Wildlife Conservation in an Agricultural Landscape
CONSERVATION OF GRASSLAND AND FOREST SPECIES IN THE FRAGMENTED AGRICULTURAL LANDSCAPE OF ST. LAWRENCE COUNTY
This paper was originally written while I was in college as part of a senior year research project with my partner Adam Bleau. It is an extensive case study that examines the effects of agricultural land-use on the ecosystems of St. Lawrence County, New York. I hope it can serve as a reference point to land owners who are trying to make the land they possess more wildlife friendly or to students of ecology doing their own research. Enjoy.
Habitat loss and fragmentation is the greatest threat to biodiversity in the North Country and elsewhere (Groom et al, 2006). The landscape of St. Lawrence County has undergone a dramatic shift in land use from predominately being coniferous or mixed forest to now being largely agricultural fields. This change in landscape has a had substantial effect on the local environment with varying consequences for wildlife through alterations in the habitat carrying capacity, dispersal and mobility issues, isolation, and edge effects. However, the change to an agricultural landscape has also been advantageous for some species such as ground nesting birds creating conflicting conservation interests. To some extent this new grassland habitat needs to be protected to ensure the continued success of these grassland birds, but native forests must also be preserved and restored to cater to core forest habitat species. To limit the effects of fragmentation, conservation efforts need to focus on increasing connectivity as well as preserving and restoring priority habitat types. Strategies such as the formation of land trusts and government incentive programs, as well as approaches like the formation of riparian buffer zones and the use of management intensive rotational grazing schemes are the most effective ways to preserve core habitat area, improve habitat quality, and increase connectivity. Our implementation plan involves; 1) educating the local community, 2) securing governmental incentives, 3) uniting educated citizens with governmental funding for change, 4) continued monitoring with an adaptive management strategy.
As the realm of human domain continually expands, less room is being left for local ecosystems to persist in. Species from across the globe are facing mounting pressure, as almost nowhere today is free from human encroachment. Habitat loss and fragmentation are perhaps the most prominent factors contributing to biodiversity loss worldwide (Groom et al, 2006). The North Country is no exception to this global trend with large tracts of land undergoing development. In the last 400 years the landscape of northern New York has changed dramatically, prior to European settlement St. Lawrence County was predominately covered in coniferous or mixed forests, but since has undergone extensive clearing to make way for intensified agriculture in the region. This agricultural landscape has predominately been centered around dairy farming with hay being the largest field crop. In recent years however, new agricultural approaches have become widespread, such as organic vegetable production. With the loss and fragmentation of large tracts of core forest habitat many native species such as the ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus ) and the bobcat (Lynx rufus ) have suffered. While the farms that exist today are clearly not pristine wilderness, many other species like the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus ) and wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo ) have undoubtedly benefited to some degree from their new grassland environment. Furthermore the hedgerows and woodlots contained on farm properties have the potential to create refuges and corridors between pristine wild areas for local biodiversity. Today we see another change occurring as many medium sized farms, facing falling milk prices and rising costs, are failing leaving their pastures to undergo succession and return to a more wild state (Heller, 2009). This newest land-use change may have dire consequences for the many species, particularly ground nesting grassland birds, that have come to thrive in this agricultural landscape (Norment, 2002).
This study intends to examine the extent of habitat fragmentation due to agricultural land-use in St. Lawrence County with a specific focus on grassland and forest habitats, as well as elucidate the varying effects of this fragmentation and how it facilitates or impedes the dispersal of nutrients and organisms throughout the North Country. Upon defining this problem, we will classify the various stakeholders surrounding this issue and discuss current management strategies that have focused on resolving the effects of fragmentation. Finally we will propose our own management strategy that will further reduce the impact of agricultural land-use on local biota.
The landscape of St. Lawrence County was in all likelihood largely forested before European colonization. A study in Tompson County, NY cites that while the land was previously inhabited by the Iroquois tribes, the earliest known land survey occurring in 1770 found 99.7 percent of the land to be forested (Flinn et al, 2005). This forest cover was likely composed of hemlock-white pine or northern hardwood formations (Flinn et al, 2005). This first survey coincided with the first interior settlements in New York. The first roads reaching the St. Lawrence Valley were established in the early 1800’s and while travel was still difficult, development slowly continued in the region (Buchanan, 2010). An early industry that immerged here was the production of pot-ash from burning wood and boiling down the ash for industrial use (Buchanan, 2010). This first industry of the North Country took its toll on forests, opening up the way for more road construction and increased agricultural production (Buchanan, 2010). St. Lawrence agriculture predominantly began with the rearing of sheep for wool, but transitioned into cattle production as more land became available (Buchanan, 2010). Extensive land clearing for agriculture occurred throughout the 1800’s, likely reaching a peak around 1900 (Flinn et al, 2005). In St. Lawrence County, this peak of farmland is reflected in a very high density of dairy farms, around 8000 in the county, supplying the 99 cheese factories, 67 butter factories, and 20 factories producing both cheese and butter (Buchanan, 2010). The 20th century is characterized largely by the abandonment of many of these agricultural fields for more profitable enterprises and in Tompson County a return to 54 percent forest cover by 1995 (Flinn et al, 2005). In St. Lawrence Couny, many dairy farms failed after milk prices plummeted during the Great Depression and sanitation regulations requiring the use of bulk tanks were established in the 1950’s and 60’s (Buchanan, 2010).
Although not all forests were cleared, almost all experienced some degree of selective logging, foraging pressure by livestock, or use as farm woodlots (Flinn et al, 2005). Secondary forests have now formed in the place of abandoned agricultural land that has undergone succession and in some cases, returned to core habitat (Flinn et al, 2005). Woody thickets typically form within 30 to 40 years of abandonment, which are then replaced by secondary canopies after 80 to 100 years, with sugar maple (Acer saccharum ), red maple (Acer rubrum ), beech (Fagus grandifolia ), white ash (Fraxinus americana ), white pine (Pinus strobus ), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ) becoming the dominant tree species (Flinn et al, 2005).
These historical changes in land cover have been strongly influenced by topography and abiotic characteristics of the soil of each respective area. Places that were relatively inaccessible by road, have a substantial slope, or low lime content in the soil were more likely to be left forested or the first lands to be abandoned from agricultural use (Flinn et al, 2005). The active choice of which lands to utilize for farming depending on environmental components has had a lasting effect on the characteristics of forest fragments to some degree and is largely responsible for determining the layout of the landscape matrix of today. Furthermore the altered chemistry of post-agricultural land can effect plant distribution and abundance at the microenvironmental scale (Flinn et al, 2005). Such historical abiotic alterations to the St. Lawrence County landscape have had a substantial effect on its biota, but these changes have also brought about a new and potentially more problematic issue of habitat fragmentation as communities of species are becoming increasingly more isolated.
Today New York State contains approximately 8 million acres of farmland that is made up of a habitat matrix of crop fields, pastures, and orchards for agricultural production, as well as woodlots, hedgerows, ponds, and streams that not only cater to the farm’s needs, but also act as refuges for wildlife (Knight, 1994). The main areas of production in the state are dairy and beef as well as the hay, corn, wheat, and oat fields that support the cattle (Knight, 1994). Other livestock that are frequently raised in New York include goats, sheep, pigs, horses, and chickens (Knight, 1994). Fruit, vegetable, and cash crops are also commonly grown including apples, strawberries, sweet corn, beans, potatoes, cauliflower, and nursery plants (Knight, 1994). Maple syrup is also commonly harvested in New York and in St. Lawrence County there are 96 maple farms with 116,350 taped trees (Northern NY Regional Profile, 2007). Maple syrup production is unique among the crops produced in St. Lawrence County because it actually requires intact forest whereas the majority of other crops are solely cultivated on cleared land.
In areas of cultivation, the majority of natural vegetation is replaced by cropland on high quality soils, and pastures on secondary soils including both annuals and perennials that may or not have been actively planted (Knight, 1994). Common high quality grasses found in pastures include alfalfa, clover species, wheat, and soybeans (Knight, 1994). There are 111,521 acres of farmland devoted to use as forage making up the vast majority of farmland in use (refer to Appendix Table 2)(Northern NY Regional Profile, 2007). This designated forage land has the potential to be prime grassland habitat and is crucial to the continued presence of grassland species in St. Lawrence County. These crops and pastures are very beneficial to species such as white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus ), wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo ), meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus ), and the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus ), which can find ample food sources in a natural landscape, but often prefer the ease of foraging within the agricultural realm (Knight, 1994).
Following this abundance of prey come red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis ), barn owls (Tyto alba ), red foxes (Vulpes vulpes ), and coyotes (Canis latrans ) as well as scavengers like the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos ) that are very numerous on agricultural lands (Knight, 1994). The fragmentation of forests to make room for agriculture and the increasing amount edge habitat as a result also increases the population sizes of mesopredators or middle trophic level predators such as Raccoons (Procyon lotor ), Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis ), Oppossum (Didelphis virginiana ) and others that prefer edge habitat (Gehring and Swihart. 2002). An interview with Saint Lawrence University Assistant Professor of Biology, Susan Willson, revealed that these predators prey on interior forest birds and their young, causing nesting success to drop and further leading to a reduction in their population sizes (2010). Other predator species that may benefit from farmland include the Eastern Coyote (Canis latrans ), Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes ), and Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus ) (Mammals NYDEC, 2010). Increasing the populations of these predators could also cause the decrease in populations of their target prey animals.
Farmland is similarly ample habitat for Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis ) and tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor ) that nest in the various trees spread across the landscape and insect eaters such as kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus ) and several sparrow species (Knight, 1994). Finally, the cow pastures and hay fields created for agricultural use may provide potentially new habitat for populations of grassland nesting birds that are on the decline in New York and other areas in the Northeast (Norment, 2002). These birds include the bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus ), grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum ), eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna ), and savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis ) as well as more rare species like the Henslow’s Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii ), Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris ), Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus ), Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus ), Sedge Wren (Cistothorus platensis ), Harrier (Circus sp. ), and Upland Plover (Bartramia Longicauda ) (Norment, 2002). Other bird species that utilize grassland habitat, but do not depend on it include American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis ) , Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia ), Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura ), Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus ), Canada Goose (Branta canadensis ), and American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos ) (“Grassland birds in fields and on farms”, 2010).
Conserving grassland habitat not only benefits grassland nesting and other types of birds, but it also aids the landowners (Norment, 2002). Grassland habitat can still be utilized for agriculture, including the grazing of livestock and mowing for hay, as long as it’s usage is conducted in a sustainable manner. In fact, grasslands are the only type of agricultural land that can also be used as vital wildlife habitat (“Grassland birds in fields and on farms”, 2010). So farmers and other landowners could enroll their land in a governmental program such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), receive the tax benefits of the conservation easement and also use the property to produce income through grazing or haying. Many grassland nesting birds are insectivores, meaning a majority of their diet is insects which most people consider pests. Conserving and restoring grassland habitat indirectly reduces insect populations by increasing insectivorous grassland birds (“Grassland birds in fields and on farms”, 2010). Grassland conservation programs can help promote farms in a positive light to the local community and convince community members that farmers are good stewards to natural resources. These programs also allow farmers to promote their hay, meat, and dairy products as “grassland bird friendly” (“Grassland birds in fields and on farms”, 2010).
Despite these positive aspects of agricultural grasslands, modern agriculture has been associated with a variety of environmental problems including water pollution, erosion, soil depletion, nutrient loss, as well as pesticide and herbicide use, but perhaps its most profound effect is in its removal and disruption of the natural landscape (Knight, 1994)(Casline, 1977). Habitat fragmentation can be defined simply as the disruption of intact patches of suitable habitat into smaller isolated patches by a matrix of lesser quality land, typically the result of human industries such as agriculture. Fragmentation occurs first with the formation of small gaps in the habitat, for instance a road leading to an isolated human settlement, that then expand until the native landscape becomes the minority (Groom et al, 2006). As an immediate result of this process of fragmentation, the carrying capacity of the habitat is greatly reduced causing an initial exclusion of many individuals as well as ensuing crowding effects as individuals are squeezed into an ever smaller land area (Groom et al, 2006). There are many other consequences of this habitat fragmentation however, both biotic and abiotic, on the overall function of an ecosystem.
The first and perhaps most straightforward of these effects are changes in light, temperature, wind, humidity, and the occurrence of fire along the perimeter of fragmented patches due to vegetative changes (Groom et al, 2006). These microenvironmental changes, coupled with increased disturbance by humans results in the formation of an edge effect zone that is not suitable for core habitat species (Groom et al, 2006). The larger the perimeter of a fragment the greater its edge effect zone will be, thus the shape of a fragment is also a very pertinent concern because of its effect on the area/perimeter ratio (Groom et al, 2006).
The biotic effects of habitat fragmentation can mainly be lumped into two categories. The first category includes limitations caused by patch size and the second category includes limitations to connectivity. Patch size can have a profound effect in limiting which species can inhabit the patch simply because of constraints on their range size (Groom et al, 2006). For example many large predators cannot survive in small patches simply because they require a large range to hunt their prey. A small patch may require individuals to venture out into degraded habitats in which they will be affected by what are known as matrix effects (Groom et al, 2006). The matrix surrounding a patch may pose many dangers to a species for instance venturing into a hay field could result in being run over by a mower. On the other hand some species may be able to thrive in the matrix surrounding a core habitat patch if it still retains some functional value. The animals mentioned earlier that benefit from agricultural land are one example, but many plants too can thrive in the matrix as long as they find a suitable site for growth (Groom et al, 2006). However, as the value of the matrix habitat decreases it begins to create more problems for the species within a patch making them increasingly isolated. The effects of isolation vary from species to species and largely depend on a species vagility and ability to disperse. Those species that are not highly mobile typically do not fair well in a patchy landscape and may have problems foraging, colonizing new areas, and may experience a population decline because of reproductive restrictions caused by matrix barriers (since many of the patches may not be large enough to sufficiently support a breeding population) (Groom et al, 2006). Species that rely on temporary or inconsistent resources, are naturally rare, have small population densities, short life cycles, and species that are vulnerable to human exploitation will all fair very poorly in this landscape (Groom et al, 2006).
Increased introduction of invasive species is another problem of habitat fragmentation and is a very pertinent issue in an agricultural landscape where large non-native herbivores such as cattle apply a very heavy pressure on primary production. A final consequence of habitat fragmentation may be a disruption in natural ecological services, especially those coming from the invertebrate community, which are largely responsible for decomposition and nutrient cycling within the ecosystem (Groom et al, 2006). Invertebrates are highly sensitive to their microenvironment and slight changes that might occur through edge effects may have drastic consequences for their functioning (Groom et al, 2006).
The sum of the effects of habitat fragmentation is a reduction in the compositional, structural, and functional biodiversity of the various ecosystems contained within St. Lawrence County. Beyond the obvious damage to compositional diversity through reductions in populations and even extinctions, and structural diversity changes through deforesting the land, there are various other consequences for biodiversity of an agricultural landscape, especially in regard to functional diversity and species interactions. A disruption in the mobility of some species can result in the disturbance of mutualisms between species, perhaps one of the most significant of which are the interactions between pollinators (Groom et al, 2006). Beyond these mutualism, there are countless other interactions that can be disturbed such as predator-prey relations where a predator may be absent from a patch because it is too small.
The majority of developed land in St. Lawrence County is devoted to agricultural land-uses with 347,246 total acres of farmland according to the 2007 Agricultural Census (Northern NY Regional Profile); thus agriculture is likely the largest cause of habitat fragmentation here.
Of the remaining land in St. Lawrence County 1,318,009 acres are likely to have some value to forest species (Refer to Appendix Table 3). Interior birds, those that inhabit only core forest habitat, is one of the vertebrate groups that are most effected by the fragmentation of forests caused by agricultural practices. Many interior birds will not cross open areas, such as fields, so their populations become isolated in forest fragments (Tom Langen, 2010). Furthermore, brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater )parasitism causes severe reductions in interior forest bird populations (Smith et al, 2003). Fragmented forests are known to have reduced nesting success due to nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds and predators that generally do not enter interior forests (Smith et al, 2003). Brown-headed cowbirds do not actually make their own nests, but lay their eggs in the nests of other birds (Smith et al. 2003). Cowbirds were originally a plains bird but as humans opened up land for farming, the cowbird population has been allowed to expand to new areas. Interior forest birds have not evolved with cowbirds so these species generally have no defenses against cowbird nest parasitism (Smith et al, 2003). Interior birds usually cannot tell when an egg in their nest is a cowbird’s and not their own even if the egg is much larger or a different color than the bird’s own eggs (Willson, 2010). Female Cowbirds will even remove or destroy the eggs of host birds, which directly reduces population sizes of the host species (Smith et al, 2003). Cowbird young are much larger, hatch earlier, and grow much faster than the parent bird’s young giving the cowbird an advantage (Smith et al, 2003). Not being detected by the nest owners allows the young cowbird to out compete the parent bird’s young eventually leading to their death or sometimes the cowbird will even push the parent bird’s young out of the nest (Smith et al, 2003). Some birds, such as Field Sparrows, will even desert a nest after is has been parasitized by Cowbirds (Strausberger and Burhans, 2001). An interview with Associate Professor of Biology at Clarkson University, Tom Langen, says that cowbirds are not as much of a problem in the Saint Lawrence Valley, but can be very severe in more intensely farmed areas such as the Mid-West.
