Tag Archives: shrubland

A New England cottontail in brushy shrubland. (Photo credit: Tom Barnes, USFWS.)

The story behind the nation’s newest wildlife refuge

A New England cottontail in brushy shrubland. (Photo credit: Tom Barnes, USFWS.)

A New England cottontail in brushy shrubland. Photo credit: Tom Barnes, USFWS

How a small preserve north of New York City kickstarted a multi-state conservation effort.

Hear from our partner Stuart F. Gruskin, Chief Conservation and External Affairs Officer at The Nature Conservancy in New York! TNC recently donated to us the first parcel for the nation’s newest national wildlife refuge, Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge! This post appeared first on treehugger.

When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of New York City, it was common to see New England cottontail rabbits hopping around. Over time, due to habitat loss the species – our region’s only native rabbit – has sharply declined, becoming close to being endangered. This caught the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and just last month, the country’s 556th national wildlife refuge, Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, was unveiled. A couple of hours north of New York City, the new refuge is dedicated to conserving young forest and shrubland essential to many types of wildlife, including threatened species like the iconic New England cottontail.

I’m proud that The Nature Conservancy played a part in establishing this refuge, by contributing the first property needed for the new refuge to legally be established. Our historic Nellie Hill Preserve, a 144-acre parcel in Dutchess County, is the first land acquisition of many in this ambitious project. Eventually, Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge will span six states (CT, MA, ME, NH, NY and RI) and conserve up to 15,000 acres of important habitat that’s quickly vanishing due to both human development and the course of time (i.e. young forest eventually becomes mature forest). This is a uniquely effective approach to conservation – instead of a large, contiguous area, this refuge consists of a network of ecologically significant focus areas within a very large, 250,000 acre landscape, and is designed to ensure that there is sufficient habitat within the footprint of the refuge to support the cottontail rabbit as well as many other species that rely on shrublands.

Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge© Mark King/The Nature Conservancy

As a general proposition, any new national wildlife refuge is cause for celebration, but Great Thicket National Refuge is a truly special achievement. It required a strong collaborative effort among the federal government, the six states, and importantly, the local communities that will benefit. By donating an existing preserve to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Conservancy kick started the process of securing the habitat that will make this refuge a success.

This is also a great example of leveraging traditional conservation to achieve a larger outcome. When we acquired the Nellie Hill property 25 years ago, it was originally grazing land for cows. We discovered that there were rare and threatened plant species needing protection. The property itself included rocky cliffs, sloping meadows, oakwood forests, and limestone woodlands. With the help of volunteers, the Conservancy managed the landscape through a suite of strategies, including prescribed burns and invasive species control. We also built and maintained a network of trails to encourage public use of Nellie Hill. In the years since, Nellie Hill has become a haven for both wildlife and people.

By any standard, Nellie Hill was successful conservation. The opportunity to magnify its impact, and rethink the conservation benefits by including it in the Great Thicket, however, is a great example of how reimagining strategies and methods can enhance conservation outcomes. Nellie Hill is now part of a multi-state, large scale, comprehensive effort to achieve natural resource conservation goals that simultaneously yield community benefits – like many conservation initiatives, a true win-win.

Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge© Mark King/The Nature Conservancy

At The Nature Conservancy, we’re often thinking about the urgency of natural resource conservation today. Finding new ways to amplify the impacts of prior actions, as happened, is one way of meeting that challenge. We know that natural spaces protect the plant and wildlife species that live there, can help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in a climate changing world, and can also directly help people by providing recreational opportunities, supporting local economies and property values, and enhancing quality of life. And let’s not forget that the refuge created here is not just for cottontail rabbits, but also serves as a refuge for people, providing a place to go where the intangible and profound benefits of visiting a natural place can be enjoyed.

We cannot expect that any level of government – local, state, or federal – will be able to ensure on their own that both people and nature thrive. Finding opportunities for partnership is something that we all need to do much more often. Future success for all of us, including the New England cottontail, will depend on collaborations like Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge.

Stuart F. Gruskin is the Chief Conservation and External Affairs Officer at The Nature Conservancy in New York.

Hoppy Ending: Couple Helps Write a New Chapter for the New England Cottontail

Our agency announced today that an unprecedented public-private conservation partnership has kept the New England cottontail off the endangered species list. Private landowners Rick and Donna Ambrose hosted the announcement event on their property in Dover, NH, a fitting location given the Ambrose’s role in the New England cottontail conservation effort.

