EDITOR’S NOTE: On October 25, 2016, five months after the publication of this story, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced the official creation of the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge.
Even forests struggle in the search for eternal youth. In an effort to protect young forest and shrubland, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed setting aside more than 15,000 acres of Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine to create the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge. Managed by USFWS, the refuge would help preserve dwindling saplings, wetlands, and fields—habitat that is home to more than 65 species of wildlife, including cottontail rabbits, bobcats, snowshoe hares, box turtles, and monarch butterflies.
“It’s a type of habitat that has been declining over the years as young forest grows into old and pastures grow into trees,” says Charlie Vandemoer, manager of Rhode Island’s National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Animals impacted by this habitat loss include the New England cottontail, the only rabbit native to the region. According to the New England Cottontail Conservation Initiative, the species has lost more than 80 percent of its habitat since the 1960s. USFWS has also seen a population decline in 12 of the region’s 16 shrubland birds, including the American woodcock and the golden-winged warbler.
These diverse species require diverse terrain. To balance a complex set of needs, USFWS is proposing an unusual model: Rather than spanning swaths of contiguous land, Great Thicket would consist of 10 disconnected parcels. Additional conservation land, such as the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts, would be managed with young forest in mind.
Where did all of our shrubland go? In part, it’s a success story. Thanks to conservation, once-young ecosystems have grown into more stable environments. Unchecked, however, forests will continue to mature, displacing more wildlife species. “To maintain a shrubland habitat requires a hands-on approach,” says Meagan Racey of USFWS. “It’s constantly growing unless there is some natural process that turns back the clock. Young forest requires regular maintenance and a management plan.” To mimic natural interventions, such as wildfires, in Great Thicket, USFWS would employ techniques including cutting and prescribed burns.
Not all areas within the refuge would need direct intervention. Wetlands, which sustain shrubland, call for a more passive approach. “In that case we would be protecting the land and letting that maintenance happen naturally,” Racey says.
Recreation access would also be determined on a site-by-site basis. “A big part of quality of life for folks is having open areas where they can hike, bird-watch, or go out with their kids,” Vandemoer says, citing Rhode Island, where more than 300,000 people visit refuges annually.
USFWS is currently reviewing public comments on the plan, collected earlier this year, and will announce next steps later in 2016. Acquiring land and easements could take 30 years or more at an estimated cost of $84 million to $129 million.
“Some people might ask why go to all this trouble for wildlife,” says Vandemoer, who answers his own question with a quote from Aldo Leopold: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
In other words, the cottontail is just one species, but it interacts with many plants and shrubs. “It’s really a community out there, so it’s very important to keep these species protected.”