Some examples of interior forest mammalian species in New York that are also threatened by the fragmentation of forests habitat include the American Martin (Martes americana ), Bobcat (Lynx rufus ), and the Fisher (Martes pennanti ) (“Mammals- NYDEC”, 2010). The Eastern Cougar (Felis concolor ) is also an interior forest species that was once present here, but was extirpated from New York State in the late 1800’s due to over hunting and increased farming in the region (“Mammals- NYDEC”, 2010). These interior forest mammals are negatively affected when humans clear or fragment forests for agricultural use or urban and industrial development.
Another negative impact of farms on wildlife is overgrazing by cows. An interview with Chris Norment, Professor of Biology at SUNY Brockport, gave us a multitude of information on the subject. Many birds and other wildlife cannot live in pastureland that has been overgrazed since the grass is too short (Norment, 2002). Overgrazing degrades grassland core habitat for grassland birds and decreases its conservation value, making it simply another unusable part of the matrix (Norment, 2002). Furthermore, field crops such as corn also threaten grassland birds, as most grassland nesting birds will not nest in cornfields with the exception of horned lark and vesper sparrow, thus making the conversion of pastures and hay fields to crop fields very problematic for grassland species (Norment, 2002). Further contributing to the loss of grassland bird species is early seasonal mowing by farmers trying to increase the number of hay cuttings per year (Norment, 2002). Chris Norment says that mowing earlier in the year often means an overlap with the period of time that grassland nesting birds are incubating their eggs in the fields and pastures (2010). However mowing is also important because the grasslands these birds rely on are maintained by the periodic disturbance of the habitat, which keeps it in the early successional stage (Norment, 2002).
Grasslands are the most rapidly declining type of habitat in the northeastern United States and this habitat loss is resulting in severe declines of grassland nesting species throughout most of their range (Norment, 2002, SL Wetlands and Grasslands Management District- USFWS, 2000). In New York State, the amount of grassland habitat has decreased by over sixty percent in just the past eighty years (Norment, 2002). Changes in how we use the land along with succession of grassland habitat into forested land, is causing grassland habitat to also become fragmented. These fragments become smaller and smaller over time and cannot support as many individuals or species, similar to the forest habitat scenario, and eventually cannot support any grassland species at all. In fact, in the Adirondack and Tug Hill Plateau regions grassland birds have essentially disappeared due to the absence of farms, which allowed the grassland to revert back to its native forested state (Norment, 2002, Grant et al, 2005). Similarly these population declines may even eventually lead to the total extinction of some species. The Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus ), Henslow’s Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii), Sedge Wren (Cistothorus platensis ), and Upland Plover (Bartramia longicauda ) are grassland bird species that have become threatened in New York State due to the loss of prime grassland habitat (Norment, 2002)(“Protecting grassland birds on private lands”- NYDEC, 2010). The short-eared owl (Asio flammeus ) has actually become an endangered species in NY due to the loss of habitat and is often only seen in northern New York during the winter season (Norment, 2002, “Protecting grassland birds on private lands”- NYDEC, 2010). Other species have also seen reductions since 1966 with the Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus ) population declining 0.3% per year, Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum ) declining 9% per year, Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna ) declining 5% per year, Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis ) declining 2.4% per year, Henslow’s Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii ) declining 14.7% per year, Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris ) declining 5.1% per year, Vespers Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus ) declining 8.5% per year, Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus ) declining 2.5% per year, and the Upland Plover (Bartramia longicauda ) declining 6.3% per year according to the 2nd New York State Breeding Bird Atlas survey (“Protecting grassland birds on private lands”- NYDEC, 2010). These declines equate to a reduction in each of the mentioned grassland breeding bird populations by eighty to ninety nine percent in the last forty-four years (“Protecting grassland birds on private lands”- NYDEC, 2010).
According to Tom Langen, shrubland bird populations are also declining due to the declining amount of agricultural land. In St. Lawrence County there are 5,728 acres of potential shrubland habitat (Refer to Appendix Table 3). Examples of shrubland species include Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus ), Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera ), Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum ), American Woodcock (Scolopax minor ), and Prairie Warbler (Dendroica discolor ). These shrubland bird species typically inhabit fencerows and fallow fields that are characterized by early successional vegetation such as shrubs and small trees. Tom Langen says that the post-agricultural habitat types that shrubland birds rely on are also disappearing as agriculture continues to decline in the North Country (2010).
Finally, there are various species of waterfowl such as ducks and geese are also dependent on grassland habitat that may be threatened by its continued destruction and fragmentation. However, waterfowl generally only use the grasslands during the breeding season as nest habitat to incubate eggs and hatch their young, and thus they are not as dependent on grassland as grassland nesting birds. Nevertheless, succession of grassland habitat to forests along with the change in how landowners use grasslands, such as conversion to cornfields, is also affecting waterfowl species and causing a reduction in many of their populations as well. The lack of grassland nesting habitat leads to lower nesting success among breeding waterfowl. Ducks Unlimited, a waterfowl conservation organization, believes that “Protecting and restoring grasslands is paramount to ensuring healthy waterfowl populations.” (“Grasslands for Tomorrow”- DU, 2010). There is less of an effect on waterfowl compared to grassland nesting songbirds in northern New York since only a small portion of breeding waterfowl nest in New York State, but the effect on waterfowl should not be overlooked (“Administration pushes for grassland protection” - DU, 2010).
Agricultural production is required by every industrialized society in the world. On the subject, the environmentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote; “The glory of the farmer is that, in the division of labors, it is his part to create. All trade rests at last on his primitive activity. He stands close to nature; he obtains from the earth the bread and the meat. The food which was not, he causes to be” (Knight, 1994). Without the farmer acting as the primary producer in the global economic system, no other sort of commerce could occur. Agriculture is not only necessary in our society, but also is deeply rooted part of our culture, especially the North Country. To remain a viable business operation, farmers must maintain a profit and to achieve this end they must limit their costs while maximizing their production. This strategy often comes with little consideration for the preservation of a farm’s conservation value, only its productive value. Despite an apparent lack of incentive for environmental value, many farmers are avid supporters of local wildlife protection. As Emerson said, these producers “stand close to nature” and that is where they typically hold a great deal of value. Despite the values they hold, their business must continue to support them and the commerce of the nation.
Current trends in agriculture are pushing farmers to get big or get out. Many farmers take out substantial loans to purchase expensive machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified seeds every year (Kimbrell, 2002). These huge inputs result in a larger crop yield for the conventional monoculture approach, but also a small margin of profit (Kimbrell, 2002). To combat the small profit gained per acre of cropland, farmers are forced to plant massive acreages to make a large enough profit to support themselves and their operation (Berry, 1977). From these economic factors it is clear that there is a general trend of decreasing farm numbers, while the farms that remain are increasing in size.
An interview with a local farmer Dulli Tengeler, a manager at Birdsfoot organic vegetable farm outside of Canton, supports the fact that these trends in the farming industry are occurring on dairy farms in St. Lawrence County. She has been farming in the area since 1991 and has noticed that many of the local dairy farms have disappeared and those that remain have increased in size (Tengeler, 2010). Furthermore, she has noticed an increase in the amount of local vegetable farms in the area (Tengeler, 2010). An interview with Brent Buchanan, an agricultural issue leader at the St. Lawrence County Cornell Cooperative Extension, also supports these claims stating that dairy farm numbers are the lowest they have ever been in St. Lawrence County and that those that remain have gotten larger. Local dairy farms are failing because they are having trouble keeping up with Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) regulations and historically low milk prices are proving too much for their businesses to handle (Buchanan, 2010). He also has seen a documented increase in vegetable farms throughout the county (Buchanan, 2010).
