The National Wildlife Refuge System spans 150 million acres of land and water from coast to coast, with at least one refuge providing public access to quality fish and wildlife habitat in each U.S. state. Last week I traveled through New England with the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE) coalition, visiting five National Wildlife Refuges along the way. I was inspired by this immersion in living-and-breathing habitat restoration and enhancement projects that are benefiting local communities and future generations, but it became very clear that none of it would be possible without the help of local and national partners contributing financial assistance and on-the-ground support. Overall, refuges across the country are underfunded, and this has caused a real impact on the health of wildlife habitat and quality of visitor experiences. Though the refuge workforce has fallen 12 percent in the past four years, the staff that we met over the past week were passionate, engaged, and responsible for executing conservation initiatives that may not see results for many years. Here’s a taste of what I experienced.
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Rowley, Mass.
Occupying two-thirds of Plum Island, this refuge’s Great Marsh is at the confluence of the Essex, Ipswich, Rowley, Parker, and Merrimac Rivers. In 2014, the National Wildlife Refuge System and its partners teamed up to remove dense invasive wetland reeds that spread quickly by water and air. They successfully decreased the invasive plant population by 85 percent and replaced them with native shrubs and grasses, supporting habitat for the more than 67,000 migratory birds that spend warm seasons in the marsh. Our small group wandered through past the dunes to where hunters may pursue waterfowl and whitetail deer thanks, also, to careful management. The refuge is less than 20 miles from route 95 and just an hour from Boston, providing quality access to sportsmen and birders from an ever-sprawling urban area.
Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Newington, N.H.
Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Wells, Maine
The Great Bay and Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuges have partnered with their state fish and wildlife agencies to accomplish restoration projects and protect at-risk species, like the recently delisted New England cottontail rabbit. Just weeks before we arrived at Great Bay, the staff released ten young cottontails raised in a one-and-a-half-acre pen at the refuge. Meanwhile, partners and volunteers at Rachel Carson worked to remove invasive grasses and restore native shrubs where the rabbits breed.
Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, Bethel, Maine
The Umbagog staff is currently partnering with timber contractors to clear out invasive trees and restore healthy forest habitat. They showed us trees marked with blue paint for removal this winter. Forty to 50 years from now, probably long after these dedicated refuge workers retire, the effects of the timber harvest will begin to sustain woodcock and other species reliant on hardwood forest habitat.
Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, Brunswick, Vt.
This refuge places a high value on educating the community while maintaining and restoring the Connecticut River watershed. Fueled by the refuge’s relationship with local partners, French’s staff is able to restore salt marshes for migratory birds, like black ducks, reestablish wetlands by deconstructing manmade bodies of water, and provide education materials through the Watershed on Wheels (WOW) project—the refuge’s mobile visitors center. Unfortunately, many of these projects are on standby due to the lack of conservation funding appropriated to them by Congress.
Fortunately, local and national partners are providing assistance for restoration projects on our National Wildlife Refuges, but these efforts only go so far without a permanent refuge workforce. On behalf of the New England refuges that I had the pleasure to experience, I encourage you to reach out to your lawmakers and urge them to invest in conservation to protect and sustain the refuge system for the benefit of fish, wildlife, and sportsmen.