Fish & Wildlife to Create Shrubland Habitat in Northeast

By ecoRI News staff

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently finalized the creation of the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, which, according to the federal agency, is dedicated to conserving and managing shrubland and young forests for wildlife in New England and eastern New York.

The approval of the refuge enables the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to now work with willing and interested landowners to acquire land in 10 target areas of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and New York. The goal ito acquire up to 15,000 acres through various methods, including conservation easements, donations or fee-title acquisition.

The nation’s newest wildlife refuge joins the largest network of lands in the nation dedicated to wildlife conservation, with 565 other national wildlife refuges — at least one refuge in every state — and other protected areas covering more than 150 million acres.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has established 17 new national wildlife refuges, from the first urban refuge in the Southwest — Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico — to refuges that protect working lands and the important habitat of the tallgrass prairie of Kansas’ Flint Hills, the Dakota Grasslands and the Everglades Headwaters.

“National wildlife refuges provide Americans with incredible opportunities to experience nature at its finest,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a prepared statement. “Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge will give New Englanders and New Yorkers the chance to conserve important habitat in the region, ensuring current and future generations can experience the rich variety of animals and plants that call these special places home.”

During the past century, many shrublands and young forests across the Northeast have been cleared for development or have grown into mature forests, according to FWS. As this habitat has disappeared, populations of more than 65 songbirds, mammals, reptiles, pollinators and other wildlife that depend on it have fallen alarmingly, according to agency officials.

Despite significant efforts by many agencies, organizations and landowners to manage existing lands, conservationists have determined that more permanently protected and managed land is needed to restore wildlife populations and return balance to northeast woodlands, according to the FWS. The Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge will preserve and manage land to benefit shrubland-dependent wildlife, such as the ruffed grouse, golden-winged warbler, box and spotted turtles, whippoorwill, blue-winged warbler and Hessel’s hairstreak.

This past summer, Rhode Island resident Rick Enser, who spent 28 years as the coordinator for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s now-defunct Natural Heritage Program, told ecoRI News the planned refuge would negatively impact mature forestland, which is also an important wildlife habitat.

Enser even wrote a lengthy letter to the agency questioning the idea, writing that the management actions planned within the targeted acres in Rhode Island would create smaller forest blocks and that at least 17 of the 23 priority birds of mature deciduous forest habitat in southern New England currently nest within the plan’s focus area.

The creation of the new refuge is expected to take decades, as the FWS will work strictly with willing sellers only and depends on funding availability to make purchases. Lands within an acquisition boundary wouldn’t become part of the refuge unless their owners sell or donate them.

National wildlife refuges are also strong economic engines for local communities and provide intrinsic value to all Americans, according to FWS officials. A 2013 national report, Banking on Nature, found that refuges pump $2.4 billion into the economy and support more than 35,000 jobs. They are also excellent venues to hunt, hike, bike and boat, according to the FWS.