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Wildlife Refuge plans revealed

2,000 Acres targeted in NY and CT
by Antonia Shoumatoff
Sun Feb 28th, 2016

New England Cottontail

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service disclosed this week plans to protect 2,000 acres in a strategic conservation area that includes parts of Amenia, Dover and Sharon, Connecticut.  The targeted areas will be part of The Great Thicket Wildlife Refuge that eventually may cover 36,727 acres of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine.  

Michael Horne, Wildlife Refuge Manager and Bill Zinni from the USFWS regional office in Massachusetts said the Fish and Wildlife Service does not use eminent domain.  Their policy is to acquire a fee interest or an easement in voluntary transactions with land owners.  

The purpose of the conservation area, worked out with twelve interstate partners, is to create shrubland for species threatened by habitat decimation.  New England Cottontail, American Woodcock, Whippoorwill, brown thrashers, a suite of migratory birds such as the spring warblers, the monarch butterfly and of course the federally protected bog turtle, are all dependent on shrublands. 

The government’s conservation plan was laid out at a town board meeting in the town of Dover.  The USFWS had been invited to describe the project by Dover  Supervisor, Linda French. 

Due to the decline of agriculture, the draining of wetlands, logging and development, shrubland dependent birds, animals and butterflies have been disappearing at an alarming rate since the 1960’s.  The reserve will preserve habitat so species native to this area can survive. 

Restored shrubland habitat in Lee Five Corners Preserve in N.H.

The presentation was informal, with questions from the public. The first question by Constance DuHamel was regarding eminent domain.  Michael Horne explained that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service never acquires land for refuges by eminent domain.

The USFWS representatives explained the criteria for suitability of land acquisition: proximity of suitable habitat and wetlands, presence of waterfowl, landscape connectivity, shrubland, sandy dry pine barrens, known threatened species and migratory birds.  Low-lying areas along rivers and streams and flood plains are also desirable.

The New England Cottontail has had an 80% loss in the last fifty years.  Its range has been reduced by 86% to five small populations across New England and New  York, according the Fish and Wildlife statistics.  This once common rabbit needs thick cover to breed, and Mr. Zinni explained that they are being bred in captivity and being cautiously reintroduced into the wild at the Roger William Zoo in Rhode Island. Re-introducing animals at risk requires following a careful, methodical protocol since there are concerns about disease and genetic variability. 

The Fish and Wildlife Service worked with conservation partners to identify the key conservation areas.  They propose to work with willing landowners with a target of 50% protected via easements.  Funds for purchasing land have not been appropriated, so there is no liklihood of purchases in the immediate future.  The agency works on a long-term time table.  They said it could take up to thirty years to complete this project. 

There will be many voluntary and flexible options for landowners, including full use of their land for their lifetime with land management and land protection. 

As far as losing land from the tax base, Mr. Zinni said there is a federal program called Refuge Revenue Sharing.  The USFWS compensates the town to make up for the loss of tax dollars.  

The Refuge might include public access hiking trails, boardwalks, look-outs for photographers and restricted areas for hunting and fishing.  Cooperative careful management would take place regularly.

After the presentation, many of the conservation groups in the area along with the public were invited to join the federal officials outside the boardroom to ask more questions and look at the maps that showed the area.  Chris Wood of the Oblong Land Conservancy spoke enthusiastically about the project.

View Map

“We at Oblong Land Conservancy are delighted with this important conservation initiative and look forward to working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect properties within the proposed Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge."

Comments or suggestions can be sent by March 4 to:  Attn. Beth Goldstein, Natural Resources Planner, USFWS:  mailto:northeastplanning@fws.gov

The full proposal can be read here: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/refuges/planning/lpp/draftlppea.html or at the Dover Town Hall.