The Nantucket Conservation Foundation recently received the news that we have been awarded a $20,357 grant to undertake a sandplain heathland management project on our Head of the Plains properties in the southwest portion of the island. This funding comes from the new Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) Habitat Management Grant Program, which provides financial assistance to open space landowners to improve and manage habitat for rare wildlife and game species and expand opportunities for hunting and other outdoor recreation. This is the first round of grants awarded through this program, which will be distributing $320,464 to support 13 projects across the Commonwealth….and we are honored to be one of these!
We will be using this funding to brushcut a 14 acre area of sandplain heathland habitat that is becoming overgrown with dense stands of scrub oak and scattered pitch pine. This woody vegetation clearing will be done during late winter of this year (prior to the start of the spring wildlife breeding and nesting season) using the Foundation’s Fecon FTX148-L mulching tractor. The area to be treated is bordered by grassland and heathland prescribed fire management units to the south and east, with tall, dense pitch pine woodlands immediately to the north.
Brushcutting in this area will achieve several important priorities. Nantucket’s sandplain grasslands and heathlands are globally significant habitats that support some of the highest concentrations of rare and endangered species in Massachusetts. Our Head of the Plains properties represent the largest acreage of these habitats that we own. Tall, dense shrubs and trees have been slowly increasing in this area over the past century, primarily due to the end of historic sheep grazing and fire suppression. This has reduced habitat for many species of rare plants, animals and insects – a trend that will continue without some type of disturbance. Therefore, sandplain grassland and heathland habitat management is a very high conservation priority identified in the recently-updated management plan developed for this site by our Science and Stewardship Department.
Reducing the height of tall, dense shrubs will also improve safety for future prescribed burns in this area and reduce overall wildfire risk. Huckleberry, bayberry and scrub oak are highly-flammable shrubs that produce extreme fire behavior when burned. This, coupled with the lack of prompt mutual aid from off-island fire departments in the event of a wildfire, led the Foundation to start developing wildland fire management plans for our properties in 2011 (see previous blog posts for more information). These plans complement the goals of our habitat management efforts described above by targeting strategic locations for reducing flammable vegetation to protect adjacent properties and lower the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
The work funded by this grant will also improve access and visibility for hunting on the property. Shrubs like huckleberry and scrub oak are essentially impenetrable to hunters due to their dense growth forms. The reduction in woody vegetation height and density from brushcutting will provide hunters with improved access to the area and increased visibility, especially from hunting stands that are regularly deployed within the adjacent pitch pine woodlands.
The abutting pine groves serve as important shelter, feeding and resting sites for many species of songbirds passing through the island during the spring and fall migration, due to close proximity to the coastline where these birds make landfall. Head of the Plains is a popular destination for Nantucket’s local bird watching community, which visit these pine woods on a regular basis. This proposed management will improve visibility for bird watching while leaving these important stop-over sites intact and protected.
We are very grateful and proud to have been selected for this competitive, initial round of funding, which is designated for habitat improvement efforts undertaken by municipalities and private landowners. According to MassWildlife Director Jack Buckley, “Though the Division is responsible for the conservation of wildlife and the habitat upon which it depends, the reality is that 80 percent of Massachusetts’ lands where wildlife lives is held in private ownership. It makes sense as an agency to apply science-based habitat management activities with committed private landowners, thereby protecting their investment in wildlife and habitat.”
Our Science and Stewardship Department has a long history of partnering with MassWildlife on many conservation initiatives. We provide detailed data to their Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program database on population trends of rare species occurring on our conservation lands, ensure that rare beach-nesting shorebirds are managed according to state and federal guidelines, and incorporate feedback from their staff biologists into our property and wildfire management plans so that they can be approved for implementation.
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us!