These two trends showing change in local farming strategies, the loss of small dairies with an increase in the size of remaining dairy farms and an increase in acreage devoted to vegetable farming, both have negative impacts on the availability of grassland habitat in the North Country. Buchanan stated that larger dairy farms (with over 500 head of cattle) have a very difficult time pasturing their livestock simply because of the distance from the milking parlor the cattle would have to walk to continually find quality forage (2010). As a result, these larger farms often operate with a confined feedlot strategy to ensure their cattle are taking in enough nutrients and to limit the energy wasted by their cattle finding food (Buchanan, 2010). More farms operating with confined feedlots in St. Lawrence County, means that less land is being devoted to pastureland that is a high quality habitat for grassland species. Similarly, increased land being devoted to vegetable farming instead of pasture has also resulted in a decline of available grassland habit. There has also been a trend in converting pastureland and hayfields into cornfields as the demand for milk and hay is decreasing, while the demand for corn is increasing (Buchanan, 2010). Finally, the overall decline of upstate New York farms has allowed a great deal of grassland habitat to revert back to forestland (Buchanan, 2010).
However, not all of the current trends in St. Lawrence County agriculture have resulted in a loss of grassland habitat. Many dairy farmers have responded to decreasing conventional milk prices by switching to organic production, which has maintained higher milk prices (Buchanan, 2010). St. Lawrence County currently has the highest number of organic dairies in the state and organic production guidelines require that livestock be pastured for at least 120 days of the year (Buchanan, 2010). With more organic dairy farmers needing pasture for their cattle, some grassland habitat is being preserved. Furthermore, there is an increase in beef production in the North Country, particularly in grass-fed beef that requires increased availability of pastureland. The availability of core forest habitat is relatively unaffected by these changes in farming strategies, but the loss of many farms is having a positive effect on forests species adding to their available habitat as abandoned fields undergo succession.
The loss of core forest and grassland habitat through agricultural practices, along with increased residential, urban, and industrial development resulting in further fragmentation, has lead to declines in the populations of many species in northern New York; thus governmental intervention and mediation is required. This environmental problem falls under the jurisdiction of many different governmental agencies, but in particular state agencies like the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NY DEC) and New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historical Preservation as well as county agencies like St. Lawrence County Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Environmental Management Council. Federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (US FWS), U.S. Park Service, and the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) all under the Department of Agriculture also have interests in the fields of agriculture and environmental conservation. With the problem of habitat fragmentation in an agricultural landscape the NY DEC and US FWS are the primary governmental agencies dealing with the environmental side of the issue and are most responsible for preserving North Country wildlife. The Cornell Coop and the Department of Agriculture are the agencies most responsible for the farming issues involved in this problem and can act as mediators between farmers and the wildlife agencies.
A major concern of these agencies in particular the NY DEC and US FWS is the conservation of threatened or endangered species that are protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), which was first created in 1973 and later amended through Federal and State run programs (“Endangered species act of 1973”- USFWS, 2010). The ESA makes it illegal to kill, possess, or sell threatened or endangered species of animals or plants through civil and criminal penalties. The ESA also allows for using land and water conservation funds to purchase habitat for the benefit of the species. The ESA even allows for the payment of rewards to individuals that contribute information about violations of the ESA. Furthermore, the ESA made it illegal to modify habitat critical to the survival of any threatened or endangered species. In 1988 revisions to the law allocated the authority of enforcing the ESA to the Department of the Interior and the United States Department of Agriculture for preventing the illegal importation and exportation of threatened or endangered species (“Endangered species act of 1973”- USFWS, 2010). None of the northern New York grassland species are federally listed as endangered or threatened, so the Endangered Species Act does not protect the habitat areas in NY at this time. However, if grassland habitat continues to decrease throughout the U.S., enough so that it causes populations of grassland species to become listed as a threatened or endangered species by the ESA, then critical grassland habitat would become protected under the ESA.
Another law that protects wildlife is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918. The MBTA was created specifically to protect migratory birds such as waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors. The MBTA prohibits killing, purchasing, selling, capturing, or possessing migratory birds unless permitted (“Migratory bird treaty act of 1918”- USFWS, 2010). The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is an international law that includes Canada, Mexico, Russia, and Great Britain. Penalties for violating the act include monetary fines and possible imprisonment (“Migratory bird treaty act of 1918”- USFWS, 2010).
In 2008 the Farm Bill was passed, which has had many implications for agriculture and wildlife conservation in the U.S. at large. The main purpose of the bill is to implement policies to benefit farmers and to protect the U.S. food supply. The Farm Bill provides farmers with subsidies for planting certain crops, such as corn (“2008 NRCS farm bill conservation programs”, 2008). These subsidies can sometimes become a problem for wildlife conservation since cornfields do no foster high levels of biodiversity. However, the Farm Bill also contains many conservation programs that provide incentives for landowners to enroll their land in various conservation easements (“2008 NRCS farm bill conservation programs”, 2008).
The conservation programs in the Farm Bill and other legislation to help conserve habitat for grassland nesting birds and other species include the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP), and the potentially the Sodsaver program in future bills (“Programs | New York”- NRCS, 2008)(“The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)”- DU, 2010)(“Grasslands for Tomorrow”- DU, 2010). The NY DEC has also established the Landowner Incentive Program (LIP) to change farmers use of their grassland habitat (“DEC accepting applications for landowner incentive program (LIP)”- NYDEC, 2010). These programs will be further discussed in our “Identification of Existing and Potential Solutions” section.
IDENTIFICATION OF STAKEHOLDERS
Habitat fragmentation in an agricultural landscape, as with any other broad environmental issue, has many stakeholders with vested interests in the subject. The first and perhaps most prominent group involved are the farmers whose land use changes have both contributed to the loss and fragmentation of forest habitat, but also the gain of new grassland habitat. Agriculture is the main source of production in St. Lawrence County and the latest agricultural census places 1,330 farms here, each taking up an average of 261 acres (Northern NY Regional Profile, 2007). This group can be further subdivided into dairy, beef, sheep, vegetable, fruit, maple, or one of the many other types of production occurring in St. Lawrence County (Refer to Appendix Tables 1 and 2) with each having its own unique impacts on the environment and requirements for their enterprise (Buchanan, 2010). Furthermore, the production strategy used by farmers, such as conventional or organic, can further differentiate the members of this group. As mentioned before, the very livelihood of farmers depends on their land usage; any measures to decrease the effects of habitat fragmentation must take the interests of the agricultural community fully into account and must foster it’s support. While North Country farmers often place a high value on local wildlife, their farms come first and they often lack the knowledge of how to mediate between these two interests. For instance in her interview Dulli Tengeler, listed many animals she has seen on her property including frogs, toads, mice, voles, skunks, porcupines, woodchucks, ducks, geese, beavers, raccoons, and garter snakes as well as mentioning that 60 acres have been left as woodland and 6 acres more have been left for an occasionally used hayfield (2010). These statements clearly show she has placed some value on wildlife, but when asked if she has taken any specific measures to make her land more suitable for wildlife, she responded no (Tengeler, 2010).
A similar group of stakeholders on this issue would be the local citizens of St. Lawrence County. These people live and work here, having a deeply set interest in the preservation of their local environment. The residents of the North Country rely on the ecosystem services provided by their local environment and depend on the preservation of local ecosystems for their continued service. Furthermore, many residents have other utilitarian needs met by local ecosystems, such as firewood to heat their homes, and find aesthetic pleasure in viewing nature. Beyond these basic points of support for environmental conservation, the citizens of St. Lawrence County also have many needs that may conflict with the health of local ecosystems. Any conservation measures must also consider the economic and social interests of these people and not just environmental wellbeing.
In a subcategory of the resident stakeholders of the North Country are outdoor enthusiasts and sportsman. Hunting and fishing are very popular hobbies in New York with almost 700,000 residents and over 50,000 nonresidents participating in New York State (“Hunting”- NY DEC, 2010). These hobbies are also huge factors in the support of fish and wildlife conservation efforts. Solutions must take hunters and fishers support into account and not threaten these hobbyists’ use of land. However, calling upon these enthusiasts and their organizations such as Ducks Unlimited for support may be a valuable asset. Ducks Unlimited (DU) is a non-profit conservation organization dedicated to preserving and conserving wetlands and grasslands for the benefit of waterfowl specifically, but their efforts in turn help to conserve other species of animals and plants as well. Furthermore, many organizations and people promote the use of wild areas for snowmobile, ATV, dirt bike, and mountain bike riding as well as for hiking and picnicking.
