Conservation Partners Team Up for Grasslands Protection
by MacKenzie Hall
NRCS Private Lands Biologist
September, 2006; Updated April, 2010
Habitat loss and alteration continue to take a colossal toll on
wildlife everywhere, and New Jersey's natural lands face a particularly
strong threat. We hear it in the media, see it in our neighborhoods,
and feel it as an artificial world engulfs us. People take up space!
But while New Jersey may hold the title of "most densely populated
state," we are also leaders in land acquisition, protection, and in
preserving what is most valuable and most rare. Perhaps that's because,
as the most densely populated state, we have the clearest vision of
what will be lost should we fail.
In the urban-suburban matrix we have created, there are still
many opportunities to safeguard important habitats and the wildlife
that depend on them. With its diverse landscape, New Jersey
supports a suite of globally rare species found in few other
places in such numbers. The fen-dwelling bog turtle and the
northern metalmark (a tiny butterfly of limestone cedar glades)
are both especially well-represented in New Jersey compared
to the rest of their ranges.
While these species face their own explicit threats, they
do have one thing going for them: they don't need a lot of space
to survive. For more area-sensitive wildlife, like bobcats,
timber rattlesnakes, or upland sandpipers, space is one of the
biggest limiting factors and one of the most difficult to guarantee,
especially given the swift pace of development and the soaring
price tag on real estate.
newly seeded field in Warren County will be managed for game
animals as well as declining grassland birds.
Easily the fastest disappearing open spaces are our agricultural
ones, both because of their desirability to developers and because
of the increasing struggle to survive economically through farming
in New Jersey. Disappearing with those lands are a group of area-sensitive,
grassland-dependent birds like the vesper sparrow, northern bobwhite
quail, eastern meadowlark, northern harrier, bobolink, and others,
some of whose numbers in New Jersey have dropped by nearly half in
just the past few decades. New Jersey's list
of Threatened and Endangered birds is speckled with the names
of those that live, feed, and nest in grassland habitats. Their future
here (and elsewhere) depends on our ability to preserve and properly
manage large areas of unfragmented grassland and agricultural land.
In response, conservationists have teamed together to protect
and manage our remaining grasslands and the vulnerable group
of animals that are so closely tied to this vanishing landscape
by forming the New Jersey Habitat Incentive Team (NJHIT).
NJHIT is a coalition of nongame and game organizations from
both the public and private arenas now poised to use their talents
and contacts to conserve these important lands. To name a few,
members include the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife, Conserve
Wildlife Foundation of NJ, US
Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Natural
Resources Conservation Service, NJ Pheasants
Forever, and South Jersey Quail
Another key member of the NJHIT partnership is the N.J.
Audubon Society (NJAS), whose biologists joined the others
in identifying key focal areas for grassland management. NJAS
also secured grants in 2005 that now employ a handful of biologists
who promote and manage conservation programs and guide people
through the enrollment process. Audubon also provides the steam
behind an ambitious new monitoring program, which documents
the successes of new grassland management projects in terms
of both habitat character and presence of target bird species.
Specific population goals are now being set. For example, NJHIT
hopes to increase breeding numbers of bobolink, grasshopper
sparrow, northern bobwhite, and vesper sparrow by 10-25% within
a three-county (Warren, Hunterdon, Somerset) focal area. And
by the end of 2007, it is aiming for a combined 3,000 acres
of grasslands to be enrolled in state and federal conservation
incentive programs within that same focal area.
The NJHIT approach is to interact with landowners, farmers, and managers
whose land management goals overlap with NJHIT conservation goals
and to channel the resources of conservation incentive programs onto
their properties. Grassland habitat management is relatively simple.
First, you need grass. The larger the area the better, but a few of
the rarer grassland bird species like bobolink and eastern meadowlark
have been found to occupy fields as small as 10 acres. Once you have
grass, you need to leave it alone during the birds' nesting season
(generally accepted to run between April 1 and July 15). Mowing and
haying within that period destroys ground nests and the young birds
inside them. It can also condition adult birds to avoid those areas
that would otherwise serve as fine habitat if not so intensively managed.
Avoiding mowing and haying during the nesting season is the simplest
way to accommodate grassland nesters.
It isn't a complicated strategy, but farmland is a precious
commodity and little goes to waste. With rent and taxes as high
as they are, farmers need to maximize their productivity on
every acre; large-lot farmers especially do not always have
the flexibility to leave grasses standing during that fruitful
April-July period. Incentive programs were created to give landowners
and operators that flexibility to practice natural resource-friendly
management that otherwise would not be economically attractive
or even feasible.
There are now several incentive programs that place grassland
habitat management as a top priority, and since 2005, the New
Jersey Habitat Incentive Team has helped bring them together
in a clever pooling of resources that makes an impact greater
than the sum of its parts. The programs NJHIT promotes can give
both technical and financial assistance to those wishing to
manage grasslands for wildlife. The three-year-old Landowner
Incentive Program (LIP), administered by the NJDEP's Division
of Fish & Wildlife, is a relative newcomer to the scene. LIP
actually makes rental payments to guarantee that no mowing takes
place during the bird nesting season on enrolled grasslands.
These rental payments are meant to offset revenues that could
have been earned by earlier or repeated mowing and haying, or
by row-cropping of large properties.
The rental payments make LIP an appealing choice to those interested
in the conservation. However, there is a limit on how much management
the program can accomplish with its available funding. To spread its
dollars further, LIP combined resources with two other programs that
offer all of the same benefits minus the rent - the USDA Natural Resources
Conservation Service's Wildlife
Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) and the US Fish and Wildlife
for Fish & Wildlife (Partners) program. Together, these organizations
and their programs make up a power trio that helped to seed more than
600 acres of native grasses over the past two years and to manage
about 1,300 total grassland acres across the state. This is over and
above the individual accomplishments of WHIP and Partners.
The NJHIT partnership represents a thoughtful and unified effort
to protect and manage one of the state and country's most declining
habitat types. In the two years since its inception, the New Jersey
Habitat Incentive Team has gained a momentum and membership that should
continue to bring sound grassland management and positive results
for the species whose futures depend on it.
The conservation programs mentioned in this article can help improve
& manage habitat for many of NJ's rare wildlife, not just grassland
birds. For more information on these programs
visit the web pages of the habitat incentive programs listed below:
Landowner Incentive Program (NJDEP DFW): www.njfishandwildlife.com/ensp/lip_prog.htm
Partners for Fish & Wildlife (US Fish and Wildlife Service): http://partners.fws.gov/
Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and others (USDA NRCS): www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/
ATTENTION! The state's Landowner Incentive Program (LIP) is accepting applications for remaining funds. The deadline for applying is July 15, 2010, so apply now!