Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge

The Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is no ordinary Refuge!

The Connecticut River watershed, 7.2 million acres in four states, is larger and more heavily populated than areas usually considered when creating a refuge. The purposes of the refuge are also much broader than usual. The Conte Refuge is one of the few fish and wildlife refuges, and protecting natural diversity is a new scientific and social challenge. Recognizing that land acquisition alone cannot meet this challenge; the Conte Refuge's primary action is to involve the people of the watershed, especially landowners and land managers, in environmental education programs and cooperative management projects. The Conte Refuge may become the model for refuges of the future.

The Conte Refuge will join the 92-million-acre national refuge system, a system with a proud heritage of protecting plants, fish, and wildlife. The national refuge system is operated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service's mission is to conserve, protect and enhance the nation's fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of people.

Refuge Background
In 1991, the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge Act was signed by President Bush. The law charged the Fish and Wildlife Service with an important task: to study the entire 7.2-million-acre Connecticut River watershed and create a new national fish and wildlife refuge.

Project planners were faced with many questions. What about the two million people living and working within the watershed? What about all the state and local agencies and organizations already benefitting fish and wildlife here? How could the Service, with a limited budget for land acquisition, hope to acquire enough land to make a difference? Could enough land be protected to benefit species that require large areas of continuous habitat? Could enough land be protected to benefit migrating birds? Was acquiring land the only or best solution? Was there a way to better manage all the land already held for conservation purposes? Was there a way to encourage and assist private landowners so they could contribute to the effort? What about multi-species management? What about aquatic species, like fish and freshwater mussels? Were there other issues and problems? What were the solutions?

Project planners started listening to people, asking for their ideas and discussing this exciting challenge. They met with many groups and agencies to understand problems, issues, and programs throughout the watershed. There were many successful programs to consider. They listened to people's thoughts, aspirations for the future, feelings, frustrations, and worries. The message from the public was consistent and clear. In the Yankee tradition, the people of the watershed were proud of their past land stewardship and were anxious to undertake future challenges themselves. Instead of passively stepping aside and letting someone else meet the challenge, they asked for support to help them do the job.

Biologists gathered information about the watershed's biological resources and assembled it in a Geographic Information System. This computerized approach allowed them to see the watershed-wide view and more easily analyze data. Many species are very abundant. However, rapid urbanization of the southern half of the watershed has resulted in a great deal of habitat loss. This loss occurs directly as developments replace vegetation, and indirectly as the remaining habitat is fragmented into small, isolated patches. Many species of concern to the Service and the Conte Refuge have been impacted by habitat loss and fragmentation. Ten species within the watershed are currently federally-listed as endangered or threatened, with another 18 considered at risk of becoming endangered or threatened. Sixty-eight species have disappeared from the watershed relatively recently. Two hundred and ninety species are rare throughout the watershed. In addition, many species of migratory birds are experiencing declining populations. It became apparent that more habitat protection and management were necessary to stop the loss of natural diversity.

The planning team used what they learned to design a new refuge, not just another refuge. This refuge will take a multifaceted approach—one that will maximize the effectiveness of all the organizations and people that are contributing to conservation in the Connecticut River watershed.

Special Focus Areas
Based on the biological information, roughly 180,000 acres of Special Focus Areas were identified. These areas contribute substantially or in unique ways to supporting natural diversity in the watershed. Some tracts within these areas are already in conservation ownership, but may need additional management to reach their full habitat potential. Other tracts may need to be protected and managed.

Special Focus Areas provide the following biological values:

  • habitat for federally-listed species;
  • habitat for a number of rare species and/or rare vegetative community types;
  • important fisheries habitat;
  • important wetlands;
  • habitat for waterbirds;
  • substantial areas of continuous habitat;
  • large blocks of unusual habitat; and
  • landbird resting, feeding, and breeding habitat.

In addition to the Special Focus Areas, many small, scattered sites of critical importance to single rare species were identified.

