatherings on the East Coast of migratory shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. These shorebirds fly from as far away as Tierra del Fuego and come to this region in massive numbers to feast on horseshoe crab eggs, which is an ancient creature that has swum before the dinosaurs and has survived five mass extinctions. They then head up to the Arctic for a hemisphere-wide migration, and Delaware Bay is the centerpiece of that.
Horseshoe crabs have been declining severely, so shorebirds have also been declining severely. Our scientists and teams of volunteers have helped to stabilize these populations and prevent further decline. This is not only tremendously valuable to the ecosystem built around horseshoe crabs because it feeds fish, Diamondback Terrapins, and birds. Horseshoe crabs also provide something called lysate through their blood, which is the single way to test vaccines for a toxin, including the COVID vaccine. It’s such an amazing story and it all comes back to this prehistoric creature.
What kind of repercussions do you think wildlife is going to face from COVID-19?
David Wheeler: It’s been kind of a mixed bag for wildlife. In those early months, people were more indoors than ever, you had wildlife across the Northeast and the world getting out into long off-limit areas. Across the world, we saw everything from mountain lions in downtown Boulder, Colorado to species of dolphin swimming in the Middle East to monkeys in urban areas in Southeast Asia. Locally, Bald Eagles were able to nest more freely and with less interruption from people, so had maybe the most productive season.
We’ve seen remarkable wildlife influxes in areas that have long been off-limits.
The bigger issue is that so many conservation projects, especially in other international areas had to be scaled back. We’ve been fortunate here in the Northeast where we’ve been able to continue our projects with some changes for safety. Many global projects came to a halt and the repercussions could be serious because you’re not only stopping the conservation, but you’re stopping tourism money and the money that goes into helping to build up the local communities that are so vital to conservation work.
What do you think is the biggest environmental issue facing wildlife populations right now?
David Wheeler: Climate change is the biggest issue. All of the other issues that have impacted wildlife are mostly made worse by climate change: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, wildlife disease.
For example, new tropical songbirds migrate from South America and come up to Pennsylvania, New Jersey every Spring. Over millennia, they’ve timed it to arrive right when flowers are blooming, when the insects are at their peak, emerging caterpillars are widespread and they arrive to this feast every Spring and lay eggs for the next generation. But climate change in the last few decades has caused a shift in timing. Now in many species, they might be arriving at the same time, but all of the action for them is happening two or three weeks earlier so they’re late to the game. The all-you-can-eat buffet is almost cleared out. What we’re seeing is becoming increasingly noticeable and many species aren’t able to handle that.
That especially hurts the species that are rarer and at risk to begin with. The species like Canada Geese and house sparrows and white-tailed deer are doing fine. We’re seeing more and more of them and less of the other, at-risk species. I hope that some lessons learned from COVID might inform how we approach climate change in terms of that they’re not easy, “magic bullet” solutions. I would hope that maybe we could be on a better path for climate change.
What does sustainability mean to you?
David Wheeler: For me, sustainability is a matter of how can make sure that the natural world around us is in better shape moving forward than it has been to this point. We’ve had such a massive and increasing footprint around the world.
How do we make decisions that benefit everybody, including the natural world around us, and stop seeing it as two separate things? In reality, what’s happening in the natural world greatly affects us.
If pollinators are declining, one-third of our food source is at risk. If bats are declining, insect damage to our agriculture and indirectly to our waterways (pesticides and runoff) becomes a much greater issue. Horseshoe crabs are another example on our health and security.
I would say that my one hope is that because so many people have seemed to reengage with nature within the past year, we don’t take it for granted as much anymore. People remembered how good it is for you as an individual to have that engagement with nature.
What advice would you give to someone that wants to live more sustainably?
David Wheeler: For starters, think about what the impacts of the decisions you make are on the outside world. It’s as easy as things like don’t litter, avoid using pesticides or other harmful chemicals.
It could be as simple as planting native plants in your yard instead of an invasive species or just a grassy lawn that doesn’t offer any habitat-plant native. Put up bird boxes or bat boxes, help support wildlife and nature work. It could be local clean-ups; it could be convincing your community or school or your church to take a different approach to their own land.
Each individual can make a huge difference and figuring out what’s right for each person to get started, just finding one thing to start with goes a long way. You don’t suddenly trade-in your car for something different and do a massive lifestyle change all at once. Start with something that’s manageable for you as an individual and start to be a little more aware when you’re outdoors of the world around you.