Tag Archives: Invasive species

A Conservation Success Story: A Landowner’s Perspective

Today we’re sharing the story of Tom McAvoy and his success in creating habitat for the New England cottontail and many other species.  The original story by Denise Coffey can be found here. 

When Tom McAvoy moved into a 1760 farmhouse on 115 acres in Scotland, his goal was to restore the land to what it looked like when it was a working dairy farm.

McAvoy had a soft spot in his heart for the land. His friend’s grandparents owned it, and McAvoy and his friend used to hunt there when they were younger.

When the opportunity presented itself, McAvoy secured the farm. He wanted to clear the overgrown pastures.

“My objective was simply to bring it back to the 1960s,” he said.

In the process of bulldozing the barways between the pastures, he had a visitor: biologist Travis Goodie, from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Goodie asked McAvoy if he could conduct a study on the property, to see if New England cottontail rabbits lived there. McAvoy, who didn’t know much about the rabbit, agreed. A year-long study revealed significant populations of the species.

Goodie asked McAvoy if he’d be willing to talk with some people about a restoration program for the rabbit. He agreed. One day, 12 vehicles pulled into his driveway. Representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency walked the property with McAvoy.

The discussion that ensued centered around the importance of preserving the habitat for the New England cottontail, a species of rabbit headed for listing on the Endangered Species Act.

“I still didn’t know why it was important,” McAvoy admitted. “I thought there were plenty of rabbits.”

The truth is, there are plenty of eastern cottontails, but not plenty of New England cottontails, the only species native to New England. And while the two species share many of the same characteristics, the latter has experienced a population decline because of habitat loss and fragmentation. New England Cottontails need early successional forests, rather than mature forests. They require thickets and shrubs, both for food sources and cover from predation.

McAvoy learned that the Scotland property was perfect for restoration efforts. Significant populations of the New England cottontail were found on 75 acres of the farm. He would be eligible for about 75 percent of the project’s cost. The catch was that funding would be taxable to McAvoy.

That prospect raised red flags for the banker and estate planner. But he told them he would consider it. USFWS Biologist Ted Kendziora offered to talk with McAvoy about all of his options and help assist and coordinate the agencies involved.

That assistance was important to McAvoy, who eventually agreed to the plan. Seven years, 25 contracts, and more than $50,000 later, the property has been made even more hospitable to the New England cottontail. But it was a labor intensive project that was developed in phases. The property was divided into sections and one section at a time was ‘transformed’ so as not to disturb the rabbits already there.

Non-native invasives like autumn olive, multiflora rose, and bittersweet had spread throughout land that had once been pasture. The plants grew quick and strong, leaving canopies that crowded out any other plants that might have tried to take a foothold in the understory.

The invasives crowded out native plants that provided food and protection for the rabbits. So one of the first orders of business was to pull the invasives up by their roots, leave the plants to die in the field, and let their bulk offer thickets for the rabbits to hide in.

Native shrubs were planted, and fencing put around them to keep deer from eating them. Piles of boulders were established on the property to provide habitat for the rabbits. Native shrubs were planted around those boulders and browse protection put in place. Protective channels were created where hedgerows existed between open fields. Trees and invasives were taken down so the rabbits could move more safely. Trees in a wooded lot were cleared and in their place, wild blueberry and raspberry flourished.

This is a New England cottontail. Credit: Tom Barnes / USFWS

“Improving habitat for the New England cottontail actually improved the habitat for lots of species,” McAvoy said.

Visitors to the farm have found acres of milkweed and monarch butterflies that depend on it for food. Rare birds have been identified. McAvoy said the land supports populations of turkey, deer, hawks, bobcat, and fisher cats.

“Anything we do to improve habitat is beneficial to a range of species,” he said.

It will take time to gauge the success of the restoration program, but McAvoy has traveled to Maine and Colorado to speak about its success with other conservation agencies and organizations. That has given him an opportunity to learn about habitat improvement projects around the nation.

In New England, projects are typically smaller, because of the size of available land parcels and the fragmentation due to denser human populations. But recognizing contiguous parcels of land and developing partnerships with private landowners has shown great promise.

“It’s critical to have a strategic approach,” McAvoy said. “And agencies have to be accountable to the public. You can’t just spend money without results.”

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Nancy Pau and Susan Adamowicz

Susan Adamowicz, Ph.D. and Nancy Pau have been working with local communities to defend coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The two biologists are key players behind invasive species removal and high salt marsh restoration projects at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

Local communities and landowners play a major role in the success of these projects. Pau cites local conservationist and Town of Newbury selectman Geoff Walker as an example.

