Beavers and sturgeon and bass, oh my! What wildlife tells us about watershed health

Across the region, WHYY readers and listeners report an increase in wildlife in and around their local waterways. Is that a good sign for the watershed?

Listen 1:08
Chipmunk in tree

Chipmunk in tree. (Courtesy of Kim James)

Check out our Watershed Watch series for more stories.

In the beginning, Cathy Heckler didn’t know what, exactly, was swimming around in the creek.

“When we first saw it, we were wondering, ‘What the heck is this thing?’” she said. “We were looking with our binoculars, trying to figure out what it was, and then it started building a dam.”

That’s when she and her puzzled neighbors realized they were looking at a beaver.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Heckler lives in Marlborough Township, in Montgomery County. Behind her house runs the Unami Creek — “we call it a crick, up here” — which flows into the Perkiomen. She’s lived in Montgomery County all her life, but she’s never seen a beaver in the creek so close to her house.

The beaver isn’t the only animal Heckler and her neighbors have noticed recently, either. She rattled off a list: mink, turkeys, deer, red foxes, woodpeckers, eagles, chipmunks. She’s seen more of them this year than ever before.

Frog in the Perkiomen watershed. (Courtesy of Kim James)

Much farther south, in Salem County, New Jersey, fisherman and Helms Cove native Michael Worrell said he’s seen an uptick in fish populations too. He goes out fishing on his boat multiple times a week; this year in particular, he’s noticed sturgeon “jumping out of the water by the hundreds.”

Worrell said he’s lived there 49 years and been fishing for decades. In all that time, he’s never seen so many fish.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

All across the Delaware River watershed, people have reported seeing an increase in wildlife in and around their local waterways. Do their observations match what regional experts are noticing? And is it a good sign for the watershed?

The trouble with ‘counting’ wildlife

Concrete wildlife numbers would, of course, answer the question. But exact numbers are exactly what experts don’t have, said the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s John Morgan, the wildlife management supervisor for the southeast region of the state. The Game Commission relies on local reports, farmer complaints, and animal impacts to gauge animal counts every season, he said. That means every wildlife population estimate it makes is an educated guess, not a precise statement.

“No state can really do surveys to that detail, where we can give you one number this year, another number next year, and say, ‘Oh, well, the population is rising,’” Morgan said. “What we do is, we look at things that are impacted by populations.”

Then the commission adjusts hunting and trapping seasons accordingly, he said.

“I think it’s great when people report seeing wildlife … as long as [those] wildlife aren’t being a nuisance, aren’t being destructive, I think it’s wonderful,” Morgan added. “And it could mean that numbers are up. But again, if you get into the statistics of doing surveys, we don’t really know.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
deer crossing a river
Deer in the Perkiomen watershed. (Courtesy of Kim James)

Michael Porta, fisheries manager and biologist for the state Fish and Boat Commission, said increased sightings might not necessarily indicate an uptick in fish population.

“We attribute a lot of it to the current pandemic … I think a lot of people are outdoors, they’re social distancing … it may be that the perception of populations on the uptick may be just associated with increased angling pressure, the fact that so many people are on the waters,” Porta said.

In other words, the answer might not be that there are more fish. It might just be that there are more people to see them.

“The reality is, a lot of the species — Atlantic sturgeon, American shad, striped bass — they’re actually, their populations have been declining through time,” Porta said. “So odds are that the uptick in observations is probably just more people on the water making those observations.”

Dam removal and improved water quality can definitely increase habitat availability, he added. But that doesn’t necessarily correlate with population growth coastwide.

What’s with the animals then?

Maybe the experts haven’t seen consistent enough trends in wildlife activity to mark an increase or decrease in animal populations. It’s possible that the sightings reported by residents of the Delaware River Watershed might not indicate increased animal populations — instead, they could indicate a rise in quality habitat for those animals to thrive.

In Philadelphia, for example, as the water grows cleaner, wildlife are more likely to appear within city limits.

Brian Rademaekers, who works at the Philadelphia Water Department, said he’s noticed more wildlife too: river otters, beavers, American shad, striped bass, different types of herring. By now, they’ve become a part of his regular routine. Pre-pandemic, he used to walk down to the Fairmount Dam on breaks and watch hundreds of migratory fish climb the ladder there. More recently, he’s noted beavers and river otters in parks and along creeks.

If animals are flourishing in a particular habitat, it could be because they’re finding increased food sources and more welcoming environments, or noting a lack of predators since trapping and hunting in Pennsylvania has declined, said Ryan Reed, environmental expert for the state Bureau of Forestry.

“If folks are noticing more of a certain type of wildlife, that could be why,” Reed said.

swimming beaver
Beaver swimming in the Perkiomen watershed. (courtesy of Kim James)

Where the beavers Rademaekers and Heckler see are living, for example, he would expect to find young forest growth of aspen, willow or alder situated around rivers or creeks.

The wildlife, then, point to something bigger: the health of the environment around them.

“It’s just anecdotal, but I never thought I would see something like river otters and beavers in the city,” Rademaekers said. “Further up the watershed, it gets cleaner and cleaner, but down here, just to see the health of the watershed even in our most urban areas … it’s really encouraging and beautiful.”

That doesn’t mean the water system is perfect, he said: The city’s water is still plagued by chemical runoff, pollution and decades-old combined sewer overflows. But that’s a “last-mile” effort, Rademaekers said, and it’s hard to restructure a sewer system while simultaneously managing the demands that new development places on that system.

In the future, he said, he’d like to see what he calls a “Clean Water Act, part two, where the federal government really steps in and helps with the investment in that last mile, helps upgrade our wastewater treatment systems.”

Maybe then, Rademaekers said, there’d be even more wildlife returning to the city.

The reporting for this story is part of the broader “From the Source” project and is supported by the Lenfest Institute, the National Geographic Society, and the William Penn Foundation.

Cathy Heckler, Brian Rademaekers and Michael Worrell’s stories came to WHYY via responses to a callout asking how rivers and creeks in the area are changing. Get in touch and let us know what you’re seeing.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal