Fish & Wildlife Service will start seeking land for Great Thicket refuge

A 38,208-acre area in Groton, Ledyard, North Stonington and Stonington has been identified for the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge. Within that area, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will pursue donations, conservation easements and acquisition of up to 3,500 acres of suitable lands. (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Refuge Planning)

The Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, extending into six states and including an area of southeastern Connecticut, officially has been created by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, giving the agency the authority to begin working with willing landowners.

The wildlife service announced Tuesday that the new refuge has been approved, 10 months after the plan was introduced and more than 6,000 public comments considered. More than 90 percent of the comments supported creation of the refuge.

“We will now begin looking for interested landowners,” said Meagan Racey, spokeswoman for the agency.

The refuge, which would protect shrubby, early successional habitat and young forests needed for New England cottontail rabbits, which had been considered for endangered species status, as well as American woodcocks and 65 species of songbirds, mammals, reptiles, monarch butterflies and other pollinating insects that are threatened because of the loss of these areas.

Other species that depend on thicket habitat include the ruffed grouse, golden-winged and blue-winged warblers, box and spotted turtles, and Hessel’s hairstreak, a small green butterfly.

In southeastern Connecticut, a 38,208-acre area in Groton, Ledyard, North Stonington and Stonington has been identified for the refuge, because it supports a core population of New England cottontails. Within that area, the wildlife service will pursue donations, conservation easements and acquisition of up to 3,500 acres of suitable lands, Racey said.

Designating the larger area “allows us to be flexible” to choose properties that have the best habitat and are available, she said. The agency does not have funding specifically for Great Thicket land purchases, but “if the opportunity arises, we do have a limited general source of funding that could be considered, depending on other needs and priorities.”

The service is prepared to accept land for the refuge through donations and conservation easements, however.

Rick Potvin, manager of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook, will manage the Connecticut portion of Great Thicket. In addition to lands in southeastern Connecticut, it also includes about 400 acres in Litchfield County. The entire refuge extends into New York, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island as well as Connecticut. It would encompass about 15,000 acres within a 260,000-acre area of the six states.

“The refuge won’t actually come into being until the first piece of land is added,” Potvin said. He said several of the comments from the public included statements from property owners willing to sell or donate their lands, he said.

“We got a lot of comments from people saying they have land they’d like us to look at,” Potvin said. “We will be getting in contact with them.”

He emphasized that the establishment of the refuge will have no impact on how owners of properties within the designated area use their lands.

Only specific types of property will be suitable for Great Thicket, he said. Ideal parcels, he said are “old farm fields that have gone fallow for five or six years, where the bramble is chest-high and difficult to move through. The challenge will be to maintain that characteristic habitat.”

Among supporters of the project are the Avalonia Land Conservancy, which protects about 3,500 acres in eight towns including the four in the refuge, and the Groton Open Space Association. The town of Ledyard and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection also sent letters of support.

The agency said it expects to build the refuge over the next several decades. It emphasized that it will work with only willing sellers, and acquisitions will depend on funding availability.

Anyone interested in having the wildlife service consider their property for the refuge should contact Potvin at (860) 399-7042, ext. 8133.

“We’d be happy to come and take a look,” he said.

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