SMG Spring 2010 Issue

 Photo by Chris Rowley
Grass grows through the remnants of the soon-to-be covered runways at the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge.   Photo by Chris Rowley
Preserving the Grasslands
By Chris Rowley

The winter snow has gone, the ground has warmed, and the grasses at the Shawangunk National Grassland Nature Preserve are readying for the growing season. Soon the first shoots will appear and then the brown, dead looking landscape will turn green in a matter of days.

At about the same time, the migratory birds will be appearing at the Grasslands again, joining those who have stayed over the winter, like the Short Eared Owls and Rough Legged Hawks.

The 566-acre preserve will see more than just the birds and those who like to watch birds this year. As part of the Federal Stimulus plan launched by the Obama Administration in 2009, a Michigan-based environmental group called Ducks Unlimited this year will oversee the covering over of the runways at the Grasslands Preserve.

Keeping the preserve as grasslands is the highest priority for this refuge, because it is increasingly important for these grassland-dependent birds. There are six species classed as "declining" that currently occupy the refuge and are the focus of efforts to keep their preferred habitat in existence: Grasshopper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Bobolink, Upland Sandpiper, Northern Harrier, and Short Eared Owl.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the preserve, has planned for years to remove the runways and to increase the bird habitat in the preserve. The original plan called for physical removal, digging up the concrete and trucking it away. However that would not only have been a major undertaking and created considerable disturbance, it would also have cost millions of dollars.

And so, it didn't happen. Then came the Obama Administration's Federal Stimulus Program, which sought to boost the US economy by funding "shovel-ready" projects all over the country.

The Fish and Wildlife Service came up with the new plan, which will be completed this year. Local contractors will be hired to dig up dirt from within the preserve itself and spread that over the runways. This will increase the grassland habitat, without the disturbance of concrete removal. As a secondary benefit, the presence of the concrete under the surface will inhibit the growth of trees. And, using dirt from within the preserve itself will eliminate the need to run heavy trucks on local roads, which will keep the neighbors, including those of the non-feathered variety, happy.

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