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Study: As fracking increases, waterthrush nesting success falls

A Louisiana Waterthrush walks along a stream in Shawnee State Park in southern Ohio. Photo by Joshua Clark
A Louisiana Waterthrush perches along a stream in Shawnee State Park in southern Ohio. Photo by Joshua Clark

The environmental hazards of shale gas development (also known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”) include groundwater contamination, methane pollution, toxic-chemical exposure, large-volume water use, and fracking-induced earthquakes, among others. Now, we can put declining songbird populations on the list, thanks to a study published today in The Condor: Ornithological Applications, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Ornithological Society.

The report demonstrates that the nesting success of Louisiana Waterthrush — a habitat specialist that nests along forested streams, where the potential for habitat degradation is high — is declining at sites impacted by shale gas development in northwestern West Virginia.

West Virginia University’s Mack Frantz and his colleagues mapped waterthrush territories and monitored nests along 14 streams from 2009 to 2011 and again from 2013 to 2015. They also mapped and measured disturbances to streams and to the forest canopy, using aerial photographs and satellite imagery as well as extensive ground-truthing, and classified them according to whether they were related to shale gas development.

Their results show that as shale gas development has expanded in the area, nest survival and productivity and riparian habitat quality have declined. At the same time, the size of individual waterthrush territories has increased, suggesting birds need to range farther to find sufficient resources. This study is one of the first to demonstrate that shale gas development can affect songbird reproductive success and productivity, both directly through the presence of fracking infrastructure and indirectly through effects on habitat quality.

“In general, all demographic parameters for waterthrushes appeared to be negatively affected by shale gas disturbances occurring in headwater stream ecosystems,” Frantz wrote. “To our knowledge, ours is the first study to have established the potential for Marcellus-Utica shale gas development to affect the reproductive success and productivity of forest birds.”

(The Marcellus-Utica shale in the central Appalachian region is said to be the most expansive shale basin “with the most potentially recoverable gas.”)

“I hope our findings lead to robust protections of our forested headwater stream ecosystems, which are currently overlooked for regulation despite their critical role in providing nutrients and organic matter downstream, not to mention as an important source for drinking water,” says Frantz. “Waterthrushes are a modern-day canary in the coal mine, and there are many more opportunities to study how anthropogenic disturbance affects and entangles food webs at the aquatic–terrestrial interface.”

“After 12 years of research conducted with this species, I have seen the numerous impacts hydraulic fracturing has had on waterthrush survival and the toll that the industry has had on our nation’s wild places and wildlife,” adds Louisiana State University-Alexandria’s Leesia Marshall, a waterthrush expert who was not involved in the study. “This paper should serve as a call for all scientists to redouble efforts across all related disciplines to document the present impacts of shale gas extraction and to develop strategies for mitigation and avoidance of potential impacts in the future.”

Read the abstract

Mack W. Frantz, Petra B. Wood, James Sheehan, and Gregory George. Demographic response of Louisiana Waterthrush, a stream obligate songbird of conservation concern, to shale gas development. The Condor: Ornithological Applications. Vol. 120, pp265-282. Abstract

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