Maine is one of six northeast states included in the plan for the new Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, a first-of-its-kind conservation project that was approved in October by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The new refuge, which may reach up to 15,000 acres in size, will be dedicated to managing shrubland and young forests, habitats that a suite of wildlife species depend on for survival.
“The [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service has never done this before,” Ward Feurt, manager of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in southern Maine, said. “It’s a new model, a new concept. The landscape approach makes a lot of sense.”
Over the past century, shrublands and young forests across the Northeast have been cleared for development or have grown into mature forests. As these habitats have disappeared, populations of more than 65 species of wildlife — including a variety of songbirds, pollinators, rare turtles and mammals such as the New England cottontail rabbit — have fallen at an alarming rate.
“The ultimate goal is for the partnership to apply all of its different conservation tools to conserving and managing a network of protected shrubland habitats across the northeast before these animals totally disappear,” Bill Zinni of the USFWS said.
Now that the refuge has been approved, the next step is for the USFWS to acquire land from willing landowners in focus areas that have been identified in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island.
“Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge will give New Englanders and New Yorkers the chance to conserve important habitat in the region, ensuring current and future generations can experience the rich variety of animals and plants that call these special places home,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said recently in a news release.
The plan for the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge includes 10 Refuge Acquisition Focus Areas, which represent areas in which USFWS is interested in acquiring land. Together, these focus areas make up more than 257,000 acres. However, only up to 15,000 of those acres will eventually become a part of the new refuge.
“We certainly don’t want to replace forest with shrubland everywhere — just certain key areas,” Zinni said. “Fifteen thousand acres across six states is not a lot when you look at it, and it will happen over time.”
In Maine, there are two Refuge Acquisition Focus Areas: a 3,254-acre area in Cape Elizabeth and a 26,410-acre swath of land that covers parts of Berwick, South Berwick, North Berwick, Kittery, York and Eliot. Within those two focus areas, USFWS has the goal of acquiring up to 800 acres in Cape Elizabeth and 2,000 acres in the Berwick area.
Land acquisition will occur through various methods, including conservation easements, donations or fee-title acquisition. And managing the conserved land as shrubland and young forest could mean allowing old fields to grow up, planting certain shrubs, harvesting old forests and controlled burns.
This process is expected to take decades, according to a recent USFWS news release, because the agency will only work with willing sellers and depends on funding availability to make purchases. Funding for each land acquisition will need to be approved in the federal budget.
“The approval of Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge marks a milestone in an exemplary partnership with six state wildlife agencies and a foundation for working with local governments and others to explore conservation opportunities,” USFWS Northeast Region Director Wendi Weber said.
The creation of the new refuge is a part of an ongoing effort by state and federal agencies, in partnership with many conservation organizations, to create and maintain shrubland and young forests throughout the Northeast. Much of this effort has been driven by the rapid decline of the region’s native New England cottontail rabbit, a species that depends on dense shrublands to shelter them from predators.
Other species in Maine that this new refuge may help protect include the monarch butterfly, ruffed grouse, American woodcock, Eastern whip-poor-will, box turtle (listed as “endangered” in Maine), spotted turtle (listed as “threatened” in Maine), black racer snake (listed as “endangered in Maine), and a variety of songbirds including the prairie warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, blue-winged warbler and brown thrasher.
These shrubland-dependent species and more are listed in the new refuge’s land protection plan and environmental assessment plan, which was released for public review in January for a public comment period that lasted 75 days. During that time, the USFWS received more than 6,000 comments from the public, and more than 90 percent of those comments were supportive of the new refuge.
“A lot of people wanted to weigh in on this and provide their thoughts and ideas,” Zinni said. “During that time, we had various meetings scattered around the six states.”
All comments received are summarized and responded to in appendix C of the final refuge plan, and minor changes and corrections were made in the final plan in response to some of these comments.
Many questions received by the public had to do with public access on future refuge property.
In national wildlife refuges, the property is managed first and foremost for wildlife. Public use varies, depending on how public use might affect the wildlife being protected. However, in many national wildlife refuges across the country, “wildlife-dependent” recreation is permitted. These activities include hunting, fishing, interpretation, environmental education, photography and wildlife observation.
“I would be very surprised if we didn’t have public use,” Feurt said. “We try to open as much land for hunting as we can … and typically what we do is have a trail around the outside [of the conserved land] looking in.”
As land is acquired for the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, those properties will be managed by the manager and staff of the nearest national wildlife refuge. In Maine, that will be Feurt and the rest of the staff at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, headquartered in Wells. Established in 1966 to protect valuable salt marshes and estuaries for migratory birds, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge will continue to exist as a separate refuge.
“The only thing left to do is, when we’re able, to buy the first piece of land or easement,” Zinni said, “and that will officially establish it as a national wildlife refuge.”
For more information about the new Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, visit fws.gov/northeast/refuges/planning/lpp/greatthicketLPP.html.