The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced the creation of a new national wildlife refuge in southern Maine this week. Called the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), new conserved lands will maintain grass- and shrub habitats in coastal regions of New England and New York.
Areas targeted for Refuge lands are concentrated in the southernmost regions of Maine, including Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Berwick and York (See pages 3_23 and 3_24 in this proposal for maps). Outside of Maine, the Refuge will include parts of coastal New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and eastern New York. Grass- and shrub lands are generally concentrated along the southern coasts of New England states where conditions are windy and climates are moderated by the ocean.
Grass- and shrub lands occur naturally after forests are disturbed by fire, clearing, or large-scale environmental changes (e.g. water table changes, beaver dams). Over time, grass and shrubs are replaced by forests. There is a unique set of rare mammals and birds that live mostly during the grass and shrub stage, including the New England cottontail, American woodcock and several other species of birds. Without management, most grasslands in New England (and therefore the wildlife that lives in them) are temporary.
Grass- and shrub lands are shrinking in Maine, and across the country. Existing grass- and shrub lands have been lost to development, marsh-draining and reforestation. Therefore, the US Fish and Wildlife service has identified grassland management as a primary target for conservation in New England. Conserving and maintaining grass- and shrub lands in southern Maine would not only increase habitat for rare species; these new lands would also provide a source population of rare species to help colonize and sustain grasslands elsewhere.
To maintain grass- and shrub lands in southern Maine, the Fish and Wildlife Service will cut, burn, and chemically treat areas within the Refuge. Simply preventing development on newly acquired lands would not be enough to maintain grass- and shrub lands; untouched land would slowly return to forest, driving out rare grassland species.
To establish the Great Thicket NWR, the Fish and Wildlife Service will gradually buy-up land in targeted areas in southern Maine. Though the Department of the Interior does have the ability to use eminent domain to acquire land for NWRs, it rarely does so, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has already stated that eminent domain will not be used for the Great Thicket NWR.
Instead, landowners within the targeted areas have been invited to sell, will, or donate their lands or conservation easements thereon to the Fish and Wildlife Service. There will be no new laws or policies that will otherwise affect landowners within the targeted areas who do not wish for their lands to become part of the Refuge.
Lands acquired as part of the Great Thicket NWR will be slowly opened up to the public. Though the recreation use plan for the Refuge has not yet been written, it is likely that hiking, birding, and hunting will be allowed on parts of the Refuge, as this has been the policy for other NWRs in Maine. The patchwork of grasslands maintained in the new Refuge will likely be excellent hunting areas for birds and deer.
Maine already contains eleven NWRs, including the large Sunkhaze Meadows NWR northeast of Bangor and the Petit Manan NWR along the seacoast. The Refuges contain unique habitat for wildlife, and most of them are open to limited hunting and fishing.
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