The next stakeholders we must consider are the species themselves that are threatened by habitat fragmentation. These organisms hold a great deal of both intrinsic and instrumental value, which implores us to ensure that they remain present now and in the future within St. Lawrence County. Representing these species are the conservation organizations whose purpose is to protect the wildlife of the North Country. The St. Lawrence Land Trust is one such organization that works directly with landowners to protect the conservation value of their land. Other organizations include the New York Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy as well as the many colleges and universities in St. Lawrence County that both survey the species present, but also work towards their protection. Finally, there are governmental organizations such as the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, the National Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that monitor wildlife populations and mediate between people and their natural element.
DEVELOPMENT OF SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEM
Requirements of an Effective Management Strategy
Habitat fragmentation is not a simple issue to understand and thus it requires an equally complex solution to address the variety of problems it causes. The effectiveness of different approaches to minimizing the consequences of fragmentation is largely species dependent, therefore a good management plan must contain multiple strategies addressing the needs of many taxa. Furthermore, when dealing with fragmentation in the agricultural landscape of St. Lawrence County we must address the conflicting needs of grassland and forest dependent species.
An adequate solution to habitat fragmentation in St. Lawrence County must first take into account the habitat area requirements to sustain both grassland and forest dwelling populations, ensuring that a minimum habitat area is maintained guaranteeing the population viability of the many species living in these two habitat types. Second, the management plan must have measures that increase and maintain the quality of the two habitats making them as beneficial to wildlife as possible. Third, grassland and forest habitats must have a high level of connectivity allowing for dispersal to support source-sink dynamics and adequate gene flow to sustain genetically diverse and viable populations. Finally the management plan must contain solutions that are beneficial to local farmers, citizens, and wildlife alike, having incentives, both monetary and in increased land value, to encourage participation in and support of the programs being implemented.
Identification of Existing and Potential Solutions
There are several organizations actively involved with developing solutions to these conservation problems and conserving agricultural land for wildlife habitat. Governmental organizations include the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (US FWS), and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NY DEC). Non-governmental organizations involved in grassland and farmland conservation include the American Bird Conservancy, New York Audubon, and Ducks Unlimited (DU).
Ducks Unlimited raises money to purchase land that has the potential to be restored to wetlands or grasslands. Then DU recruits volunteers to assist with habitat restoration and conservation management such as building levees and dikes or planting trees, grasses, or other vegetation (“Wetlands & grassland habitat benefits”- DU, 2010). DU works hand-in-hand with local landowners, farmers, and governmental organizations in their conservation programs. Ducks Unlimited knows the importance of grassland habitat, which is why they have developed the Grasslands for Tomorrow Initiative and pledged to save over two million acres of grassland habitat by purchasing conservation easements (“Grasslands for Tomorrow”- DU, 2010). These easements are monitored and regulated by the US FWS (“Grasslands for Tomorrow”- DU, 2010). Although this program is focused on prairie grasslands, a similar program could be instituted in New York grasslands. DU also restores grassland habitat that has been converted to cropland by planting cool-season native grass species (“Grasslands for Tomorrow”- DU, 2010). Finally, DU works with landowners to institute rotational grazing programs (“Grasslands for Tomorrow”- DU, 2010).
The use of a management intensive rotational grazing scheme can make agricultural land better suited to also function as grassland habitat. This approach to livestock grazing requires farmland to be subdivided in to many pastures that limit livestock grazing to just one of the smaller areas at a time. The livestock quickly consume the prime forage within one paddock in just a few days and must be moved to a new paddock to forage. While this method may be slightly more labor intensive, it allows for the forage in areas that have been previously grazed to recover relatively undisturbed. As the paddocks under use are rotated, the cattle are allowed to eat prime new grass and with the old ones recovering very quickly, grass production is maximized. This approach maximizes grass output simply through grazing as well as having the potential to limit the amount of mowing conducted on farm fields and the amount of field crops planted to supplement the livestock’s diet. With the cattle eating more high quality forage while at pasture, less nutrients need to be supplemented into the cow’s diets. A local organic dairy farmer, Robert Zuthal, uses this grazing method on his farm and requires no extra crops to be planted and only needs to produce enough hay to last his herd through the winter (2009). Rotational grazing only saves him a great deal of labor and money in not having to plant supplemental crops, but it also makes his land a great deal more friendly towards native grassland species.
Many programs have also already been instituted by the Farm Bill as mentioned earlier and can also be very effective tools in mediating the effects of grassland habitat loss. The Grassland Reserve Program conserves grassland through easements or restoration agreements. The purpose of this program is to restore and improve grassland habitat in order to increase biodiversity, support grazing agriculture, and protect grassland that is susceptible to takeover by woody brush such as often occurs with the abandonment of farmland. The Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program protects critically important farmland including grassland.
These programs through funding by the federal government give monetary aid to local farmers and landowners to enroll a percentage of their land in one of the programs in order to conserve the land for wildlife habitat and to turn it into a conservation easement that lasts from ten to thirty years or a permanent easement (“Programs | New York”- NRCS, 2008). Land can only be enrolled in one program at a time (“Programs | New York”- NRCS, 2008). The government will pay a portion of the cost to restore the habitat back to its original condition, which ranges anywhere from fifty percent to one hundred percent of the cost of restoration depending on the length of the easement adopted (“Programs | New York”- NRCS, 2008). Tax credits and tax breaks are also given to landowners that enroll land in one of the conservation easement programs (“Programs | New York”- NRCS, 2008). These easements only require that the landowner keeps the land in its original state and not allow development on the land (“Programs | New York”- NRCS, 2008). Many of these easements require farmers to delay the time of first mowing in order to allow for grassland nesting species to hatch their young (“Programs | New York”- NRCS, 2008). There is also a grazing management plan that the landowner has to implement in order to prevent overgrazing by livestock, which would be detrimental to grassland bird populations (“Programs | New York”- NRCS, 2008). The NRCS programs involve the USDA partnering with various other stakeholders including state, local, and tribal governments along with various non-governmental organizations and local landowners to place land under conservation easements (“Programs | New York”- NRCS, 2008). There are few Farm Bill conservation programs currently being using in the North Country except in the St. Lawrence Wetland and Grassland Management District area (“SL Wetland and Grassland Management District”- USFWS, 2000).
The CRP or Conservation Reserve Program, first created by the 1985 Farm Bill, compensates landowners for stopping the use of a piece of cropland for ten years (“2008 NRCS farm bill conservation programs”, 2008). The main idea behind the CRP is to allow for soil conservation by reducing erosion and combat declining commodity prices for farmers by limiting total crop production. In turn, the CRP also conserves natural resources in a variety of other ways such as by providing habitat for large numbers of wildlife and reducing sedimentation in waterways through reductions in soil erosion (“The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)”- DU, 2010). These goals are met by landowners converting farmland with a high risk of erosion, such as hillsides, into native grasslands or other habitats through specific wildlife plantings, trees, or riparian buffer strips (“Programs | New York”- NRCS, 2008). Conservation Reserve Program fields become a haven for a variety of wildlife including obligate and other grassland bird species, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and many species of waterfowl. Studies show that nesting success for grassland birds and waterfowl is forty to forty six percent higher in CRP land over cropland or fragmented grassland habitat and population sizes were around fifty percent higher in CRP fields (“The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)”- DU, 2010). In fact, studies show that populations of Henslow’s Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks in CRP fields were significantly higher than populations in non-CRP fields (Herkert, 2007)(Haroldson et al, 2006). To date, the Conservation Reserve Program has been the most successful government program to conserve natural resources and also provide landowners with compensation (“The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)”- DU, 2010). In fact, the demand for landowners wanting to enroll their property in the program is three times higher than the capacity of the program (“The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)”- DU, 2010). The success of the program should allow for increased capacity over time and future Farm Bills should expand the CRP and other conservation programs.
