Montague Plains tour to cover species diversity, habitat management

  • The Montague Plains entrance on Plains Road. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • In a free tour of the Montague Plains on Thursday at 4 p.m., workers from the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife will discuss the unique qualities of the habitat as well as explain the management practices employed and why they are important. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/22/2020 3:49:46 PM

MONTAGUE — The Montague Plains represents an almost globally rare habitat type, making the area home to wildlife that can’t be found elsewhere in this region. Now, following altered plant growth patterns that resulted from human influence in the 20th century, the area has largely been restored and is thriving.

So, in a free tour of the Montague Plains on Thursday at 4 p.m., workers from the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife), which has been overseeing restoration work there since 1999, will discuss the unique qualities of the habitat as well as explain the management practices employed and why they are important. To join the tour, meet at the entrance to the Montague Plains at the corner of Lake Pleasant and Beach roads. Participants must wear face masks and stay 6 feet apart at all times.

“Part of our obligation as an agency, we’re responsible for trying to keep the critters of Massachusetts and their habitats going. In some cases, that requires direct human intervention,” said Marion Larson, the chief of MassWildlife’s information and education section. “This is our way of trying to mimic the patterns of natural processes.”

Montague Plains is an instance of a pine barren habitat, which is more typical of southeastern Massachusetts, Larson said. Inland pine barrens are rare. The Montague Plains, at about 1,000 acres, is the largest remaining inland pine barrens habitat of this particular type in Massachusetts, according to MassWildlife.

A key part of the way the Montague Plains maintains itself is through wildfires. Because the soil is mostly sandy and dry, Larson said, the area is naturally prone to fires. Periodic fires serve to prune large growths of plants, allowing for the low, dense shrubbery that characterizes the plains.

For much of the 20th century, however, it was common for human communities in this area to suppress the wildfires, Larson said. Without the fires, plant material that would have been periodically burned away was instead allowed to build up, turning the Montague Plains into a more typical forest, characterized by a dense canopy of trees.

The transformation of the Montague Plains was effectively a loss of habitat for species that can only survive in the unique conditions of a pine barren, Larson said. Insects especially thrive underneath the dense shrubbery of a pine barren — which in turn supports bird species that eat the insects.

In 1999, MassWildlife took control of the Montague Plains, and began working to restore it to a pine barren by cutting trees, mowing shrubbery, planting grass and reducing invasive plants. Controlled burning was also implemented, and is still used to maintain the area.

Now, the area is a thriving habitat, and has generated healthy populations of several bird species that had been in decline for decades, Larson said. It also may have the most diverse population of bees of any habitat in Massachusetts, according to MassWildlife. At least 50 percent of all bee species native to Massachusetts can now be found at the Montague Plains.

“We’re getting the kind of response we want from our actions,” Larson said. “The habitat is looking like we want it, and the critters that depend on it are showing up and are there and thriving.”

Some people have criticized the practice of intervening in a natural habitat, Larson acknowledged. But, she said, human influence is unavoidable — whether people are artificially suppressing natural processes or artificially supporting them. Since the Montague Plains had already been so altered by human activity, she said, MassWildlife sees its role as maintaining a healthy habitat against destructive human influence.

These topics and others like them will be discussed more in the tour on Thursday.

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.




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