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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Connect the Connecticut

Connecticut R
Connecticut River. Photo by Al Braden/albradenphoto.com

Bridget Macdonald of our 
Science Applications Program in our Northeast Region tells us about a landscape conservation design for the Connecticut River watershed. 

Connecticut R 

Encompassing New England’s largest river system, the Connecticut River watershed provides important habitat for a diversity of fish, wildlife and plants from such well-known species as the bald eagle and the black bear to threatened and endangered species such as the piping plover and the dwarf wedgemussel.

The watershed is also a source of clean water, recreation, food, jobs and more for millions of people living in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. 

The best long-term strategy for sustaining natural resources across this kind of large landscape is to keep vital parts of it intact and connected. Connect the Connecticut is a collaborative effort to identify the best places to start—the areas within the watershed that partners agree should be priorities to ensure that important species, habitats and natural processes will be sustained into the future, even in the face of climate change and land alteration.

“This is truly a groundbreaking effort, building on a long history of collaborative conservation in the watershed,” says Ken Elowe, a former state wildlife agency director in Maine who now heads the Service’s Science Applications Program in the Northeast Region. 

Black bear. Photo by USFWS

“For the first time, we have the science capability to pinpoint habitat needs — what kind, how much and where — to sustain fish and wildlife species at desired population levels across a large area like the Connecticut River watershed,” Elowe says. “And we will know how the watershed contributes to broader species and habitat goals for the entire Northeast.” 

Using the best available science and information from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), a team of partners representing 20 state and federal agencies, academic institutions, and private organizations spent more than a year creating a conservation “design” for the watershed. Outlining a network of core areas – intact, connected and resilient places within the watershed – the design serves as a roadmap for conservation. 

The effort also featured a modeling approach developed by the Designing Sustainable Landscapes Project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

One of the keys to developing the Connect the Connecticut design was selecting 15 species as representatives for others that rely on similar habitats within the major types of natural systems in the watershed. 

blackburnian warbler
Blackburnian warbler. Photo by USFWS

For example, the blackburnian warbler was selected to represent hardwood forests. By ensuring that high-quality habitat for these representative species was included in the design, the partners were able to address the needs of a range of fish and wildlife.

More than just a map, the conservation design includes a variety of datasets and tools that people from all sectors can access to make more informed decisions about managing lands and waters that provide habitat for wildlife, and support local economies and the overall health and well-being of communities.

Service staff members in the watershed region describe Connect the Connecticut and how the design can help inform their work: 

Andy French, project leader, Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge:

This effort has generated scientifically based products that visually illustrate a sense of priority and importance for connecting a mosaic of partner-conserved lands. The design highlights strategic opportunities to focus our communication and collaborative efforts with our many partners who are working at various scales within this large and vibrant working landscape.

Several of the products, such as the representative species models, help inform land acquisition decisions made by the refuge, as well as by our partners. Together, the models project the impacts of climate change, road crossings and barriers to aquatic species passage.


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Further, these products will also help us assess and quantify land management and restoration opportunities in our Habitat Management Plans and our place within the 1.8 million-acre existing conservation network in this watershed. 

Georgia Basso, biologist in the Service Coastal Program and liaison to the Long Island Sound Study:

The design gives us the potential to be much more strategic in habitat restoration and land acquisition for the Long Island Sound Study, a state and federal partnership to restore and protect the sound. 

It offers perspective we didn’t have before and provides an extremely powerful tool for helping prioritize limited dollars in important areas where it is expensive to do conservation work – coastal Connecticut and New York. 

The design shows quantifiably where the highest quality forest is located. Combined with what we already know about this region, it can show us where it is most beneficial to increase connectivity, and will help us better allocate the money we have to protect land in a variety of ways, such as increasing buffers and working against development forces to mitigate impacts. 

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