The WRP or Wetland Reserve Program, was established by the Food Security Act of 1985 Title XII, Public Law 99-198, to conserve wetland habitat and protect wetlands from being drained for industrial, urban, and residential development or for use as farmland (“Programs | New York”- NRCS, 2008). Wetlands are valuable habitats due to the high biodiversity that they contain. Wetland Reserves provide habitat to many species, clean and filter water, recharge groundwater deposits, act as a buffer for protection against floods by providing storage for excess water, and provide wildlife viewing and hunting opportunities. Species that inhabit wetlands include various species of ducks, geese, swans, frogs and other ambibians, muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus ), and beaver (Castor canadensis ). The WRP is the largest and most successful program in the state of New York with more than 50,000 acres on 1350 parcels of private land being enrolled since 1994 (NRCS Programs, 2010). Furthermore 42,500 of those acres enrolled as permanent easements (NRCS Programs, 2010). The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) passed in 1989 is another example of wetlands conservation by the government. This program, administered by US FWS provides funds from the federal government matching funds by private individuals or organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited, to conserve wetland habitat (DU NAWCA site, 2010). The NAWCA has conserved twenty million acres of wetlands and surrounding habitat since it was passed (DU NAWCA site, 2010). Since many species that utilize wetlands are migratory birds, a portion of the funds by the NAWCA goes to fund habitat conservation projects in Canada and Mexico as well as the United States. The reason for this funding is that the survival of migratory species depends on the availability and quality of their habitat throughout their migration route, not just in the U.S.
Although the WRP does not conserve grassland or interior forest habitats, grassland and forest species often make use of wetland habitat as well as the wetland species. Furthermore, wetland habitat can act as a corridor to connect grasslands or forests since species are more apt to travel through wetlands than through open space. Wetland habitat can also act as a buffer to protect grassland and forest species from chemicals and other pollutants.
Despite the incentive programs to conserve grasslands, over forty percent of grassland habitat in the U.S. has been converted into cropland from 2006 to 2007 (Administration pushes for grassland protection”- DU, 2010). This conversion to cropland is due to the fact that the federal government subsidizes corn, soybeans, wheat, and other crops, which pays farmers for each acre of land planted in subsidized crops (“Grasslands for Tomorrow”- DU, 2010). The purpose of these subsidies is to compensate farmers for the low prices of crops resulting from over-supply. In order to prevent this conversion from grassland to cropland, DU is pushing for a Sodsaver program to be included in the farmbill. The Sodsaver program encourages landowners to keep grassland from being converted to cropland in drought prone and marginal areas by removing government subsidies in these areas (Administration pushes for grassland protection”- DU, 2010).
Other efforts to conserve essential habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife include funding research and recruiting volunteers to help with habitat restoration projects. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NY DEC) has a Landowner Incentive Program (LIP) to encourage landowners to mow later in the season after most grassland bird species have been able to complete nesting, around the first of August (“DEC accepting applications for landowner incentive program (LIP)”- NYDEC, 2010 ). According to Angelena Ross of the NY DEC, the program pays landowners to cut hay after the nesting cycle is completed in order to compensate landowners for the money that they lose by having to wait to cut; as waiting to cut a field means the field can be mowed fewer times resulting in lower hay yields (2010). St. Lawrence University Assistant Professor of Biology Susan Willson mentioned that there are generally few participants in the DEC’s LIP due to the fact that these farmers could make more money from early cuttings in each year and the compensation by the DEC does not usually match their loss (2010). Dr. Willson also revealed another problem in the program in that as grass matures it loses protein content, thus making the grass less valuable to the farmer and less nutritious to the livestock (2010).
Professor Willson is starting a research project this summer with two St. Lawrence University students looking at how different methods of mowing affect grassland bird nesting success. She will be looking at nesting success of savannah sparrows, bobolinks, and eastern meadowlarks since other grassland bird populations have declined so much recently that they are difficult to study. Northern New York is a fairly unique landscape in that there is a large Amish community that uses traditional farming practices instead of modern farming practices (Willson, 2010). Dr. Willson is looking at differences in nesting success between modern and traditional mowing techniques instead of the timing of mowing (2010). She believes that land maintained by traditional agricultural practices can be a safe haven for grassland nesting birds (Willson, 2010). Modern agriculture utilizes mechanical mowing with disc-cutters pulled by tractors that are extremely devastating to nesting birds due to the high rate of speed, the vacuum effect of the blades, and the fact that these mowers cut extremely close to the ground leaving only two inches of grass standing (Willson, 2010). Traditional agriculture utilizes sickle type cutters pulled by horses which is far less invasive to nesting birds and their eggs. Sickle style mowing is slower moving, allowing adult birds to escape and avoid being killed by the blades (Willson, 2010). It also leaves five to eight inches of grass standing which increases the survivorship of nests and eggs (Willson, 2010). Most nests in traditional agriculture fields survive unless they are crushed by the horse’s hooves or the wheels of the sickle (Willson, 2010). Dr. Willson hopes to show that using traditional agricultural practices instead of modern practices is a good alternative to delayed mowing programs such as the NY DEC LIP (2010). If mowing with traditional practices increases survivorship of grassland birds and their eggs then farmers could still mow earlier in the year when the protein content of the grass is much higher compared to mowing in August (Willson, 2010). Sickle-type mechanical mowers are already in use on some modern farms which could potentially benefit grassland nesting birds since they are less invasive than other mechanical mowers. Also, raising the height of the mowing blades could help benefit grassland nesting birds, but will also reduce the amount of grass that the farmer can get from a field.
Grassland nesting bird species are generally area-dependent, meaning they require large stretches of grassland habitat (greater than about 40,000 square meters, but preferably larger) in order to gather enough food and resources to reproduce greater than the replacement rate (Protecting grassland birds on private lands”- NYDEC, 2010). The DEC is currently partnering with New York Audubon to restore grassland habitat with the New York Grassland Bird Partnership (NYGBP) which goes along with the DEC LIP to provide incentives on occasion to landowners who enroll their land in grassland conservation. The NYGBP believes that private landowners are the key to preserving the last remaining essential grassland habitat. Proposed solutions in the NYGBP conservation program include delayed mowing until after the nesting cycle of grassland birds, low grazing pressure on grasslands, increase connectivity of grasslands, and control woody vegetation in grasslands (“Audubon New York”, 2010).
Seeding cropland to restore it to grassland is also an important step that can be taken to increase the acreage of grassland habitat and to prevent soil erosion. The Cornell Breeding Bird Survey recommends planting a variety of plants to form a polyculture (2010). The main plants should be cool-season grasses (anywhere from sixty five to ninety percent) with the rest being made up of legumes and other forbs (“Grassland birds in fields and on farms”- Cornell, 2010). Example plants to include in the polyculture include orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata ), bluegrass (Poa pratensis ), fescues (Festuca sp. ), perennial rye (Lolium perenne ), and timothy (Phleum pratense )(“Grassland birds in fields and on farms”- Cornell, 2010). Perennial plants are recommended due to their better characteristics for grassland habitat such as being slower growing and shorter than annual plants. Woody plants, including buckthorn, autumn olive, and honeysuckle should be avoided and removed from grassland habitat because they are nonnative invasive species having the potential to degrade the value of the habitat for native wildlife (“Grassland birds in fields and on farms”- Cornell, 2010).
Other ways to increase grassland bird populations include limiting feral cats from being allowed to hunt in essential grassland habitat, as cats are a major predator of small birds (“Grassland birds in fields and on farms”- Cornell, 2010). Building and installing nest boxes can also help increase the populations of birds that are lacking suitable nesting structures near grasslands (LeClerc et al, 2005). Bird boxes can be used to help tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor ), house wrens (Troglodytes aedon ), and eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis ) (LeClerc et al, 2005)(“Grassland birds in fields and on farms”- Cornell, 2010).
The St. Lawrence Wetland and Grassland Management District is a USFWS wildlife reserve containing almost 9,000 square kilometers located in St. Lawrence, Lewis, Jefferson, and Franklin counties of New York State (“ SL Wetland and Grassland Management District”- USFWS, 2010). The USFWS cooperates with local farmers and residents, private landowners, and others in order to conserve habitat for wildlife through habitat restoration, improvement, and enhancement projects at no cost to landowners. Wetland restoration includes installing dikes and plugging ditches to permanently flood low lying areas that are normally only seasonally flooded. This restoration encourages the growth of wetland plants and creates habitat for wetland birds and other organisms (“ SL Wetland and Grassland Management District”- USFWS, 2010). Other benefits include increased water filtration for cleaner and clearer water and increased opportunities for hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing. Grassland restoration includes mowing, discing, plowing, burning, and/or re-seeding areas that are being recolonized by woody undergrowth like trees and brush. In addition to providing habitat for grassland nesting bird species and other animals, these restored grasslands can still be used for hay production after the nesting season (“ SL Wetland and Grassland Management District”- USFWS, 2010).
