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Conservation Partners Team Up for Grasslands Protection

by MacKenzie Hall
NRCS Private Lands Biologist
September, 2006; Updated April, 2010

Habitat loss and alteration continue to take a colossal toll on wildlife everywhere, and New Jersey's natural lands face a particularly strong threat. We hear it in the media, see it in our neighborhoods, and feel it as an artificial world engulfs us. People take up space! But while New Jersey may hold the title of "most densely populated state," we are also leaders in land acquisition, protection, and in preserving what is most valuable and most rare. Perhaps that's because, as the most densely populated state, we have the clearest vision of what will be lost should we fail.

In the urban-suburban matrix we have created, there are still many opportunities to safeguard important habitats and the wildlife that depend on them. With its diverse landscape, New Jersey supports a suite of globally rare species found in few other places in such numbers. The fen-dwelling bog turtle and the northern metalmark (a tiny butterfly of limestone cedar glades) are both especially well-represented in New Jersey compared to the rest of their ranges.

While these species face their own explicit threats, they do have one thing going for them: they don't need a lot of space to survive. For more area-sensitive wildlife, like bobcats, timber rattlesnakes, or upland sandpipers, space is one of the biggest limiting factors and one of the most difficult to guarantee, especially given the swift pace of development and the soaring price tag on real estate.

Farmland viewed from tractor
This newly seeded field in Warren County will be managed for game animals as well as declining grassland birds.
Click to enlarge

Easily the fastest disappearing open spaces are our agricultural ones, both because of their desirability to developers and because of the increasing struggle to survive economically through farming in New Jersey. Disappearing with those lands are a group of area-sensitive, grassland-dependent birds like the vesper sparrow, northern bobwhite quail, eastern meadowlark, northern harrier, bobolink, and others, some of whose numbers in New Jersey have dropped by nearly half in just the past few decades. New Jersey's list of Threatened and Endangered birds is speckled with the names of those that live, feed, and nest in grassland habitats. Their future here (and elsewhere) depends on our ability to preserve and properly manage large areas of unfragmented grassland and agricultural land.

Native big bluestem grass
Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a native grass
Click to enlarge

In response, conservationists have teamed together to protect and manage our remaining grasslands and the vulnerable group of animals that are so closely tied to this vanishing landscape by forming the New Jersey Habitat Incentive Team (NJHIT). NJHIT is a coalition of nongame and game organizations from both the public and private arenas now poised to use their talents and contacts to conserve these important lands. To name a few, members include the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ, US Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, NJ Pheasants Forever, and South Jersey Quail Unlimited.

Another key member of the NJHIT partnership is the N.J. Audubon Society (NJAS), whose biologists joined the others in identifying key focal areas for grassland management. NJAS also secured grants in 2005 that now employ a handful of biologists who promote and manage conservation programs and guide people through the enrollment process. Audubon also provides the steam behind an ambitious new monitoring program, which documents the successes of new grassland management projects in terms of both habitat character and presence of target bird species.

Specific population goals are now being set. For example, NJHIT hopes to increase breeding numbers of bobolink, grasshopper sparrow, northern bobwhite, and vesper sparrow by 10-25% within a three-county (Warren, Hunterdon, Somerset) focal area. And by the end of 2007, it is aiming for a combined 3,000 acres of grasslands to be enrolled in state and federal conservation incentive programs within that same focal area.

The NJHIT approach is to interact with landowners, farmers, and managers whose land management goals overlap with NJHIT conservation goals and to channel the resources of conservation incentive programs onto their properties. Grassland habitat management is relatively simple. First, you need grass. The larger the area the better, but a few of the rarer grassland bird species like bobolink and eastern meadowlark have been found to occupy fields as small as 10 acres. Once you have grass, you need to leave it alone during the birds' nesting season (generally accepted to run between April 1 and July 15). Mowing and haying within that period destroys ground nests and the young birds inside them. It can also condition adult birds to avoid those areas that would otherwise serve as fine habitat if not so intensively managed. Avoiding mowing and haying during the nesting season is the simplest way to accommodate grassland nesters.

It isn't a complicated strategy, but farmland is a precious commodity and little goes to waste. With rent and taxes as high as they are, farmers need to maximize their productivity on every acre; large-lot farmers especially do not always have the flexibility to leave grasses standing during that fruitful April-July period. Incentive programs were created to give landowners and operators that flexibility to practice natural resource-friendly management that otherwise would not be economically attractive or even feasible.

There are now several incentive programs that place grassland habitat management as a top priority, and since 2005, the New Jersey Habitat Incentive Team has helped bring them together in a clever pooling of resources that makes an impact greater than the sum of its parts. The programs NJHIT promotes can give both technical and financial assistance to those wishing to manage grasslands for wildlife. The three-year-old Landowner Incentive Program (LIP), administered by the NJDEP's Division of Fish & Wildlife, is a relative newcomer to the scene. LIP actually makes rental payments to guarantee that no mowing takes place during the bird nesting season on enrolled grasslands. These rental payments are meant to offset revenues that could have been earned by earlier or repeated mowing and haying, or by row-cropping of large properties.

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)
Click to enlarge

The rental payments make LIP an appealing choice to those interested in the conservation. However, there is a limit on how much management the program can accomplish with its available funding. To spread its dollars further, LIP combined resources with two other programs that offer all of the same benefits minus the rent - the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service's Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Fish & Wildlife (Partners) program. Together, these organizations and their programs make up a power trio that helped to seed more than 600 acres of native grasses over the past two years and to manage about 1,300 total grassland acres across the state. This is over and above the individual accomplishments of WHIP and Partners.

The NJHIT partnership represents a thoughtful and unified effort to protect and manage one of the state and country's most declining habitat types. In the two years since its inception, the New Jersey Habitat Incentive Team has gained a momentum and membership that should continue to bring sound grassland management and positive results for the species whose futures depend on it.

The conservation programs mentioned in this article can help improve & manage habitat for many of NJ's rare wildlife, not just grassland birds. For more information on these programs visit the web pages of the habitat incentive programs listed below:

Landowner Incentive Program (NJDEP DFW):
Partners for Fish & Wildlife (US Fish and Wildlife Service):
Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and others (USDA NRCS):

ATTENTION! The state's Landowner Incentive Program (LIP) is accepting applications for remaining funds. The deadline for applying is July 15, 2010, so apply now!

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Last Updated: April 30, 2010