Rick and Donna, along with numerous foresters, farmers, birdwatchers, biologists, hunters and conservationists, have been part of a coordinated effort aimed at conserving the New England cottontail, first classified as a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection in 2006.

Rick and Donna Ambrose, landowners and cottontail conservationists. (Photo credit: Kate Whitacre, USFWS)

Over the years, on walks through their wooded property, Rick and Donna witnessed the decline of the New England cottontail, observing the species’s slow disappearance.

The Ambroses began working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) about five years ago, participating in the Working Lands for Wildlife program, a partnership between the NRCS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rick and Donna have created and improved young forest habitat on their land to benefit New England cottontail and numerous other species, including woodcock, bobcats, snowshoe hares, a broad range of songbirds, box turtles, and frosted elfin butterflies.

A New England cottontail in brushy shrubland. (Photo credit: Tom Barnes, USFWS.)

A New England cottontail in brushy shrubland. (Photo credit: Tom Barnes, USFWS.)

Rick has also been a tremendous advocate for the NRCS effort, reaching out to friends and family in the community, encouraging them to enroll in the program. He also helps other property owners install their own habitat restoration projects by running a chainsaw and helping out with equipment from his excavation business.

These relationships have been instrumental in developing key projects with great benefit to the species.

“Rick has been a phenomenal landowner to work with,” says Matthew Larkin, Soil Conservationist with the NRCS. “He has been a huge assistance to us, not only with his work but with sharing the objective with friends and family in the area, which has led to work on other projects. He has been a real ‘go-to’ guy for the whole program.”

We spoke with Rick and Donna in advance of today’s announcement.

What motivated you to work with the New England cottontail initiative?

Rick and Donna: We were approached by a neighbor who asked us to meet with NRCS representatives about the initiative. At that time we learned that the effort would include common land that abutted our property and because we enjoy doing things to our property to improve wildlife habitat it made sense to us to participate.

Why do habitat work on your land?

Rick and Donna: We have always had an appreciation for the wildlife that abounds on our property and were approached by the NH Fish and Game shortly after we built here in 1996 to plant crab apple trees, which at the time were intended to add food support to the growing turkey population. We were astounded at the impact that just that had in attracting other wildlife and felt that the New England cottontail initiative would have similar impact.

Thanks to a coordinated conservation effort that includes private landowners like Rick and Donna Ambrose, the New England cottontail is no longer a candidate for listing as a threatened or endangered species. (Photo credit: USFWS.)

Thanks to a coordinated conservation effort that includes private landowners like Rick and Donna Ambrose, the New England cottontail is no longer a candidate for listing as a threatened or endangered species. (Photo credit: USFWS.)

What work has been done?

Rick and Donna: We have cleared approximately 10 acres, cleared invasive plant species, and planted shrubs to directly support the cottontail effort.

What has resulted from that work? Have you seen an increase in bird or other animal populations?

Rick and Donna: Shortly after the restoration on our land began we were contacted by the University of New Hampshire to do a songbird population study, and the variety of birds which resulted was quite impressive. We have continually made an effort to support the songbirds, but opening up the woodland area has been a meaningful improvement for them.

What else is going on at your property (landscape-wise)? What are you trying to do with portions of your property?

Rick and Donna: Our objectives have always been to maintain it in a more natural state; haying the fields, selectively cutting our firewood, and pruning the young pines to 18 feet to improve the timber stand. We had, also, cleared around old growth apple trees to improve their production. This has resulted in our being able to view deer, red and grey fox, coyote, opossum, fisher cat, and we have even found signs of bobcat.

Young New England cottontails being raised in Roger Williams Park Zoo's captive breeding program. Captive-raised New England cottontails were released today on the Ambrose's property. (Photo credit: L. Perrotti/Roger Williams Park Zoo.)

Young New England cottontails being raised in Roger Williams Park Zoo’s captive breeding program. Captive-raised New England cottontails were released today on the Ambrose’s property. (Photo credit: L. Perrotti/Roger Williams Park Zoo.)

The release happening on your property and the condo property will be the first on private land. How does that feel?

Rick and Donna: Great. It is important to recognize and act on an opportunity that will directly benefit our animal neighbors.

