Federal, state and local officials gathered Wednesday in Dutchess County to mark the establishment of the nation’s newest wildlife refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s first land acquisition for the six-state refuge is a 144-acre preserve donated by The Nature Conservancy.
The Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge gets its start in New York, with the acquisition of the Nellie Hill Preserve in Dover, marking the start of the country’s 566th national wildlife refuge. Nellie Hill used to be grazing land for cows. Mike Horne is a refuge manager with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“As old farms became untilled and as younger forests became older, the prevalence of thicket, or brush land habitat on the landscape, became less and less,” says Horne.
And that posed problems for a number of species, especially the New England Cottontail, also known as the grey or brush rabbit.
“The New England Cottontails were having a real hard time hanging on. And so this effort is to, while simultaneously stabilizing and providing shrub land habitat for the species, it also benefits a lot of other species that rely on shrub lands, too, a lot of migratory birds and maybe even some federally-threatened bog turtles,” Horne says. “So I think that the overall proposal’s in response to a decline in shrub land habitat type, and the primary beneficiary of that is New England Cottontail but there are many other species that would benefit as well.”
Fish and Wildlife Service will continue coordinating with government and private, non-profit partners to engage interested landowners in 10 target areas of six states — New York, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island — to acquire up to 15,000 acres through various methods, including conservation easements, donations or fee-title acquisition. This process is expected to take decades, as the Fish and Wildlife Service works with willing sellers only and depends on funding availability for purchases.
Stuart Gruskin is chief conservation and external affairs officer for The Nature Conservancy, which donated the Nellie Hill Preserve.
“And it had enormous appeal to The Nature Conservancy because it is right in line with our mission of looking for ways of really coming up with the most impactful conservation outcomes,” Gruskin says. “And to be able to kick start the establishment of this newest national wildlife refuge and also magnify the impacts of our property, was really irresistible.”
The New York state Department of Environmental Conservation plays a role, as it will work with the partners involved in developing management and conservation plans. Plans for the refuge were proposed in early 2016 through a draft land protection plan and environmental assessment that received more than 6,000 comments. Horne says the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to be a good neighbor, and protect natural resources while taking into consideration the economic goals of counties and towns.
“So the proposal, when we first started out, there was some concern on the part of Dutchess County and some of the townships there along Route 22 about the proposal and about how the proposal would correlate with economic development plans for the area,” says Horne. “And so we really had an opportunity over the last year plus to sit down with county administrators and township officials and citizens and hear what they had to say and meaningfully change aspects of our proposal to try to make it fit better and fit within their concerns as well as simultaneously trying to meet our objectives for the species that we’re trying to help out.”
Dover Supervisor Linda French says the refuge effort pairs well with her town’s ecotourism bent.