A major function of the Natural Heritage Program is Research & Inventory. This involves collecting information on the abundance, distribution, and conservation needs of rare species and significant natural communities. This information is collected through field surveys, reviews of the scientific literature and research by staff biologists and cooperators around the state, including contractors working under the Small Research Contracts Program (SRC) funded by Natural Heritage. The collected information is used as the basis for management decisions, species recovery strategies, and ecological restoration.
Rare species in Massachusetts are threatened primarily by habitat loss or degradation. Management of rare species may mean giving special help to species that have been lost from the state or that are dangerously close to being lost. Scroll down this page to view examples of how Natural Heritage has used environmental regulations, habitat management, key land acquisitions and species recovery projects to restore the state's native biodiversity. For more information on conservation efforts for a specific biological group, refer to the subsections on Plants, Invertebrates, Fishes, Birds , Reptiles & Amphibians, and Mammals.
The Habitat Restoration Program focuses on sites of exceptional ecological significance identified by Natural Heritage on public lands under permanent conservation protection. The program works to restore ecological processes that have historically helped to maintain the biodiversity at these sites, and to control invasive exotic plants that threaten our native species.
Conservation Success Stories
Special efforts made for rare species in Massachusetts include the building of nesting platforms for Osprey and nesting rafts for Common Loons, collecting Plymouth Redbelly turtle eggs to release "head-started" hatchlings, and reintroduction programs for 4 species. Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons are nesting in Massachusetts again, due to ambitious restoration projects sponsored by NHESP. Young eaglets were raised and released at the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. There are now 12 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles that call Massachusetts home; nests in Massachusetts have produced 141 Bald Eagles since this reintroduction project started. Two pairs of Peregrine Falcons have been nesting in Massachusetts for 15 years. The peregrines' choice of nesting sites, skyscrapers in downtown Boston and Springfield and a bridge in Fall River, may seem unusual but these sites offer some of the same advantages as the cliffs that peregrines had traditionally used. Additional pairs may colonize other urban buildings and bridges or natural cliff sites.
Here are a few examples of how Natural Heritage has used species recovery projects to restore the state's native biodiversity.
Primary Cause of Decline: Off-road vehicles/Recreation, Predation
Restoration Efforts: Minimize human-caused disturbance and mortality, Reduce nest predation, Protect habitat
Pre-Restoration Status: Approx. 131 pairs, 1985
Current Status and Trend (1999): Over 500 breeding pairs, increasing
Piping Plovers have made a dramatic comeback in Massachusetts as a result of 14 years of cooperative efforts by a dedicated and diverse group of conservationists and land managers. The Piping Plover is a small shorebird that nests along sandy coastal beaches from North Carolina to Newfoundland. Along the Atlantic coast, it is listed as "Threatened" by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and currently numbers less than 1,400 breeding pairs. The Massachusetts population, listed as "Threatened" under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, has increased from 139 to over 500 breeding pairs between 1986 and 1999-- an increase of 260%!-- and now represents one-third of the entire Atlantic coast population.
The Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program has coordinated efforts to protect the Piping Plover population in Massachusetts. These efforts include protecting birds from human disturbance, reducing predation of eggs by placing wire fences around nests, restricting off-road vehicles to protect nests and chicks, and using Massachusetts' Wetlands Protection Act to protect habitat from degradation caused by dune building and other detrimental activities. A beneficial side effect of the piping plover recovery has been the increased protection for large areas of the coastal beach and dune ecosystem, along a coastline that's valued for its beauty and recreational capacity. Cooperation from the public and between private organizations and state, federal and municipal agencies has made this success possible.
Primary Cause of Decline: DDT pesticide, habitat loss
Restoration Efforts: Ban on DDT, Reintroduction by importing a total of 42 nestlings from 1982-86, Legal protection
Pre-Restoration Status: Extirpated, 1910
Current Status and Trend (2002): 12 breeding pairs, producing: ~15 chicks annually, gradually increasing
Primary Cause of Decline: DDT pesticide
Restoration Efforts: Ban on DDT, Reintroduction
Pre-Restoration Status: Extirpated, 1955
Current Status and Trend (2002): Six breeding pairs, increasing slowly; possibly additional pairs establishing in Worcester and elsewhere
Primary Cause of Decline: DDT pesticide
Restoration Efforts: Ban on DDT, Addition of supplemental nest sites
Pre-Restoration Status: 11 pairs, 1963
Current Status and Trend (2000): 350 breeding pairs, increasing and spreading to interior areas; mostly southeastern Massachusetts but spreading northward along the coast and into the interior
Primary Cause of Decline: Habitat loss, Competition/Predation
Restoration Efforts: Intensive management of breeding sites; Restoration of historical nesting sites in Buzzards Bay
Pre-Restoration Status: 1,600 breeding pairs, 1978
Current Status and Trend (1999): 1,810 breeding pairs, slowly increasing; about half the northwestern Atlantic population nests
in the Buzzards Bay area
Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys rubriventris)
Primary Cause of Decline: Habitat loss, Predation of eggs and young
Restoration Efforts: Population augmentation, 1,500 hatchlings released
Pre-Restoration Status: 300 adults, 1984
Current Status and Trend (2000): 1,000+ individuals, exact status unknown; breeding by head-started hatchlings first documented in 2000
American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus)
Primary Cause of Decline: Unknown
Restoration Efforts: Reintroduction, multiple releases
Pre-Restoration Status: Extirpated, 1930s
Current Status and Trend (2000): 2 small restored island populations
Beach Tiger Beetle
(Cicindela dorsalis dorsalis)
Primary Cause of Decline: Habitat loss, off-road vehicles/recreation
Restoration Efforts: Off-road vehicle restrictions, reintroduction
Pre-Restoration Status: 1 population, 1989
Current Status and Trend (2000): 2 populations, stable or declining; reintroduction in process in 2000
Primary Cause of Decline: Habitat loss, fire suppression
Restoration Efforts: Prescribed fire, soil scarification, and mowing before July 1
Pre-Restoration Status: 3 populations
Current Status and Trend (2000): 5 populations (2 recently established)-- stable or increasing
Scientists don't fully understand the factors that contribute to the growth and reproductive success of some rare plants. For example, a plant may be sensitive to too much shade or dependent on the intense heat of a fire to activate dormant seeds. NHESP has been participating in experiments aimed at determining the needs of Sandplain Gerardia, a federally endangered wildflower. Experimental plots on Cape Cod and Nantucket were treated with a variety of techniques, including controlled burning, fertilization, and scarification (raked with hand tools or turned by tractor disc). The success of seeds planted in the various plots was measured by the percentage of seeds that sprouted and by the size of the resulting plants. Surprisingly, more Sandplain Gerardia plants were found at the experimental plots in 1995 than at the parent colony from which the seeds were taken. We are getting closer to identifying management techniques that can be used to successfully restore this annual species to suitable habitat within its historic range.