What support were you given?

Rick and Donna: The NRCS and Fish and Game personnel that we have interacted with are clearly dedicated to their mission. The relationship that has resulted from becoming involved has given us the opportunity to appreciate what the NRCS and other conservation groups are dedicated to doing. Their role is to ensure that not only vast forests be protected, but to find and secure space even in the more urban areas so that all species can coexist.

What to you would mean success for this work on your property?

Rick and Donna: There are obviously significant hurdles to overcome to make an effort like this successful, a good many of those obstacles being in the natural world! But the continued efforts of the NRCS, USFWS, and the conservation communities to demonstrate and convince small landowners to participate is a very important part. So, if our participation convinces other small landowners to commit to wildlife habitat restoration, then the natural effects will become evident and our participation will be purposeful.

The time and dedication of Rick and Donna Ambrose, and the numerous partners involved in the New England cottontail conservation strategy, is indeed purposeful. It will ensure that New England’s native cottontail will be with us into the future.

“Rick is a huge advocate for what we are doing,” says Don Keirstead, Resource Conservationist with the NRCS. “He has been a major boost to the program. Private landowners like Rick really make these efforts possible.”

 

Sure, you probably don't want to go crawling around in this. But it's a paradise for the rare New England cottontail, and this young forest and shrubland habitat has also become increasingly rare in New England. We have more mature forest than we did 50 years ago. The natural forces that once managed the cycle of young and mature forest are now kept in check by people, and we need more young forest. Credit: USFWS

Sometimes you do need to cut down trees

Sure, you probably don't want to go crawling around in this. But it's a paradise for the rare New England cottontail, and this young forest and shrubland habitat has also become increasingly rare in New England. We have more mature forest than we did 50 years ago. The natural forces that once managed the cycle of young and mature forest are now kept in check by people, and we need more young forest. Credit: USFWS

Sure, you probably don’t want to go crawling around in this. But it’s a paradise for the rare New England cottontail and many other types of wildlife. This young forest and shrubland habitat has also become increasingly rare in New England. We have more mature forest than we did 50 years ago. The natural forces that once managed the cycle of young and mature forest are now kept in check by people, and we need more young forest. Credit: USFWS

While New England cottontails might look like eastern cottontails, they're two different species. New England cottontails are native, and eastern cottontails were introduced to New England in the early 20th Century. They use different habitats, and an extremely close look reveals differences in eyes and other physical traits. Credit: New Hampshire Fish and Game Department

While New England cottontails might look like eastern cottontails, they’re two different species. New England cottontails are native, and eastern cottontails were introduced to New England in the early 20th Century. They use different habitats, and an extremely close look reveals differences in eyes and other physical traits. Credit: New Hampshire Fish and Game Department

In areas across southern New Hampshire, efforts are underway to conserve the natural habitat of the region’s only native rabbit, the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis).

Our agency, New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, and private groups are working together to restore the young forest and shrubland habitat that these rare rabbits depend on. [What’s young forest? Find out here.]

The need for young forests has been overshadowed in the push to allow fields and woods to mature into old growth forest composed of large trees that offer little protection for this rabbit against predators. As young forest and shrubland disappeared from much of the Northeast’s landscape, the population of New England cottontails dropped.

Check out other stories of endangered plant and animal conservation in the Northeast – We’ve shared them throughout the year!

With the rabbits occupying less than a fifth of their historic range, their decline led to a decision by the Service in 2006 to list the cottontail as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. As the overall population dwindled, the remaining cottontails became isolated in pockets of suitable habitat—making restoration even more difficult. Expanding and reconnecting these fragmented populations is crucial to the conservation of species.

In places like LaRoche Brook Tract and Foss Farm in Strafford County, conservationists are working to connect suitable patches of New England cottontail by creating long highways of suitable cover, through which the rabbits can move to find suitable food and shelter.

Here’s a series of photos illustrating young forest restoration at one site in New Hampshire. Click on the top photo to scroll through the series with captions and larger images.

To restore young forest, conservationists harvest trees with trunks exceeding two inches in diameter during the winter time, leaving the root systems intact. In the spring, these roots sprout new trees, and conservationists seed with native shrubs and create brushpiles to shelter wildlife. Invasive plant species are also removed to clear the way for native plants that evolved alongside New England cottontails. …Keep reading to find out how it worked!