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    Tuesday, August 09, 2022

    Plan for new wildlife refuge draws support from land trusts, Ledyard

    Two of the region’s land trusts and the town of Ledyard are among groups supporting a plan to create a new wildlife refuge to help protect the New England cottontail rabbit and up to 65 species of birds, insects, amphibians and other animals that depend on shrubland habitat.

    The Avalonia Land Conservancy, which protects about 3,500 acres in eight local towns, and the Groton Open Space Association, which conserves about 544 acres in Groton and Ledyard, have both submitted letters of support to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for its plan to create the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge in 10 areas of Maine, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

    About 3,500 acres of the area identified for the proposed preserve are in four southeastern Connecticut towns: Groton, Ledyard, North Stonington and Stonington.

    The area was chosen because it supports a core population of New England cottontail rabbits, which had been considered for endangered species status. About 400 acres in Litchfield County would also be included.

    Thus far hundreds of comments have been submitted in response to a request for comments about the plan since it was announced in January, according to Meagan Racey, spokeswoman for the Fish & Wildlife Service’s New England office.

    The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is preparing a letter of support that will be submitted before the deadline Friday, according to Dennis Schain, DEEP spokesman.

    In addition to the two land trusts, the town of Ledyard has also sent a letter of support.

    Ledyard Councilor Bill Saums said the town asked in its letter that the boundaries of the proposed refuge be expanded to include the entire town.

    The current map of the proposed refuge includes only a small portion of Ledyard, he said, and omits properties that are already conserved where cottontail rabbits and other shrubland species have been documented, he said.

    “We have lots and lots of areas that are already preserved,” he said.

    One of the attributes of the proposed plan, he said, is that it would give owners of relatively small parcels the opportunity to work with the Fish & Wildlife Service to create shrubland habitat, and to sell ownership or conservation easement rights on existing shrublands.

    None of the other three towns submitted letters taking a position on the plan.

    Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said he met with Fish & Wildlife officials about the proposed refuge but did not see a need for the town to submit a letter.

    “We’re just going to let it play out,” he said.

    Under the current plan, he noted, participation by property owners in reaching agreements for land sales or easements will be completely voluntary.

    “Property rights will not be adversely affected,” he said.

    North Stonington First Selectman Shawn Murphy said he has concerns that creating the refuge could mean property that is now taxable becomes non-taxable, if it is sold to the Fish & Wildlife Service.

    The Board of Selectmen discussed the plan, he said, but decided not to express those concerns in an official letter.

    Groton Town Manager Mark Oefinger said town officials are aware of the plan but did not believe it would have a major impact on the town.

    Most of the property identified in Groton by the Fish & Wildlife Service is on the east side of town, he said.

    Joan Smith, president of GOSA, said her group is not indifferent about the plan.

    “We support the concept,” she said. “It’s sort of what we’ve been working on all these years.”

    Both letters of support from GOSA and Avalonia recommend the boundaries be expanded north to include the Avery Farm property in Groton, Ledyard and nearby areas, as well as land around Groton Utilities’ Ledyard reservoir.

    Avalonia also asks that areas in Preston be added.

    Heather Milardo, executive director of Avalonia, said creation of the wildlife refuge could create new opportunities for the land trust to partner with the Fish & Wildlife Service on conservation projects.

    “It could help us get funding,” she said.

    After Friday, the Fish & Wildlife Service will review the comments and revise its plan in response, Racey said. A final plan for the refuge would be released later this year, she said.

    The refuge wouldn’t be officially established until the Fish & Wildlife Service completes its first purchase of land, Racey said.

    Creation of the refuge is expected to take decades, carried out as funding becomes available and willing landowners come forward.

    Comments should be sent by Friday to: northeastplanning@fws.gov with "Great Thicket" in the subject line.

    They can also be mailed to: Beth Goldstein; natural resources planner; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; 300 Westgate Center Drive; Hadley, Mass. 01035-9589 or by fax at: (413) 253-8480.

    For information on the plan, visit: http://www.fws.gov/news/ShowNews.cfm?ID=5AD11C8A-0EBD-79BF-D02DFAAE7DB2A248.

    j.benson@theday.com

    Twitter: @BensonJudy

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