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Over the past century, many shrublands and young forests across the Northeast have been cleared for development or have grown into mature forests. As this habitat has disappeared from much of the landscape, the populations of more than 65 songbirds, mammals, reptiles, pollinators, and other wildlife that depend on it have fallen alarmingly.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, private landowners and dozens of conservation organizations have responded to this urgency by restoring and protecting shrublands and young forest throughout the landscape of New England and New York. Despite significant progress, conservationists have determined that more permanently protected and managed land is needed to restore wildlife populations and return balance to northeast woodlands.
To address this need, the Service is proposing to establish Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge--dedicated to managing shrubland habitat for wildlife to benefit Rhode Island residents and visitors. Through coordination with conservation partners, the Service has determined that areas of southern Washington County could provide important habitat for shrubland wildlife and help connect existing conservation areas. Additionally, the agency identified nine areas in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York.
“We worked hand-in-hand with our state and local partners to identify areas where conserving shrubland and young forest could make the most difference for wildlife and local communities, not only here in Rhode Island but across New England.” said Refuge Manager Charles Vandemoer of the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “We’re now seeking public input to further refine our strategy before making a final decision later this year.”
“We’ve had incredible success in restoring New England’s only native rabbit and its habitat. Yet our work is far from done,” said Rick Jacobson, New England Cottontail Executive Committee chair and Connecticut Department of Environmental and Energy Protection Wildlife Division Director. “We need to preserve and manage more land as shrublands and young forest to continue to advance conservation for the cottontail. But this isn't just about a rabbit. It's about American woodcock, ruffed grouse, golden-winged warblers, monarch butterflies and a whole suite of wildlife that depend on this habitat.” Other wildlife that would benefit include box and spotted turtles, whippoorwill and blue-winged warblers.
A host of conservation partners including the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and the state are already working to improve young forest and shrubland in key locations on federal, state, tribal, and private lands. Through an interagency effort, New England cottontails are raised at the Roger Williams Zoo, transported to an acclimation pen at the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge where they stay for a short time, and then are placed into the wild by the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife.
"Restoring vital habitat such as young forests, old fields and thickets is a high priority as we work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners to conserve declining wildlife populations,” said Janet Coit, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “As part of our conservation efforts, we’ve created over 120 acres of new shrub thickets in our wildlife management areas and plan an additional 500 acres to benefit the New England cottontail, American woodcock, ruffed grouse, songbirds, and many other native species. We’ve also worked with private landowners to educate them on the benefits of investing in young forests and to create over 570 acres of wildlife habitat across the state. We look forward to partnering on this multi-state effort to further protect precious land resources and to conserve imperiled wildlife. By providing a place for wildlife to rebound and thrive, we also improve the quality of our communities for people.”
A land protection plan and environmental assessment is an early step in a public process that examines whether the Service can establish a national wildlife refuge. The draft Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge Land Protection Plan explains the need for land conservation, complements existing conservation activities, and describes each of the 10 focus areas across the six states. At this stage in the process, the Service invites public comment on the draft plan, which will shape our final decision.
“Establishing portions of the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island would provide yet another tool for willing landowners to help conserve the wide variety of wildlife species dependent on shrublands including our migratory songbirds" said Lawrence Taft, Executive Director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. Audubon has a long history of working with partners helping to promote and conserve wildlife resources in the State.
If the plan is approved after the public comment period, the agency could begin working with willing and interested landowners in Rhode Island to acquire up to 3,200 acres through a combination of purchasing conservation easements and buying land, from willing sellers only. Current refuge staff would manage all acquired lands using existing resources.
This process would take decades, as the Service works strictly with willing sellers only and depends on funding availability to make purchases. Lands within an acquisition boundary would not become part of the refuge unless their owners sell or donate them to the Service; the boundary has no impact on property use or who an owner can choose to sell to.
The National Wildlife Refuge System is the largest network of lands in the nation dedicated to wildlife conservation, with 563 national wildlife refuges – at least one refuge in every state – covering more than 150 million acres. A hundred years in the making, the refuge system is a network of habitats that benefits wildlife, provides unparalleled outdoor experiences for all Americans, and protects a healthy environment. Wildlife refuges provide habitat for more than 2,100 types of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish, including more than 380 threatened or endangered plants or animals. Each year, millions of migrating birds use refuges as stepping stones while they fly thousands of miles between their summer and winter homes.
National wildlife refuges don’t just provide a boost to wildlife. They are strong economic engines for local communities across the country. A 2013 national report Banking on Nature found that refuges pump $2.4 billion into the economy and support more than 35,000 jobs. Locally, the study found that for every $1.00 spent on managing the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, $6.00 was returned to the local community.
The Service will accept comments through March 4, 2016 by:
The draft plan and all related documents are available at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/refuges/planning/lpp/greatthicketLPP.html.
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The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.
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