Prescribed Fires to Help Cottontails in MA

Wicked Local Wareham

BOSTON – The Trustees has announced plans to conduct three prescribed fires on the south coast of Massachusetts this spring, thanks in part to funding from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Scrub oak and pitch pine habitat on Cape Cod

Pitch pine and scrub oak at The Trustees' Mashpee River Reservation. Regular prescribed burning helps to keep this fire-adapted ecosystem healthy and functioning. Wildlife such as New England cottontails and box turtles use the refreshed habitat./R. Hopping

Two prescribed fires will take place at Lyman Reserve in Wareham and at Mashpee River Reservation in Mashpee. They will be coordinated in conjunction with Northeast Forest and Fire Management LLC, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation Bureau of Forest Fire Control, and the individual towns' fire departments, according to a press release.

Today, fire-adapted ecosystems (habitats that rely on periodic fires to thrive) in Massachusetts and beyond are under threat due to development and fire suppression.

As the world’s first and Massachusetts’ largest conservation and preservation nonprofit and one of the largest private landowners of fire-adapted ecosystems, The Trustees has conducted successful management through prescribed fire for the past 20 years at five properties, primarily on Martha’s Vineyard and in Essex County.

These programs have helped restore important habitat, creating healthier ecosystems and preventing the spread of larger forest fires by reducing “fuel,” or dense, dry, and overgrown areas of land that are fire-susceptible. Prescribed fires also create “fire breaks,” or clear, open areas of land, which help responders contain and control fires in the event of wildfire sparked by a lightning strike or some other cause.

The Trustees will conduct the prescribed fires during a burn window running from April 1 until June 30, with exact dates dependent on weather, site conditions, and other circumstances that will allow the burns to be conducted with the utmost safety.

The Trustees is a primary coastal conservation leader in Massachusetts, with 120 miles of coastline under its care. The pair of planned prescribed burns also address The Trustees’ mission to help the most vulnerable coastal ecosystems become more resilient to climate change.

Lyman Reserve and Mashpee River Reservation are popular destinations for visitors interested in outdoor recreation and wildlife watching. Lyman Reserve features an ecologically diverse and beautiful landscape including acres of globally rare pitch pine and scrub oak forest, freshwater wetlands, a sandy beach along the shoreline of Buttermilk Bay, and Red Brook, one of the last remaining native sea-run brook trout fisheries in the eastern United States.

Mashpee River Reservation also features a cold-water stream that hosts native sea-run brook trout, and a mixed-forest upland that hosts a number of rare species.

Prescribed burning to create wildlife habitat

Conservationists carefully use fire to renew habitat for wildlife and plants, plus reduce flammable fuel on the ground to prevent dangerous high-intensity wildfires.

Both habitats have a history of fire, which has shaped the ecology of these places, but fire suppression since the mid-20th century has interrupted this natural pattern, threatening rare wildlife that is adapted to frequent fire and allowing “fuel,” in the form of trees, shrubs, woody debris and dead leaves, to accumulate and create a risk of larger, more uncontrollable wildfires.

The Trustees has conducted habitat improvement projects at both properties in the past few years with funding from the NRCS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore important habitat and prepare the sites for future prescribed fire.

“Prescribed fire is a necessary tool in our effort to maintain biodiversity in Massachusetts,” says Caleb Garone, Trustees habitat specialist. “Fire-adapted species such as pitch pine, scrub oak, and blueberry rely on the presence of wildfires to reproduce and thrive. By conducting carefully controlled burns, we are benefiting both the species that rely on these trees and shrubs, as well as public safety by reducing the likelihood of fire in these wildlands.”

One of the species that relies on these habitats is the New England cottontail, the only rabbit native to the region. Once common across New England and New York, the New England cottontail was identified in 2006 as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Combined efforts by federal, state and private conservation partners, including The Trustees, is helping to boost New England cottontail numbers. In Massachusetts, the cottontail can be found on Cape Cod and in other parts of the state.

The Trustees’ management at Lyman Reserve and Mashpee River Reservation will improve habitat and create an environment where the rabbits can more easily find food, rear their young and escape predators.

“These prescribed fires are part of an ongoing regional initiative, of which we have been an active part, to prevent the New England cottontail from being listed as an endangered species by restoring habitat,” adds Russ Hopping, Trustees ecology program director.

“This is a more proactive approach to managing wildlife instead of waiting for them to become even more endangered. It will benefit numerous other species as well.”

Other at-risk species that will benefit from these restoration efforts include black racer and hognose snakes, box turtle, ruffed grouse, whippoorwill, bobwhite, prairie warbler, eastern towhee, American woodcock, field sparrow, brown thrasher, blue-winged warbler, gray catbird, oak hairstreak butterfly and many moth species.

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For more information about prescribed fire on Trustees properties, contact Caleb Garone, Trustees habitat specialist at cgarone@thetrustees.org  or 978-886-1294.

The Trustees is a partner in the regional conservation effort to bring back the New England cottontail, the region’s only native rabbit.

Founded by landscape architect Charles Eliot in 1891, The Trustees has, for more than 125 years, been a catalyst for important ideas, endeavors, and progress in Massachusetts. As a steward of distinctive and dynamic places of both historic and cultural value, The Trustees is the nation’s first preservation and conservation organization, and its landscapes and landmarks continue to inspire discussion, innovation, and action today as they did in the past. The nonprofit is supported by members, friends and donors and its 116 sites are destinations for residents, members, and visitors alike, welcoming millions of guests annually. Learn more at www.thetrustees.org.