Another organization working specifically in St. Lawrence County with property owners to place easements on their land is the St. Lawrence County Land Trust. Land trusts are non-profit organizations that work in conjunction with landowners to preserve the integrity and conservation value of their land (St. Lawrence Land Trust, 2008). Richard Grover, a board member of the St. Lawrence Land Trust, says the trust fills this role in St. Lawrence County currently having about 150 supporting members and 92 acres under easement, with more land in the process of being obtained (Grover, 2010). The trust’s efforts at this time are mainly geared towards maintaining core areas and connectivity (Grover, 2010). While the organization is currently focused on preserving river corridors and riparian zones, it maintains communications with the larger organization A2A Canada that strives for the maintenance of animal migratory routes and habitat connectivity between the Adirondack National Park in the U.S. and the Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada (Grover, 2010). The A2A program is an initiative to increase connectivity between the Adirondack State Park in New York and the Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario Canada.
A similar organization working to improve the conservation value of forest habitat is the New York State Forest Owners Association (NYFOA). The goal of the NYFOA is to improve stewardship among landowners and promote sustainable forestry practices in New York (NYFOA, 2010). This organization achieves this end mainly through education about proper forest management through workshops, forest walks, and a bi-monthly magazine (NYFOA, 2010). The Northern Adirondack chapter includes St. Lawrence County and works to promote the NYFOA agenda throughout the North Country (NYFOA, 2010).
The above initiatives largely deal with increasing habitat area and increasing the quality of the habitat, but do little directly to address habitat connectivity or give guidance on how a landscape should be arranged to be most beneficial to wildlife. The establishment of landscape linkages and stepping-stones are two possible ways to mediate the gaps between habitat fragments. A landscape linkage or corridor is a strip of habitat that connects two larger habitat fragments together allowing organisms to move somewhat unimpeded between the patches without leaving an environment they are comfortable in (Lindenmayer and Fischer, 2006). A study by Haas suggests the use of wooded corridors has been shown to be effective in aiding the flow of organisms between forest fragments in an agricultural landscape, especially for birds (1995). Furthermore such corridors can provide other benefits such as erosion and wind control as well as reducing pests (Ryszkowski, 2002). Similar to corridors, stepping-stones are small patches of habitat that are scattered throughout a landscape matrix (Lindenmayer and Fischer, 2006). By providing miniature refuges, these islands of habitat can facilitate the movement of species through a hostile landscape being effective for some plant, bird, insect, and mammalian taxa (Lindenmayer and Fischer, 2006). A third means of creating habitat connectivity is through the creation of a “soft” matrix that is only marginally degraded habitat that still contains predominately native vegetation (Lindenmayer and Fischer, 2006). Finally, fence lines, hedgerows, and windbreaks could all provide another way in which fractured forest areas can be joined to increase connectivity. These landscape features are common in an agricultural landscape and often serve a utilitarian purpose on farms. For instance, windbreaks, which are strips of trees running along the edges of crop fields, are very useful in preventing wind damage to crops. Windbreaks however can also be vital habitat for many species since they act as a refuge from predators and during the winter can reduce heat loss by blocking cold winds that often occur in open landscapes (Dougherty and Grubb, 2000). Windbreaks also act as important corridors to connect fragmented landscapes. One study showed that Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia ) and Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis )were less common as woodland habitat became more isolated, but were more common in fragmented forests that were connected with windbreaks (Dougherty and Grubb, 2000). However a study by Fritz and Merriam found that these small patches of vegetation may not be that useful in adding habitat connectivity because of the unique constraints placed upon them, particularly in the case of fence lines (1996).
One possible means for mediating the effects of fragmentation in the North Country is to restructure agricultural landscapes so that there is more connectivity in both grassland and forest habitat types through the use of such corridors or “soft” matrix. When configuring the layout of a farm, it would be highly beneficial to the conservation value of the landscape if a farmer took such connectivity into account and not just the topographic and abiotic factors that have been mentioned earlier. Including such considerations is a difficult task to accomplish on already established farms, but farm managers could begin the process by letting land go fallow or cutting down forest to create corridors between the two habitat types. Another consideration farm managers may take into account is the shape of the habitat fragments they hold on their land. Reducing the perimeter of fragments by shaping them in a certain way, in a more contained or circular fashion for example, can maximize the fragment’s core habitat and minimize the edge effect zone contained within it.
One of the most effective and logical means of creating corridors in farmland is through the formation of riparian buffer zones, which are also effective in aiding dispersal (Machtans et al, 1996). Riparian zones are typically marginal in their agricultural value anyway and by creating buffers can be an effective measure in preventing problems with runoff and erosion (Ryszkowski, 2002). Furthermore, riparian zones are often crucial habitat for many animals to live, both on land and in the water, as well as providing a valuable source of water and often food (Ryszkowski, 2002). Creating a buffer zone around this specific habitat will help both organisms that need this habitat to survive will have room to live and those that can live elsewhere (Ryszkowski, 2002).
When trying to formulate the best management strategy, we must keep both forest and grassland considerations in mind. In regard to encouraging proper forest management in helping to ease the effects of habitat fragmentation, the most a landowner can do is to simply leave the land in their possession undeveloped (Grover, 2010). If it is not possible to leave all of their land untouched, it is important that landowners at least leave natural buffers around wetlands and water bodies undisturbed and resist large-scale development efforts in the North Country such as the proposed rooftop highway that would run from Watertown to Plattsburg (Grover, 2010). Richard Grover at the St. Lawrence Land trust states simply that the key to wildlife conservation in St. Lawrence County is to “keep the area rural, sparsely settled, and wild” (2010).
For an informed perspective from grassland habitat conservation, Dr. Chris Norment, an Associate Professor of Biology at SUNY Brockport, has been researching grassland nesting birds for sixteen years and has supervised six master’s theses on the subject. Dr. Norment says “bottom line: properly managed pastures and hayfields can benefit grassland birds; poorly managed farmland habitat will not” (Norment, 2010) Also, Dr. Norment believes “that there are many reasons why farmland habitat should be maintained, and grassland birds are only one of them” (Norment, 2010).
Looking at the insight of Richard Grover and Dr. Norment, it is clear that the proper management of forest and grassland habitat is very different. First, grassland habitat must be actively maintained by landowners to remain viable for wildlife use, while forest habitat should be left undisturbed within its core area to reach its full potential. Second, however, both of these habitats must be managed in a way that increases connectivity with other patches and finally a balance must be struck that allows for both ecosystems to coexist together with land devoted to each habitat type. Instead of letting more fields go fallow and return to forest habitat, or cutting down more forests to allow for more grassland habitat, an equilibrium between the two must be maintained to accommodate the habitat needs of both field and forest dwellers and to best maintain a variety of ecosystem services. Similar to how a natural landscape is never homogenous, we must provide habitats for species filling various niches within our local environment. However, it is also important that we do not create hard ecotones to animal movements within this landscape. Natural landscapes are characterized by a diverse mosaic of land types that have gradual transitions allowing for relative free mobility through differing microhabitats (Groom et al, 2006). The best management plan would call for the maximization of already existing potential grass and forest habitats and increased connectivity with their respective fragmented patches. Further efforts to enter agricultural lands into easements would help ensure that these lands are protected for the future, but should be focused to in areas that are most valuable adding to connectivity.
Of the strategies we have already examined, governmental incentives and land easements appear to be the most viable options for increased habitat area for both land types. Newly designated wild areas should not be haphazardly arranged however, but in a configuration that maximizes both core area through proper shape and connectivity through the formation of corridors and stepping stones. The first lands to target for these purposes would be those that are already somewhat marginal for farming applications, but retain a strong potential for conservation value such as hillsides and riparian zones. Utilizing these areas as buffer zones has a dual purpose in providing for wildlife, while also helping to control run off and erosion. Furthermore farmers should continue to be incentivized to increase the conservation value of the habitat on their land and new programs should be put into place that help create a “soft” matrix accessible to most wildlife. For example dairy farmers should be encouraged to utilize rotational grazing schemes that both maximize their grass production and help their farm coexist with wildlife. Also encouraging the growth and use of natural plant species will make agricultural practices more environmental friendly.
New governmental incentive programs should focus on rewarding farmers for creating riparian zone buffers because of their broad wildlife value and their natural capacity as a corridor for forest habitats. To aid in the preservation of grassland habitat value, a new incentive program should also be established to reward dairy farmers for using a rotational grazing scheme. Other efforts to increase habitat value for both forest and grasslands that do not already have incentive programs in place are largely case specific, such as the case with altering habitat fragment shape to increase core area. For such non-uniform efforts to increase habitat value it would be very difficult to create incentive programs, therefore education needs to be the focal point of implementation efforts.
