The Western New York Environmental Alliance is an umbrella group that is committed to the preservation and restoration of our regional environment. The work of the Alliance takes place in Working Groups focused on environmental topics.
To get involved with habitat and nature issues in Western New York, read on to learn more, join the Working Group listserv, and come to a meeting.
- Educating the public about the importance of habitat and native species;
- Reducing or controlling invasive species; and
- Protecting regional habitats such as corridors to ensure the connectivity of urban and rural areas.
Working Group Contact
Jay Burney, Learning Sustainability Campaign / Times Beach Nature Preserve
OUR WESTERN NEW YORK HERITAGE
During the last Ice Age, glaciers invaded all but a small area of New York State. Due to long-term temperature changes, the southern edge of this glacier retreated and advanced several times, scraping, pushing and dragging huge volumes of rock and soil. Stream valleys deepened; others filled with glacial debris. Colossal boulders were picked up and deposited many miles away. Glacial runoff streams deposited piles of smaller, sorted sentiments like sand and gravel. (Genesee Country Magazine)
Much of the landscape in Western New York was cut out by thousands of years of this retreating ice, creating extensive waterways, including two Great Lakes and multiple river systems, which support the surrounding ecosystem of deciduous and coniferous forests flourishing with wildlife.
The unique forests of Western New York, constantly changing with the seasons, supply a vital habitat to an array of plant and animal life. Large mammals such as deer and bears are native to our region, as well as smaller species like squirrels, voles, and shrews. Snakes and salamanders also share our wild spaces, along with many species of insects.
The changing seasons allow both deciduous hardwood and coniferous forests to exist that harbor an abundant variety of flowers and plant species, providing food and shelter for wild animals, as well as a beautiful outdoor scenery for us to explore.
Local waterways provide important habitats for many species of birds. The Niagara River is an internationally recognized flyway and Important Bird Area (IBA). The river and lakes support huge populations of waterfowl, and Niagara Falls is one of the best spots for gulls in the world. The Great Lakes and rivers throughout the region provide important aquatic habitats for fish, turtles, plants, and invertebrates. These waterways, especially the Great Lakes, support the delicate balance of our ecosystem, and impacts to them ripple throughout the rest of the system.
Between the land and water are the important habitats of wetlands which include marshes, swamps, fens and bogs. Wetlands were viewed as wastelands in the past and were either filled or drained and many of these habitats are lost forever. These habitats not only provide a habitat for a variety of plants and wildlife, but also provide ecosystem services such as flood control and water filtration. The importance of wetlands is now recognized and they are protected by federal and state legislation.
NATURE AND HABITAT TODAY
Destroying the habitat of one plant or animal has the ability to impact many others. Any animal that interacts with, relies upon, eats, or even simply lives in close proximity can be impacted. And all animals require a certain amount of space and wildlife to be able to feed and raise their young.
When people develop land, one negative consequence is fragmentation – when habitat that was once continuous becomes split into different pieces. As fragmentation occurs, not only are some animals driven away, but others are attracted. In Western New York, the over-population of deer is an example of what can happen as a result of habitat fragmentation. Deer thrive on the borders of fragmented forest land, while natural deer predators such as wolves do not.
Western New York has experienced impacts on habitat as a result of agricultural, energy, and industrial development. While some agricultural practices preserve the quality of the land, other farming methods can deplete the soil of nutrients, erode the land, and lead to further habitat loss. To mitigate potential problems associated with habitat loss from agriculture, sustainable farming practices can be used to feed Western New Yorkers and support the local economy. The WNY Land Conservancy works with farmers to minimize soil erosion, and the Conservation Reserve Program assists farmers in addressing environmental impacts in a cost-effective manner.
Habitat loss also results from the region's historic industrial development. Many factories were built along the lakes and the Niagara River, and development and pollution took its toll on the natural riparian ecosystem. Riparian ecosystems are the habitats where water meets land. As many of these old industrial sites have now been abandoned, one solution for this type of habitat loss is to allow natural habitats to reestablish themselves at abandoned industrial sites.
In an effort to prevent negative environmental consequences that future generations will have to work to fix, the impact of industrial development on wildlife and habitat is now assessed before construction begins. This assessment is called an Environmental Impact Study (or EIS).
Many Western New Yorkers are concerned about the impact energy development might have on our local environment. For example, a recent hot topic has been a technique of natural gas extraction called hydraulic fracturing (or hydro-fracking). Hydro-fracking involves drilling in to shale rock beds that extend beneath the landscape of much of Western New York in order to harvest natural gas pockets. Sierra Club Niagara Group and Powershift NY are two environmental groups that are concerned about disturbing otherwise untouched natural places like Allegany State Park in the southern tier for energy development.
Wind energy, a popular resource advocated for locally as a clean source of energy, is also thought to have an impact on wildlife, such as birds and bats. The New York Power Authority's (NYPA) recent proposal to build offshore wind turbines in the lakes has opponents arguing about the impact the turbines will have on the Great Lakes ecosystem.
