great thicket cartoon

Rhode Island has an abundance of gorgeous coastal vistas and a huge expanse of mature interior forest. In between, however, is a swath of habitat that gets little attention but which is becoming increasingly important, so much so that it may soon become part of a new national wildlife refuge.

The habitat that biologists call “early succession” is the intermediate step between a meadow and a forest, where thickets of berry-laden shrubs, vines and other low-growing vegetation are interspersed with young trees barely tall enough to be called trees. It’s a habitat that five or six dozen species of birds, mammals, insects and other wildlife depend upon for foraging and breeding. And sadly, it’s a habitat that is rapidly declining.

The wildlife that lives in this shrubby habitat – including ruffed grouse, whippoorwills, New England cottontails, box turtles and monarch butterflies – is often forced to move around a great deal. That’s because 10 or 15 years after the habitat is in an ideal state, it matures into a full-fledged forest and is no longer the ideal habitat it once was for these species. By then, the young trees have grown, the flowering shrubs have been shaded out, and the thicket no longer exists.

Historically, the habitat for these shrub-loving species was created naturally by beavers damming streams (which eventually killed neighboring trees) or by storms or wildfires. But humans suppress wildfires and trap beavers, leaving very little territory left for the animals. The abandonment of agricultural fields in the last century created a great deal of this early succession habitat, but by now that has become re-forested, too – or been developed.

Artificially creating these thickets often requires cutting down patches of forest and letting them naturally regenerate into shrubby habitat before they become forest again. But plans to cut down anything more than a small handful of trees often run into tremendous public opposition. Most biologists agree that as long as the right trees in the right forest are cut, it can benefit numerous shrub-loving species that are declining precipitously. The wildlife sometimes need the boost after their old habitat has matured into forest and too little new habitat is created to sustain their populations.

Luckily, however, southern Rhode Island has an abundance of naturally occurring thickets that provide feeding grounds and breeding sites for many of these animals. Much of the habitat at the Ninigret, Trutsom Pond and Sachuest Point National Wildlife refuges is this “maritime scrubland” community that tends to remain shrubby for longer periods.

Now the federal government is looking to incorporate more of this habitat into a new refuge called the Great Thicket in parts of seven states. According to Charlie Vandemoer, refuge manager of the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, efforts are underway to identify areas where conserving shrubland and young forest could make a big difference for wildlife.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to acquire 3,200 acres for the refuge in southern Rhode Island from willing sellers over the next three decades, and it is seeking public comment on their plans until March 4. It’s an exciting proposal that seeks to permanently protect habitat for species that otherwise get little attention. I, for one, have sent them a letter to endorse the project. And while we’re waiting for the new refuge to become established, we can all plant patches of native shrubs on our own properties to aid the declining species.

Contact Fish & Wildlife Service:

Northeast Regional Office

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

300 Westgate Center Drive

Hadley, MA 01035-9587

(413) 253-8200

Naturalist Todd McLeish has been writing about wildlife and the environment for more than 25 years. His latest book is “Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World.”

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