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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Fish and Wildlife Refuge’s work a team mission

The first thing Cynthia Boettner had to explain to me about the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is that the refuge consists of the 7.2 million acres of the Connecticut River Watershed that runs from the far reaches of New Hampshire, through Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut before it exits in Long Island Sound. That is an enormous charge and responsibility. As Boettner explained how she works to monitor, control and eradicate invasive plant species, it was clear that no one person can even coordinate such an effort and that it takes many groups to enable the refuge to carry out its mission.

The refuge was established in 1997 and named in honor of Congressman Conte, who felt strongly about the importance of conservation. Its purpose is to conserve the abundance and diversity of native plants and animals and their habitats in the Connecticut River Watershed. Boettner joined the refuge staff 13 years ago when her group was deciding to focus on raising awareness of the importance of eradicating invasive plants

One way the refuge is creating awareness is through the Invasive Plant Newsbriefs that Boettner sends out through email, which include information about workshops, training sessions and conferences as well as information about invasive plant sitings and eradication efforts.

Boettner explained that the refuge works with many other groups. One result is an Invasive Plant Atlas of New England (IPANE) that was created in cooperation with the University of Connecticut. Over 900 trained volunteers surveyed given areas and collected information about the invasive plants they found. That information was turned over to the national database called EDDMapS (Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System), which now includes access through an iPhone app. Any of us with skill in identifying invasives and an iPhone can confidently add to this atlas and know that our information will be verified.

One eradication effort that many local people are familiar with is the removal of patches of Japanese stiltgrass in Conway. This plant has been identified fairly recently and the hope is that with early attempts at eradication, they can really prevent further spread. Boettner has a fact sheet with colored photos of the plant at various stages. She welcomes information about sightings that include clear digital photos with full location information.

Individuals can also get in touch with Ted Elliman at the New England Wildflower Society, another one of the organizations the refuge works with.

Once you have identified the stiltgrass you can pull it up by hand or cut it down with a string trimmer in mid-to late August. This is before seeds have set, and late enough in the season so that it will not have time to regrow and still set seeds. You can also watch for notice of Community Workdays in August to pull up patches. Pulled plants need to be bagged and placed in the sun to rot. Boettner explained that it is vital for landowners to survey their own land and watch for infestation of invasives.

She also reminded me that “ínvasive plant removal is just one component of trying to revive a habitat to bring the balance back and improve it for wildlife. Sometimes we get so caught up in removing the invasives that we forget the bigger picture of what we are trying to achieve. That’s something that I want to be more aware of and focus on in my work. A lot is about setting priorities. For example, one of our refuge properties in Hadley, the Fort River Division, is covered with multiflora rose and Oriental bittersweet. We will be focusing our immediate attention on controlling the bittersweet because we are managing the floodplain forest for migrating birds. As Christian Marks from The Nature Conservancy points out, the bittersweet is bringing down the large canopy trees, which the birds need as stopover habitat on their journey. These vines are also overpowering the young saplings that would be the forest of tomorrow. So, it’s the migrating birds we have on our minds as we prioritize work on the forest. In the fields where we want to manage for grassland birds, the multiflora rose may be more of a threat to the establishment of that habitat.”

Education is a very important part of the refuge’s mission. I have often taken my grandchildren to the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls without totally realizing this wonderful, fascinating and informative place was connected with the refuge. It is one of several education centers operating in the watershed.

I was also fascinated to learn that there is a US Youth Conservation Corps that provides an opportunity for teenagers to work (for pay) as conservationists on several sites over a four to six week summer session, the closest being at Fort River in Hadley. This program is overseen by the North Woods Stewardship Center in Vermont.

Boettner has always loved the outdoors, camping as a Girl Scout and vacationing in northern Michigan as a child. Still, she said it was a Field Biology class she took and loved while studying at the University of Michigan-Dearborn that set her on the road to the work she does at the refuge.

“I love to link people up with the information they are seeking in their quest to do good things for the environment. I find that so satisfying, especially when I ultimately get to see the resulting fruits of their labor!” she said.

I am listing here several websites that might be of interest whether you are interested in becoming a volunteer or are looking for more information about these organizations.

Invasive Plant Atlas of New England and Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System both at www.eddmaps.org ; Massachusetts Nature Conservancy http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/massachusetts/index.htm ; New England Wildflower Society www.newenglandwild.org ; Silvio O. Conte Fish and Wildlife Refuge http://www.fws.gov/r5soc/index.html ; NorthWoods Stewardship Center www.northwoodscenter.org .

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