Habitat Restoration and Management
Important habitat in the watershed has been degraded or lost to development. There is a need to restore damaged habitats and manage lands to provide improved habitat. Restoration and better management can help compensate for habitat loss.

Habitat restoration will return damaged habitat to a more productive condition. Road culverts placed in many tidal wetlands have reduced tidal flow. Other tidal marshes were ditched for mosquito control. Lower salinity and disturbed soils allow invasive giant reeds (phragmites) to displace native plants. Increasing the size of culverts and plugging the mosquito ditches will help control the phragmites and replace degraded habitat with rich habitat. Many wetlands have been drained and converted to agricultural fields. The drains can be plugged and the wetlands restored. Much of our streambank vegetation has been removed, allowing silt, fertilizers, and pollutants to enter streams. Fencing cattle away from the bank, not growing row crops to the streambank, and letting trees grow all help improve fish and wildlife habitat. Removing small dams, or providing passage around them, restores habitat for migratory fish.

The Service's Partners for Wildlife Program provides assistance to landowners who want to restore and protect wetland, riparian and other wildlife habitat areas. In addition to cost-sharing, the Service may provide technical advice, design assistance, and earth-moving equipment. This program has helped 14,000 landowners restore 235,000 acres of wetlands and other habitats. While active in other parts of the northeast, few projects have been completed in Connecticut River watershed. The Refuge will encourage this program through outreach and additional funding. The Conte Refuge goal is to restore 3,300 acres of wetlands, 900 acres of uplands and 2,545 acres of streambank habitat over the next 15 years.

Some species cannot be helped by habitat protection alone. For example, aquatic species depend on good water quality, which cannot be obtained simply by purchasing the streambed or adjacent land. Coordinated, improved management of watersheds is necessary to help aquatic species.

It is also difficult to use habitat protection for widely-distributed species; too much habitat is involved for land protection to be practical. Warblers migrate from wintering grounds in Central and South America to nest throughout New England's forests. Coordinated, improved management of habitat over large geographic areas is necessary to help these species.

Many other species need habitat protection and active habitat management. Grassland birds and early successional species, such as cottontail rabbits and woodcock, rely on occasional mowing to maintain grassy or shrubby habitat. Once this habitat grows into forest, these species are unable to exist. Rare species may also require certain special conditions.

Land already in conservation ownership may not be managed at all, or may be managed primarily for water supply, for timber production, or for recreation. Unmanaged land does provide habitat, but not always the specific habitat needed.

National Refuge lands are actively managed to provide enhanced habitat. The lands acquired by the Conte Refuge will be managed, and lands acquired by others with Refuge assistance will also have management agreements. Private landowners will be encouraged and supported to apply wildlife management techniques. Wildlife management can be successfully integrated into many land management actions. For example, if the goal of timber harvesting is to produce cord wood, this goal may be accomplished by a cut made without regard for wildlife, or by a cut that leaves certain food-producing and shelter trees.

The amount of land in conservation ownership is estimated to be 22 percent of the 7.2 million-acre watershed. Power companies, forest products companies, and other large landowners control additional land. Encouraging all these landowners to adopt wildlife management techniques will have a broad beneficial effect. To encourage the broad application of wildlife management techniques, the Refuge plans to provide technical and financial support for a variety of cooperative management efforts.

The Challenge Cost-Share Program will be used to support a variety of innovative projects. Begun in 1988, the Challenge Cost Share Program is a competitive program created to share the costs of local projects that support Fish and Wildlife Service goals. It is funded with a Congressional appropriation and administered through the Service's seven Regional Offices. At least 50 percent of the project costs must come from non-federal contributions of funds, labor, equipment, or materials. Funding is awarded through a competitive process. The Conte Refuge will augment the funds available to support its cooperators. The Conte Refuge goal is to fund at least 20 projects per year.

