Maryland's Natural Heritage Program
Maryland, often referred to as "America in miniature", is unique in its place on the ecological landscape. Its latitude places it at the southern end of northeastern ecosystems and the northern end of southeastern ecosystems. Its diverse landscape includes a wide range of natural communities, physiographic provinces and natural features. From the barrier islands, cypress swamps and Delmarva bays of the Eastern Shore to the mountain boreal bogs, caves and limestone woods of the Appalachian Plateau, our state encompasses a tremendous diversity of habitats that support an impressive variety of species.
Rich in flora and fauna, Maryland harbors some species with extremely limited ranges - the nationally endangered dwarf wedge mussel and Delmarva fox squirrel find refuge within our borders. Also found are rare subterranean invertebrates, beach-loving beetles, and uncommon shale barren plants, like Kate's-mountain clover.
When Captain John Smith and the early European colonists first explored this part of the world, they found it teeming with wildlife, including elk, wolves, bison and prairie-chickens. Today, these animals are gone from Maryland and many other animal and plant species have greatly declined in number. Much of our natural heritage is now confined to small fragments of the original wilderness.
Why should we worry about these declining species or uncommon habitats? How can we place a value on this aspect of our natural heritage? In many cases, these rare species are our "canary in the coal mine". By examining their biological status as an indicator, we can gauge the of the health of the ecosystem, which we share with them. Many of these species serve us directly. They may have medicinal applications, or utility for education and research, a recreational aesthetic, or cultural significance, aside from their own inherent worth. The diversity of species contributes to our own quality of life; it behooves us to conserve this for future generations.
As our human population burgeons and land-use pressures intensify, it is increasingly important that we protect our vanishing species and finest remaining natural areas. Once gone, they cannot be restored.
Since 1979, the Maryland Natural Heritage Program has been the lead state agency responsible for the identification, ranking, protection and management of rare and endangered species and natural communities in Maryland. The Program seeks to sustain populations of rare plants and animals through the maintenance of healthy natural ecosystems. This is accomplished by restoration of degraded habitats, field surveys, research into natural history requirements and public education. The Program also reviews proposed development projects for potentially harmful effects on rare species. In exceptional cases, the Program may work with other agencies within the Department and with private organizations to purchase properties supporting natural communities.
How can we balance our need to grow with our responsibility to protect Maryland's remarkable array of ecosystems and species? The Natural Heritage Program plays an important role in this vital effort. By focusing energies on those plants, animals and natural areas which are most in danger of disappearing, the Program helps to ensure that these essential elements of Maryland's diverse biological heritage do not vanish from our landscape.
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