Great Thicket Wildlife Refuge Proposed for Northeast

Over the last 100 years, as shrublands and young forests across the Northeast have been cleared for development or have grown into mature forests, populations of more than 65 songbirds, mammals, reptiles, pollinators and other wildlife that depend on this type of habitat have fallen alarmingly.

New England cottontail in habitat

New England cottontail is just one species of wildlife that could benefit from a new refuge proposed for the Northeast./K. Boland

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. Despite significant progress, conservationists have determined that more permanently protected and managed land is needed to restore wildlife populations and return balance to the region’s woodlands.

To address that need, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes establishing Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, in 10 separate focus areas in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York.

“This potential new refuge would be dedicated to managing shrubland and young forest for wildlife, including the New England cottontail,” said Wendi Weber, the Service’s Northeast Regional Director. “It would also benefit people by providing increased opportunities to view wildlife and enjoy the natural world.”

National wildlife refuges draw numerous visitors and have proven to be strong economic engines for local communities across the country. A 2013 report by the Service, Banking on Nature, noted that in 2011 refuges pumped $2.4 billion into the economy nationwide and supported more than 35,000 jobs.

Birdwatchers

National wildlife refuges attract many visitors each year, including hikers and birdwatchers./W. Craney

Rick Jacobson is Wildlife Division Director in Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and chair of the Executive Committee for the New England Cottontail conservation effort. Jacobson noted progress in bringing back the cottontail, which is present in the 10 Great Thicket Refuge focus areas.

“Federal, state and private conservation partners have had incredible success in restoring New England’s only native rabbit and its young forest and shrubland habitat,” Jacobson said. “Yet our work is far from done.” He added, “This new potential refuge and accompanying conservation effort aren't just about a rabbit. They’re about American woodcock, ruffed grouse, golden-winged warblers, monarch butterflies and the whole suite of wildlife that depend on young forest and shrubland.”

Additional wildlife that would benefit include box, wood, and spotted turtles, whippoorwills, and blue-winged and prairie warblers, along with more common species such as deer, wild turkeys, wood thrushes, and other songbirds.

A Land Protection Plan for the new refuge, along with a required Environmental Assessment, represent early steps in a public process that will examine whether the Service can and should establish the new refuge. The draft Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge Land Protection Plan explains the need for land conservation, connects the plan to existing conservation activities and describes each of the 10 focus areas across the six states. The Service invites public comment on the draft plan to help shape a final decision.

Eastern kingbird

The eastern kingbird is one of many songbirds that need the food and cover provided by young forest habitat./T. Berriman

If the plan is approved after the public comment period, the agency could begin working with willing and interested landowners to acquire land through conservation easements or fee-title acquisition. The Services stresses that it will work only with willing sellers, and that no one will be forced to sell land for the refuge unless they want to. Following plan approval, the land acquisition process would take decades.

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 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.

The Service will accept comments on the proposed new refuge during a 45-day public comment period that ends April 3, 2016, by email at northeastplanning@fws.gov (put “Great Thicket LPP” in the subject line). Comments can also be mailed to Beth Goldstein, Natural Resources Planner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 300 Westgate Center Drive, Hadley, MA 01035-9589, or sent by fax to 413-253-8480.

Read the draft plan and related documents.