This program has been very popular and successful. Nationally, cooperator matches have grown to roughly $11 million per year. In this 13 state region in 1994, 45 of the 73 projects submitted were funded. Service funds of $374,000 were matched with $779,000 of partner contributions. An additional nine projects were chosen to be funded by other programs in the regional office, including the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, Partners in Flight and Endangered Species. One $40,000 Director's Award was received. In 1995, 45 of the 73 projects submitted were also awarded. Service funds of $390,000 were matched with $1,041,000 in partner contributions.

Examples of projects which could be undertaken include:

  • management agreements with landowners who host endangered species ;
  • management activities for rivers containing freshwater mussel populations'
  • integrated management plans for large forests;
  • grassland bird management projects;
  • invasive species control projects.

Research, Inventory and Monitoring
To support habitat protection, restoration, and management, some research, inventory, and management projects will be needed. For example, when Conte planners tried to identify habitat for migratory birds, very little information was available. The Refuge plans to encourage research in this area. In addition, more needs to be known about many of the rare species. Checking historical sites may show that the species no longer exists there. Protecting such sites would no longer be warranted. Searching other suitable habitats may reveal more populations of a rare species. Recent inventories have discovered additional populations of the endangered northeastern bulrush and dwarf wedge mussel. Monitoring populations over a number of years reveals whether the populations are healthy and increasing, or have problems and are decreasing. Comparing the environmental conditions at sites where a species is struggling or flourishing helps biologists understand what the species needs; management recommendations for the species can then be made.

Environmental Education
Involving watershed residents in protecting natural diversity will require extensive and effective education. To be successful, this refuge will need to be "the information refuge."

Many Conte Refuge education efforts will be based on partnerships. The form of these partnerships will vary, but the broad messages will be consistent. The broad messages will be combined with messages that are specific to the local area and audiences. The Conte Refuge plans to encourage and support its education partnerships through direct awards and through the competitive Challenge Cost-Share Program.

The Conte Refuge will also move ahead independently to provide information about important watershed topics through publications, use of the Internet, and public presentations. The Refuge also plans to work with volunteers to research important watershed topics and produce interpretive materials for distribution.

Examples of possible Conte Refuge environmental education projects include:

  • TV broadcast of bald eagle nesting;
  • a Connecticut River Teacher Training Institute;
  • information packets on habitat restoration for butterflies;
  • interpretive exhibits utilizing Conte Refuge messages;
  • improved access for wildlife viewing for the physically disabled;
  • a watershed-wide environmental education database;
  • training provided by Conte staff;
  • a world wide web home page on the Internet; and
  • interpretive publications on topics such as invasive species and estuarine ecology.

Habitat Protection
For this refuge, the following factors argue against the traditional land protection approach:

  • large number of Special Focus Areas and small scattered sites;
  • large number of acres;
  • high cost per acre; and
  • a mix of existing private and conservation organization ownership.

All these present difficulties for acquisition and management. Instead of a traditional approach to land protection, a cooperative approach will be taken.

Many conservation agencies and land trusts have missions similar to the Service and they are willing to help accomplish mutual land protection goals. The Refuge will cost-share purchases with groups to protect land within the Special Focus Areas or small scattered sites. Sharing the costs will leverage limited funds and allow more land to be protected. Local groups often have established good relationships with local landowners and can provide more presence and management activity than the Service.

The Conte Refuge and its partners will use several methods of land protection. They will use fee-title acquisition to purchase all the rights to the land. Another method they will use is the purchase of conservation easements. In this method, the buyer purchases only certain rights, such as the right to build houses on the land. Conservation easements are less expensive than fee-title acquisitions. When development rights are sold, the landowner retains the right to use the land for other purposes, such as agriculture or forestry. The landowner continues to pay taxes on the adjusted valuation of the land. Easements are effective in keeping inherited land intact and useful to heirs. The Refuge and its partners will also encourage the use of bargain sales and donations of lands or easements. These transactions may provide landowners with tax advantages.

Contact Details
38 Avenue A
Turners Falls, MA 01376
(413) 863-0209

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 23 May 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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