MERCER COUNTY Ecological researcher catalogs rarities of the great outdoors

The study has already turned up rare plants and animals as well as some unique natural areas.
HERMITAGE, Pa. -- Mercer County boasts some rare plant and animal species, as well as some exceptional natural features, and Robert Coxe is cataloging them.
Coxe, an ecologist and research specialist with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, has spent much of the summer exploring the woodlands, lakes and streams in the county gathering information for a County Natural Heritage Inventory.
He said it will take at least and additional year to complete the research before he can put together a report on Mercer County's biological resources.
It will become a quick resource of the rare plants, animals, natural communities and habitats that are found here.
Besides the footwork, the conservancy uses aerial reconnaissance and maps to pinpoint areas of potential interest. It includes both public and private lands.
The cost: The study, approved by the county commissioners earlier this year, will cost between $80,000 and $85,000, said Dennis Puko, executive director of the Mercer County Regional Planning Commission. Puko serves as the county's liaison with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy on the project.
The state is picking up 80 percent of the cost and the conservancy has found funding to make up the local 20 percent match, Puko said.
The conservancy is doing the same type of study in Lawrence County and expects to finish it next year. Mercer County won't be completed until 2003.
The purpose: Coxe said the study is an effort to find sites with rare plants and animals, especially threatened or endangered species, as well as rare natural communities such as hemlock swamps and fens that are outstanding examples of a natural community.
The resulting report won't be a legally binding document and carries no force of law. It doesn't affect a landowner's right to control his or her property, Coxe said.
It's meant only to be a guide to protecting species and help planning agencies and both public and private developers avoid environmental problems in future developments, Puko said.
There's also a tourist factor, Puko said. "You're always trying to promote what your county has," he said. "These tend to be scenic sites."
Some plants considered to be rare have turned up in the preliminary findings, he said.
Rattlesnake root, listed on the state's endangered species list, has been found in quite a few areas in both Mercer and Lawrence counties, Coxe said, noting that the abundance of the plant could result in its being removed from the endangered list.
Fog fruit: He's also found the fog fruit plant, primarily along some rocky shores around Shenango River Lake, and has come across "some really nice natural communities," including a 100-acre hemlock swamp in Mill Creek Township. It's unusual to find one of that size, Coxe said.
Mercer County also has two exceptional natural features in French Creek, which runs through the northeast corner of the county and is rated as one of the most biological diverse streams in the northeastern United States, and Sandy Lake, a natural glacial lake near Stoneboro.
Animal life: Coxe said he's also found some rare animal life, including the snuffbox mussel in the Shenango River and the white heelsplitter mussel in Pymatuning Creek.
Some rare fish have been found in Crooked and Pymatuning creeks as well as the Shenango River, he said.
Puko said a county advisory committee will be formed to meet with Coxe and review his findings and then come up with policy recommendations that county or local officials could enact to protect the sites.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, founded in 1932, is a private, nonprofit natural resource conservation organization, based in Pittsburgh.

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