The Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge Is Available for Delivery! (Some Assembly Required)

To protect a massive swath of crucial habitat in New England, locals will use their own shrubland to fill in the blanks.

A prairie warbler

Credit: Jason Ondreicka/iStock

New England just got the go-ahead for a wildlife refuge the size of Manhattan, but it won’t reach full size until around 2050.

“This won’t be all in one place, and it certainly won’t be all in one time,” says Bill Zinni, a wildlife biologist in the realty division of the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) National Wildlife Refuge System, who worked on the proposal.

The formation of Great Thicket will include many plots of land over many decades, and its goals cover a lot of ground, too: FWS carefully planned the refuge to encompass overlapping territories that will give population boosts to dwindling New England cottontails, high-priority breeding birds like the blue-winged and prairie warblers, and endangered species like the northern red-bellied cooter and bog turtle. The service is eyeing 257,638 acres within 10 focus areas. Eventually it will select 15,000 of those acres to make up a patchwork of shrubland habitat across five New England states plus New York.

Great Thicket will follow this gradual, deliberate path because its creators want to steer clear of eminent domain, which allows the government to seize private property for public use. Instead, the FWS will work only with landowners who are interested in selling, donating, or obtaining a conservation easement, which would allow them to maintain property rights but restrict how the land is used. The satisfaction of helping wildlife isn’t the only benefit of getting an easement; it also comes with an income tax deduction equal to the value of the donation.

Land-acquisition focus areas for the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge
Credit: North American Bird Conservation Initiative

But that doesn’t mean the FWS will accept every vacant lot offered. So, what kind of land is the refuge after? Lands that help the greatest number of threatened species (obviously), areas that naturally lend themselves to shrublands, and parcels that connect bigger patches of habitat or are in close proximity to thicket managed by other conservation groups.

Shrubland (also known as early successional habitat or thicket) is the dense, brushy vegetation that grows quickly after landscape disturbances. In pre-Colonial times, natural phenomena like floods, beaver dams, and fires would naturally disrupt New England’s ecosystems. Beginning in the mid-1800s, westward expansion left behind swaths of abandoned farmland that provided ideal conditions for shrubs and then trees to move in.

But forests, like all of us, have to grow up at some point. After spending a couple of centuries coming of age, mature woodlands now dominate the region’s former farmland. Natural disturbances have become few and far between as humans have achieved better control over floods and fires. And development certainly hasn’t helped New England’s wildlife habitat.

As a result, shrubland has declined significantly across the Northeast. Today, this type of habitat is mostly limited to wildlife management areas, powerline rights-of-way, and the sites of recent timber harvests.

That’s a big problem, because the knights who say “Ni!” aren’t the only ones who need shrubbery. While senior stands of trees serve woodland critters just fine, they leave many other creatures out of luck. For example, populations of 12 of the Northeast’s 16 shrubland birds are declining. In the past 40 years, American woodcock numbers have plummeted 55 percent. Species like these are habitat specialists, meaning they can’t live without shrubby meadows and young forests.

Scrubland habitat in Maine
Credit: USFWS

Perhaps the best example of a shrubland specialist is the New England cottontail. An animal renowned for its reproductive prowess being unable to keep its population numbers up seems like a cruel joke, but this bunny’s struggle is real. The native species depends on thick, tangled understories for food and shelter from predators—unlike its introduced cousin, the eastern cottontail, a habitat generalist that’s content to munch on any old suburban lawn. Thanks to shrubland loss, the New England cottontail now occupies just 20 percent of its historic range.

The cottontail had been a candidate for the endangered species list, but the FWS deemed the listing unnecessary after private organizations and federal and state agencies hopped into action over the past decade or so. Their efforts included a captive breeding program at Providence, Rhode Island’s Roger Williams Park Zoo, the development of a New England Cottontail Conservation Strategy, and the procurement of suitable land.

An eastern cottontail rabbit
Credit: Neil DeMaster/Flickr

FWS estimates that 27,000 acres of habitat would be sufficient to ensure the rabbit’s survival. By the end of last year, 12,282 of those acres had been secured, leaving 14,718 to go.

That’s where Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge comes in. “It is the perfect prescription,” says Rick Jacobson, director of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s wildlife division and chairman of the New England Cottontail Conservation Initiative’s executive committee.

Of course all this work, and all the work to come, isn’t just for the sake of a bunny. The New England cottontail is an umbrella species. Saving it by protecting its habitat will give shelter to dozens of other shrubland species, too. Thicket habitat may be ephemeral by nature, but New Englanders are in it for the long haul.

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