Eppley and Lathrop Audubon Wildlife Refuges, Rhode Island

Audubon in the Thicket of It

(This article by Hugh Markey first appeared in Connecting People With Nature, by Audubon Society of Rhode Island.)

The scene looks like a tornado tore through the woods. Massive trees lie on the forest floor and seem to litter the landscape. Branches, scattered shrubs, and tall grasses poke up between the tree trunks. Where thoughts of Audubon preserves normally may stir visions of dense forest, scenic salt marshes, or freshly mown fields, this view of the Marion Eppley Wildlife Refuge in Exeter (open to the public during Audubon programs) seems to be one of complete devastation.

New England cottontail habitat

Workers remove exotic invasive plants in new young forest habitat for cottontails at Lathrop Wildlife Refuge in Westerly, southern RI./S. Ruhren

"That all depends on how you look at it." Larry Taft, executive director of Audubon Society of Rhode Island, is explaining the science behind this conservation effort that has drastically altered the landscape. What happened here wasn't caused by some natural disaster, after all. Rather, it is an effort by Audubon to reintroduce and conserve a habitat that until recently has been somewhat overlooked.

Portions of the Eppley property, as well as the Audubon Lathrop Wildlife Refuge in Westerly, are undergoing a transformation from a more-mature forest environment to one of transitional growth. In sections where the trees have been removed, new plants and shrubs are springing up that would be unable to flourish in a dense forest. With them come many species of wildlife that thrive in this type of landscape. This management technique fosters what is known as "scrub shrub" habitat (also called "transitional growth," or simply "young forest"), and it has taken Audubon's conservation efforts in a new direction.

The habitat work at Eppley and Lathrop were funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through that agency's Working Lands for Wildlife program.

"The New England landscape is a product of disruptive ecology," Taft says. "The native forests would go through cycles, such as regrowth after fires or hurricanes. Farms were also periodically abandoned over the centuries, and the land would go through a cycle of new growth. Since World War II, as housing has sprawled, we've run into a situation where fields are used either as farms or for developments." Those changes in land use have resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of plants, animals, and birds that need transitional growth landscape in order to survive. Two years ago, Audubon decided it was time to act.

"Conservation staff created openings on some of our properties where new vegetation could come up," said Taft. "We also wanted to support the wildlife that benefits from this type of habitat."

Thus, the decision was made to cut trees in small areas on two of Audubon's wildlife refuges. Thirty of the 1,100 acres at Eppley were cut, and 14 of 80 acres at Lathrop received the same treatment. As part of the management plan, the cut trees would be left to rot where they fell. "This isn't a logging operation, this isn't a clearing for agriculture or development," explained Taft. "This is setting back the clock to create a diversity of habitat so our wildlife refuges do not just end up with a monoculture of all the same kinds of trees."

Felled Trees and New Growth

Professor Peter Paton is an Audubon Board member and researches wildlife ecology at the University of Rhode Island. He notes that bird species have fallen off dramatically as scrub shrub habitat has disappeared. "There are 41 species of birds in New England that are associated with this habitat, and of those species the majority of the population is declining. In a given area, once logging takes place, the birds will use that habitat for about 20 years, and then they’ll move on from that area" as the forest matures.

"In Rhode Island, where there's much less scrub shrub habitat than there was even 15 years ago, it's become much more of a management concern. A lot of species that were associated with that habitat have declined substantially. Now that it's gotten to this point, if you want to maintain those numbers" of bird species, "you really have to do something."

Creating New England cottontail habitat on Eppley Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island

Machines created openings in older forest on two Audubon wildlife refuges; new young vegetation springing up on those sites offers thicker habitat for wildlife./S. Ruhren

Paton also points to federal lands like Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, where there has been a conscious effort to promote shrub habitat. "When they tore up the runways," (Ninigret had been the site of air pilot training during World War II) "they planted shrubs like bayberry to make a habitat for species like tree swallows and other birds. U.S. Fish and Wildlife has been doing this for 20 years. It's just now, with the advent of concerns over the decline of the New England cottontail, that keeping shrub habitat has come to the forefront."

Paton notes that many young forest birds have dramatically declined or vanished locally. "American woodcock, whip-poor-will, blue-winged warbler, and yellow-breasted chat are pretty much gone from Rhode Island."

