Wildlife in Estuaries Show Value of U.S. Coastal Reserves

First-of-its-kind inventory shows how wetlands benefit animals—and people

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Wildlife in Estuaries Show Value of U.S. Coastal Reserves
A fox with light brown fur jumps through the tall grasses of an expansive wetland, with its snout pointed toward the ground.
Photo courtesy of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System

Editor’s Note: This article was updated Nov. 3, 2023, to note that climate change and other factors are threatening wildlife species and their habitats. 

Relying on 140 camouflaged camera traps in 29 estuaries, scientists with the National Estuarine Research Reserves (NERRs) captured thousands of photos that represent the first inventory of North American coastal wetland wildlife. The images will be used to help answer questions about how to best support, protect, and restore wildlife species and their habitats in the face of climate change and other threats.

Scientists placed the cameras in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico in 2022. (The Pew Charitable Trusts’ coastal wetlands conservation work is focused on the U.S., thus the photo gallery doesn’t include Canadian sites.) The cameras were active only for the summer in 14 reserves and for a full year in the other 15 sites. The work in total documented more than 150 species of wildlife across North American wetlands, including armadillos in Florida, bobcats in South Carolina, elk in Oregon, and egrets in Puerto Rico. As with any credible, multisite, scientific project, researchers used consistent protocols across reserves, including camera placement, height, and settings.

National Estuarine Research Reserves create cultural and economic benefits to surrounding communities. Some of the photos depict the different ways humans use coastal wetlands, too; the cameras captured people birdwatching, kayaking, and hunting. Subsequent analyses of the images will address how to best manage the lands to enhance these and other recreational uses.

The project was underwritten by the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Analysis of the images is ongoing, and ultimately will address questions related to the biodiversity of different reserves, such as the prevalence of certain species and the impact that non-native species have on the wetlands and the native species that rely on them.

The reserve system is a network of 30 coastal and Great Lakes sites that cover approximately 1.4 million acres of estuaries in 25 states and Puerto Rico. And the system is poised to grow: Louisiana—the only coastal state without an NERR—and Wisconsin are in the process of designating new sites (Atchafalaya Basin and Green Bay, respectively).

Congress created the system under the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1972, with the aim of protecting and studying the country’s estuaries. Today, NERR sites are used for education, recreation, training, research, and for monitoring ecosystems, and are popular with local communities for the recreational and educational benefits they offer.

Tom Wheatley oversees The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work to increase resiliency for biodiversity and vulnerable communities in the Southeast and to support and expand the National Estuarine Research Reserve System as part of Pew’s U.S. conservation project.

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