And recently, a proposal to build a coal-fired power plant in Jamestown was rejected after groups like WNY Climate Action fought hard against it. The coal-fired plant would have increased carbon dioxide released in to the atmosphere and contributed to habitat loss due to a change in our regional climate. Excess carbon dioxide contributes to climate change that would affect all areas of wildlife, plant and animal, throughout Western New York.
Invasive species are non-indigenous or non-native plants or animals that negatively affect the native habitat of a region. When introduced, these organisms dominate a new region because they have no natural competitors and/or predators in their new ecosystem. By consuming resources native species need to survive, invasive species can “choke out” a local species altogether, reducing the biodiversity of our region and affecting other areas of the food chain.
Invasive species can be introduced accidentally when a person travels from one location to another, unaware that seeds, insects, or even small animals are on board their person, their cars, boats or trailers, or in their cargo such as firewood or soil. Invasive species can also be introduced on purpose when people bring species to a foreign area without understanding the impact it may cause in our region.
One commonly known invasive species in Western New York and throughout the Great Lakes is the zebra mussel. Brought to the Great Lakes in the late-1980s by ballast water from ocean-going vessels from Europe, zebra mussels have thrived in Lake Erie because of their aggressive feeding and propensity to pile themselves on top of other mussels – choking out and starving native species of mussels, as well as animals further-up the food chain such as feeder fish. Like many invasive species, they also have no predators in our Great Lakes ecosystems to keep their numbers under control, resulting in serious environmental and economic consequences.
On the environmental side, native species of mussels have all but disappeared in the western basin of Lake Erie. Additionally, while it is true that zebra mussels also filter water at an amazing rate, making the Lake very clear, this does not mean the water is effectively any cleaner. Rather, all they have done is filtered out all of the algae which normally would be food for native microscopic organisms (which in turn are food for small native fish).
In addition to environmental impacts, zebra mussels also have had a large economic impact. Many power plants and water users have had to spend millions of dollars cleaning off zebra mussels from their facilities. In addition, more money has been spent on retrofitting facilities with devices to keep zebra mussels out and to monitor for them. These costs get passed along to the consumers.
While the zebra mussel provides a powerful example of the devastating impacts of invasive species, it is only one of many invasive species in the Western New York region. Others include plants like garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, and water chestnut, as well as fish like the round gobies and invertebrates such as earthworms. A recent and potentially devastating invasive insect to the region’s millions of ash trees is the emerald ashborer. To prevent the spread of the emerald ashborer, it is illegal to move raw lumber and nursery stock from quarantined areas and untreated firewood can no longer be moved over 50 miles, so buy it where you burn it. Western New York Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (WNY PRISM) is a cooperative effort that addresses local issues regarding invasive species.
HOW CAN I MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Learn about the local ecosystems so that you will be able to form realistic opinions on new proposed development in your area. When something seems unduly harmful to your area, be sure to speak out and let your local leaders know how you feel.
Knowledge of local habitats is also helpful when hiking, camping, fishing or enjoying any other outdoor activity. The Buffalo Audubon Society, Tifft Nature Preserve, Times Beach, and Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve all offer outdoor education and wildlife enjoyment programs for you and your family. Visit our Events Calendar and filter by educational programs and outdoor recreation to find out about upcoming opportunities.
Volunteering not only helps out great local organizations, it can also help you to learn more about local environmental issues. Some of the many organizations you can volunteer with include the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Re-Tree WNY, Tifft Nature Preserve, and the WNY Land Conservancy. Visit the Get Involved section of this website to learn about upcoming volunteer opportunities.
Plant Native Species
When looking for new plants for your yard and garden, try to incorporate native species. While many “exotic” plants are tempting, native plants have the advantage of being adapted for our local environment and are therefore more likely to thrive in our gardens. They also minimize the threat of spreading problematic invasive species and provide a home for local birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife. Check out the resources below for ideas for native plants.
The more you experience our local natural environments, the more you will understand what treasures we have in our own backyard. State Parks such as Letchworth State Park provide many opportunities for outdoor activities. For more ideas, visit our Go Outside map for great places to visit in Western New York.
Include Your Kids!
Children can establish a great respect for nature and be prepared to make solid environmental decisions for their entire lives, just by introducing them to habitat and nature at a young age. Taking regular family trips to explore and experience nature is the best way to build respect for our environment. Western New York offers so much to experience all around us -- and each experience can be a learning moment for your family.
Check out the Get Involved section of this website to find great educational programs and community events that will get you and your family enjoying the great outdoors together!
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
- Buffalo and Niagara Rivers Habitat Assessment and Conservation Framework. Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper
- Emerald Ash Borer. Canadian Food Inspection Agency
- Emerald Ash Borer. New York Invasive Species
- New York State (NYS) Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)
- Percent Ash Distribution by County. NYS DEC
- The Land Before Time. The Geology of Western New York
- Tallamy, Doug. Bringing Nature Home; How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.
- Zebra Mussel FAQ's. Southeast Ecological Science Center