Crawling Through the Debris

At the Eppley Wildlife Refuge, Audubon's senior director of conservation Scott Ruhren works his way over the tangle of logs and branches within the cutting area. He heads toward a game camera, a motion-activated device that snaps a picture whenever an animal passes in front of it. Over the two years that have passed since the cuttings, Ruhren says the camera has shown deer, coyotes, and a fisher.

To Ruhren, the debris that covers the ground is a good thing. "We leave this mess on purpose. The regrowth is stronger coming from the debris, and wildlife prefer it this way. There are creatures like amphibians that will use it as shelter to ensure that their skin doesn't dry out in hot weather as they move through the area." He recalls the labor-intensive process of the clearing operation. "The cold winter was a good time to bring in the heavy equipment needed to take down those trees. The frozen ground reduced the damage done by the machine treads. It has been well worth the effort."

While the cutting was taking place, Ruhren was continually monitoring the landscape to ensure that the results would accomplish what Audubon wanted: creating the foundation for transitional habitat.

Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge Protection Plan

While Audubon has recognized the importance of shrubland habitat, conservation efforts extend well beyond their property. The federal government is currently proposing that habitats similar to those in Eppley and Lathrop receive protection: "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, private landowners and conservation organizations have begun restoring and protecting shrublands and young forest throughout New England and New York."

Fresh young forest habitat on Audubon refuge in Rhode Island

Sign identifies fresh young forest habitat benefiting wildlife./S. Ruhren

The plan is to "establish the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, a system of public lands that would be dedicated to managing shrubland habitat for wildlife" and that would provide recreation for visitors whenever possible.

The proposal points out that, in addition to many species of birds, shrubland habitat is also an important environment for monarch butterflies, box turtles, and many other species.

The process of designating and managing the chosen land is extremely lengthy, according to a USFWS bulletin: "If the plan is approved after the public comment period, the agency could begin working with willing and interested landowners to acquire approximately 15,000 acres." This process would take decades, "as the Service works strictly with willing sellers only and depends on funding availability to make purchases."

Lathrop Wildlife Refuge: Shrubland in a Coastal Setting

A dense fog has rolled in at Audubon's Lathrop Wildlife Refuge in Westerly. Just across the secondary highway that borders the densely vegetated preserve, a condominium complex is receiving finishing touches. Perched on a hill, the entire property is denuded of trees and shrubs, leaving only a lawn for vegetation. The Audubon property provides a very different landscape view.

Fourteen of Lathrop's 80 acres have been managed to allow for shrubland habitat. Where Eppley was dry and populated with oaks and pines, Lathrop is mostly salt marsh and red maple swamp. Ruhren says that brown thrashers and rabbits are frequent visitors. So far the rabbits have proven to be the more common eastern cottontails, according to DNA samples taken from the area, but Ruhren remains optimistic that the wildlife refuge may one day provide habitat to the native New England cottontail.

"We have about every kind of invasive woody plant known here," Ruhren says. He points out the challenges of managing a shrubland habitat that not only produces vegetation that supports wildlife, but also allows for the proliferation of more native plants. "One of our concerns is that there is very little in the way of plant diversity. It is important that the vegetation provides food for various animals that we wanted to encourage."

As we stand in the northwest corner of the property, the fog is too thick to even see across the salt pond. However, closer to the road and away from the sensitive wetlands, one can see cut maples that have given rise to dense shrub growth: perfect cover for many species of wildlife.

Chainsaws Aren't Always Bad

Larry Taft understands that the sight and sound of chainsaw-wielding crews heading into Audubon territory can send some people fishing for their cell phones. Still, he keeps the longterm benefits in mind. "We realize that some people who hear about this type of management" for scrub shrub habitat "will say, 'Oh, chainsaws, that must be bad,' but we’re trying to create new growth. Or they ask, 'Why are you leaving all that wood? We should take those for logging.' No, we can create a microhabitat by leaving the materials where they are. It'll be one where deer browsing can be reduced and new growth can come through.

"After the cutting is done, we look at the area two or three years after to assess what has occurred. Was this a success? Can we apply this elsewhere, or should we change the treatment? Areas of cuttings that were done a couple of years ago show success – they are coming back" as new young forest habitat.

After a couple of years these acres will no longer appear as an area of devastation, but rather a new type of landscape to enjoy on a hike. One that now includes species of birds and other wildlife that simply could not survive without this habitat.

(Hugh Markey is a freelance writer, naturalist, and teacher living in Richmond, Rhode Island. Read more of his stories on his blog, Science and Nature for a Pie, and follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceandnatureforapie.)