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Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge Was Approved!

New England Cottontail (c) USFWS
New England Cottontail (c) USFWS

The National Wildlife Refuge System is about to get a little bigger. Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge is poised to become the 566th unit in the System. In October 2016, the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) approved the refuge boundary which spans five New England states and eastern New York State. The refuge will not become officially “established” until the first tract of land is acquired. Staff from the Service’s Division of Realty are working diligently with refuge field staff to bring the first property across the finish line, on the way to protecting up to 15,000 acres of northeast shrublands.

So why shrublands and why the northeast region? There is one species that epitomizes the answers to these questions: the New England cottontail. This furry critter is one of many species that depends on thick shrubby habitat to survive (hence the name “Great Thicket”). It is also a species whose dispersed populations are in trouble. You won’t find the New England cottontail munching clover in your front lawn, like the more common Eastern cottontail. They like it thick.

With some exceptions near the coast, shrubland habitat is most often a temporary condition on the land, as shrubs give way to trees and forest habitat is created. Habitat for the New England cottontail is therefore in short supply, to the point where it was a candidate for listing as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The collective effort by six states and the Service to manage additional land to keep it in a shrubland state was the primary reason the decision was made not to list the species. Managing existing protected state and federal lands is an important strategy, but extensive scientific analysis determined that additional protected lands, actively managed where necessary, were needed to sustain the species.

While the New England Cottontail is a prime beneficiary of protecting and maintaining shrubland habitat in the northeast, there are many other species that use and rely on this habitat. Migratory birds that will benefit from the establishment of Great Thicket NWR include the blue-winged warbler, prairie warbler, brown thrasher, Eastern towhee, and American woodcock. Monarch butterflies, which have been the focus of increased conservation efforts due to their declining populations, will benefit as well. Two species of turtles that are listed under the ESA, the Northern red-bellied cooter and the bog turtle, will receive additional habitat protection in their strongholds of eastern Massachusetts and eastern New York State.

Make no mistake, this is not your granddaddy’s national wildlife refuge. Historically, refuge boundaries were drawn to incorporate highly significant and mostly contiguous lands and waters for targeted wildlife species. The goal was to protect as much land as possible within the boundary. Great Thicket NWR includes 10 discreet Refuge Acquisition Focus Areas spread over six states and containing over 250,000 acres. The Service is authorized to negotiate with willing sellers to protect a maximum of 15,000 acres total within those 10 focus areas. This “landscape approach” provides the needed flexibility to ensure that over time, and with sufficient federal funding, the 15,000-acre goal can be attained in the right places.

If we are to reverse the downward population trend of the New England cottontail and other declining species targeted by creation of Great Thicket NWR, additional funds will be needed for both land acquisition and habitat management. Due to inaction in Congress, the National Wildlife Refuge System is short on both. Appropriations from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) have only twice in its 50+ year history reached the authorized level of $900 million. While this sounds like a big sum, it represents only a small fraction of the annual federal oil and gas lease revenues from which it is derived. To make matters worse, reauthorization of the Act that created LWCF is bogged down in the House of Representatives (the Senate, to its credit, voted this year for permanent reauthorization).

Additionally, funds for operations and management of the Refuge System have not nearly kept pace with inflation. Across the Refuge System, hundreds of permanent positions representing all facets of refuge management, are vacant, unable to be filled due to lack of funds. This hurts refuges’ ability to achieve their wildlife objectives, and hurts their ability to provide safe, inviting facilities for visitors to enjoy and to escape the rigors of daily life.

It is up to all of us who love and appreciate wildlife, and who value special places like national wildlife refuges, to make our voices heard and to demand sufficient funding to sustain this vital part of our national heritage. If we are successful, one day you will be able to visit the newest of our national wildlife refuges and see a New England cottontail thriving in its native habitat. But you’ll have to look hard because after all, they’ll be in a Great Thicket!

Joe McCauley, Regional Representative, Northeast Region

Permanent link to this article: http://refugeassociation.org/2016/11/great-thicket-national-wildlife-refuge-was-approved/

2 comments

  1. Pam says:

    wonderful!!!!

  2. Roberta L. says:

    This is great news, and a great step forward for this wildlife refuge! Thank you for sharing!

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