EASE OF IMPLEMENTATION
The variety of solutions presented in this paper are not that difficult to implement in order to preserve core habitat and prevent fragmentation and the deleterious effects of fragmentation. There are many simple things that were mentioned before that can do a great deal to lessen the impacts and prevent further fragmentation, but the implementation of larger scale initiatives will require the support of the entire agricultural community. The state and federal programs, such as the NY DEC LIP, the NRCS CRP, the NRCS GRP, the NRCS WRP, and the NRCS FRPP have already been created. The problem facing many of these programs is a lack of funding to expand the programs to more land and be able to conserve more essential habitat. This lack of funding may be even more of a problem recently due to the current status of the global and U.S. economy. Another problem of implementing solutions would be trying to balance the conservation of grassland and open habitats with the conservation of forest habitats. This conflict between habitat types makes it very difficult to decide which land should be conserved and managed as grassland habitat and which land should be allowed to revert back to forest. The problem of determining which habitat should have priority comes into play here since historically grassland habitat in the area was sparse and the land was dominated by forest habitat. However, since the anthropogenic clearing of land created a large area of grassland habitat it has allowed grassland species populations to expand in northern New York, which now gives grassland species a claim to the land as well. The goal of future management should be to find a balance between conserving each of these important habitats and linking fragmented areas in an attempt to help both types of species.
1) Educating the Local Community
The local community must be educated about the value of their local environment and how their actions affect the community of organisms they coexist with. If people truly recognize the role these various ecosystems play in creating a comfortable healthy life for them and their families, they surely will be implored to protect it. For this purpose we need the local universities of St. Lawrence County, their faculty, and students to be actively engaged in environmental issues mediating between the academic and local communities. However education beyond teaching the general value of the environment is also important because many of the best solutions for the problems of habitat fragmentation are mutually beneficial to community members and wildlife alike.
To achieve this specialized education we will need to employ the help of the St. Lawrence County Cornell Cooperative Extension and community educators like Betsy Hodge. Betsy works fulltime taking phone calls, emails, and visiting farms to address any questions or concerns of local farmers (Hodge, 2009). She also teaches classes on farm management to local agriculturalists (Hodge, 2009). Community educators like Betsy can work with local farmers and landowners through education workshops to both teach them the benefits that creating riparian buffer zones and the use of management intensive rotational grazing can bring as well as how to implement these measures on their land. Similarly education programs can inform and help farmers set up their agricultural lands in a manner that maximizes their conservation value by planting native vegetation, maximizing habitat core area, and increasing connectivity. Finally the Cornell Cooperative Extension, other governmental agencies, universities, and conservation organizations can inform the public of governmental incentive programs that will reward and help ease the costs of these land transitions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture can function as an overarching agency that can coordinate such efforts between these different organizations.
2) Securing Governmental Incentives
Step two of our step-by-step implementation plan for solving the problem of habitat fragmentation created by anthropogenic agricultural practices involves securing Federal and State Government Funds and Incentives. Future administrations need to renew, expand, and revise federal conservation programs such as the CRP, GRP, and other easement programs to cover more acres of vital habitat in more efficient ways. Enrolling land in the programs such as the CRP would prevent development of key habitats and encourage the restoration of altered or disturbed lands to become important habitats for a variety of species.
Also, the New York State government needs to extend their incentive programs such as the NY DEC Landowner Incentive Program in order to encourage landowners to conserve their natural resources and wildlife. However, the relative ineffectiveness of the small incentives of the LIP should be looked at and ways to increase the usage of this program by private landowners should be implemented. Improvements on this program could include increasing the compensation to farmers for lost haying time. Developing a different incentive program that encourages the use of more traditional mowing and farming practices that are less invasive to the environment and wildlife, such as encouraging rotational grazing is also an important step. With the use of less mechanized farming practices, farmers will be able to utilize the nutritious first cuttings of hay in their field and not come in conflict with grassland nesting birds.
3) Uniting Educated Citizens with Governmental Funding for Change
Any conservation initiative in this arena will need the full support of the community and especially that of the farmers, thus we cannot force these changes, but must foster them to come voluntarily. Step three involves the partnering of governmental conservation organizations, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders with educated citizens and landowners to implement conservation easements on private and public property. People educated on the importance of grassland and forest habitat along with the detrimental effects of habitat fragmentation would care more about conserving and restoring vital habitats. Educating the public on the federal and state programs that are available to assist in habitat restoration and conservation would allow for more publicity to the programs, which could possibly increase funding for them. This in turn would allow for more projects to be accomplished and further increased education and incentives leading to a positive feedback loop.
4) Monitoring for an Adaptive Management Strategy
Without mechanisms for monitoring the success of the incentive and education programs, we cannot possibly know if the funding is being appropriately distributed and more importantly is actually having a positive effect on these two major habitat types. An adaptive management strategy requires overarching program goals to first be established, then management strategies and measures to monitor efficacy to be put in place with specific goals to be reached. Once the management strategies are in place, data collected through the monitoring efforts can give insight on the success of the program and can suggest what future management efforts need to look like. Governmental agencies will fulfill this role acting as program monitors and supporters relocating efforts as needed. The DEC in particular will need to examine the value of local habitat areas and their connectivity as well as the genetic and demographic health of local wildlife species. An open dialog must occur between governmental agencies to ensure an efficiently run and managed conservation strategy.
The agricultural landscape of St. Lawrence County has created a mosaic of landuse types with varying values to native wildlife. Furthermore, while agriculture has allowed for increases in the populations of grassland species, it has also destroyed forest habitat, resulting in conflicting conservation interests between grassland and forest species. Under such circumstances, the best management plan will foster habitat connectivity and increased habitat value on existing patches of both habitat types. The key to achieving this end as with most conservation issues is education. Only with an informed public, can people and wildlife coexist together in relative harmony.
Table 1. Number of livestock present in St. Lawrence County according to the 2007 Agricultural Census (Northern NY Regional Profile).
Table 2. Number of acres devoted to the production of common crops in St. Lawrence County according to the 2007 Agricultural Census (Northern NY Regional Profile).
Number of Acres
Table 3. Land Use Description of the different types of forested land in St. Lawrence County. Also included are the total forested land and the amount of shrub land in the county. Data is from St. Lawrence University T:\Atlas and the GIS map that we created.
Land Use Description
Number of Acres
Deciduous Forest Land
Evergreen Forest Land
Mixed Forest Land
Total Forested Land
Shrub & Brush Rangeland
List of Relevent Contacts:
· Dr. Tom A. Langen: Associate Professor of Biology, Clarkson University
o Email: email@example.com
o Phone: (315) 268-7933
o Website: http://people.clarkson.edu/~tlangen/
· Dr. Susan Willson: Assistant Professor of Biology, St. Lawrence University
o Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
o Phone: (315) 229-5846
· Dr. Chris Norment: Professor of Biology, SUNY Brockport
o E-mail: email@example.com
o Phone: (585) 395-5748
· Jim Ochterski: Senior Extension Resource Educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County
o Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
o Phone: (607) 535-7161
· Carol Cady: GIS Specialist/Map Librarian, St. Lawrence University
o Email: email@example.com
o Phone: (315) 229-5824
· Dr. Erika Barthelmess: Associate Professor of Biology, St. Lawrence University
o Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
o Phone: (315) 229-5712
· Richard Grover at St. Lawrence Land Trust
o Email: email@example.com
o Website: http://www.stlawlandtrust.org/
· Betsy Hodge: Community Educator, St. Lawrence County Coop
o Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
· Local Farms-
o Blackcap Farm- Flip Filippi
§ Email: email@example.com
§ Phone: (315) 386-3513
o Bittersweet Farm- Ann & Brian Bennett
§ Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
§ Phone: (315) 344-0443
o Birdsfoot Farm- Dulli Tengeler
§ Email: email@example.com
§ Phone: (315) 386-4393
o Kent Family Growers- Dan & Megan Kent
§ Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
§ Phone: (315) 344-6571
§ Website: www.kentfamilygrowers.com
o Martin Roadside Market- Daniel & Mendy Martin
§ Phone: (315) 265-1246
o Hawkshaw Farm- Bill & Paige Roome
§ Email: email@example.com
§ Phone: (315) 322-5490
o And others: Contact info available through Nancy Alessi, Environmental Studies secretary or on <http://www.gardenshare.org/content/local-food-guide> website
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