“There is only so much we can do on protected lands to address resiliency issues,” she says. “A lot more can be done off refuges through decisions made by landowners and towns, especially as towns think about resiliency projects of their own. Having people like Geoff involved, people who understand the big picture of the marsh and how dependent the towns are on the natural ecosystems, is really great. He can speak to the issues that are important to the town.”

Collaboration between biologists and landowners is important when it comes to protecting vulnerable natural areas from storms and sea-level rise. Adamowicz says the high salt marsh habitat is crucial to helping people and wildlife alike withstand and recover from events like Hurricane Sandy.

“Healthy shoreline ecosystems provide much-needed protection for our human communities,” says Adamowicz. “The restored salt marsh will buffer waves and swallow up storm surges.”

Healthy salt marshes also serve as nurseries for fish that support offshore fisheries and support birds such as the saltmarsh sparrow, black rail and black ducks, which rely upon this unique habitat.

This work will allow future generations of wildlife and people to call the shoreline home — and that benefits everyone.


All photos by Steve Droter

Employing Youth to Stop an Invader


Credit: Susan Wojtowicz, USFWS

Through the Youth Conservation Corp, local high school students are being recruited to help the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge wage the battle against water chestnut, an invasive plant that has been taking over ponds and rivers within the Connecticut River watershed.

Removing WC

Credit: Susan Wojtowicz, USFWS

Water chestnut is an invasive plant native to Europe and Asia. Introduced in the United States around 1897 by a Massachusetts gardener, it is now widespread in the northeast. The plants are rooted in the soil below the water, with a long stem that extends upward to allow the leaves to float on the water’s surface.


Credit: Susan Wojtowicz, USFWS

On the underside of the the leaves, the plant produces spiked nutlets, each of which are capable of producing 10-15 new plants.

Seed Pods

An enlarged image of the acorn-sized spiked nutlets produced by water chestnut plants. Credit: Kristine Paulus

Because water chestnut is not native to the area, there are no natural predators to control the population, allowing the plant to multiply rapidly. In fact, just one acre of water chestnut can produce enough seeds to cover 100 acres the following year!

Water Chestnut Mat

Credit: Maddie List, USFWS

Dense mats of water chestnut can have many harmful effects, including blocking sunlight from reaching native underwater vegetation and reducing the amount of oxygen in the water. These effects can harm fish and other aquatic wildlife. In addition, the dense network of stems and leaves can wrap around swimmers and get tangled in boats, skis, and fishing gear, sometimes making recreational activities nearly impossible.


Credit: Susan Wojtowicz, USFWS

Although this plant does spread rapidly, there are a few methods that have proven very effective in controlling the population levels. One of these methods is physically pulling the plant, along with its seeds, out of the waterways. Because the roots are easy to dislodge, this can be done from a canoe or kayak without difficulty.


A group of YCC crew members, ready for a day of removing water chestnut. Credit: Susan Wojtowicz, USFWS

This summer, the Conte Refuge hired several Youth Conservation Corp (YCC) crews to help combat water chestnut infestations, among other environmental projects. Floating in canoes, the teenagers joined Refuge staff, partners, and volunteers in pulling water chestnut out of several of the waterways in the Connecticut River watershed. And together, they made quite an impact!


Although it is hard to spot now amongst the native pickerel weed, water chestnut could soon take over the area if it is not removed. Credit: Susan Wojtowicz, USFWS

This summer alone, the Conte Refuge’s YCC crews have removed over 17,000 pounds of water chestnut from waterways within the Connecticut River watershed. Because each pound of plants is capable of producing about 75 nutlets, that translates to 1,275,000 nutlets removed! About a third of that amount was removed during Spike Camp, an annual week-long campout where all five of the watershed’s YCC crews gather to work, learn, and bond. This year, the group converged at Brickyard Ponds in Westfield, MA, where they worked together to remove 5,600 pounds of water chestnut from the ponds.

Spike Camp

All five YCC crews during Spike Camp. Credit: Arthur McCollum, USFWS

Their amazing accomplishments have freed up many acres of habitat for native plants and wildlife, increasing biodiversity and the health of our waterways. Along the way, they have gained experiences and skills that will benefit them in whatever their futures may hold.


The Fort River crew. Credit: Arthur McCollum, USFWS

For more information about job opportunities with the Youth Conservation Corp in the Connecticut River watershed, please visit the Northwoods Stewardship Center website.


Posing in a pile of water chestnut is all in a day’s work for this crew! Credit: Susan Wojtowicz, USFWS