Historical Perspective | Wildlife in Decline

In Massachusetts, and in much of Southern New England, open habitats (grasslands, shrublands, and young forests) are in decline. The Habitat Program works to restore open habitats on state wildlife lands to improve habitat for many declining animals and plants.

History of the Massachusetts Landscape
Open habitats (grasslands, shrublands and young forest) were part of the New England landscape for centuries prior to European colonization due to: 1) ubiquitous beaver activity; 2) spring flooding and ice scouring along rivers and major streams; 3) occasional catastrophic windstorms; and 4) wildfires and fires set by Native Americans in coastal areas and major river valleys.

These open habitats started to decline after European colonization due to: 1) extensive development (especially in portions of the landscape that formerly supported abundant beaver activity), 2) flood control, and 3) fire suppression (especially in portions of the landscape that supported fire-adapted natural communities like pitch pine/scrub oak). Human activity has also reduced the impact of wind storms across the landscape. Today’s forests are relatively young (75-90 year-old) compared to the old growth that once existed, which means that trees are more pliant and resistant to wind disturbance than original old growth forests.

MassWildlife uses active management to provide a range of grassland, shrubland, and forested habitats that are no longer provided frequently enough by natural processes. Forestry practices, along with mowing, prescribed burning, and invasive plant control are used to manage sites.

Grasshopper Sparrow
Box Turtle
Woodcock

Wildlife in Decline

Many kinds of birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and plants thrive in or near open habitat types. The continuing decline of these grasslands, shrublands, and young forests has impacted a number of wildlife and plant species.

Native grassland and shrubland birds are declining at an alarming rate. Even some forest nesting birds are declining, despite the fact that Massachusetts has more forestland now (nearly 3 million acres) than at any time in the past 300 years. This is because some forest birds (e.g., chestnut-sided warbler) are specialized to nest in young forest. Other forest birds nest in mature forest and then move their offspring into young forest after fledging to utilize abundant food and cover found in these regenerating areas.

Reports from the yearly North American Breeding Bird Survey, Massachusetts Audubon Society’s 2013 State of the Birds report, and other published scientific articles, show that species including Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, and the Brown Thrasher are all showing alarming declines. Populations of Upland Sandpiper pdf format of Upland Sandpiper
, Vesper Sparrow pdf format of Vesper Sparrow
, and Grasshopper Sparrow pdf format of Grasshopper Sparrow
(all classified as either Threatened or Endangered in Massachusetts) are also declining. It is clear that without the maintenance and creation of open habitat, birds that require this type of habitat will continue to decline.

Other animals and plants that rely on open habitats are in decline. The New England Cottontail, Massachusetts’ only native cottontail (not to be confused with the Eastern Cottontail, which was introduced to the state in the early 1900s), was once common throughout all of the New England states; now it occurs only sporadically. The Regal Fritillary Butterfly, once common, no longer occurs in the state. Black Racer Snakes and Eastern Box Turtle pdf format of Eastern Box Turtle
rely on open habitats for various stages of their life cycle. In addition, many field and grassland plants including New England Blazing Star pdf format of New England Blazing Star
(a state Special Concern Species), Sandplain Gerardia pdf format of Sandplain Gerardia
(a state Endangered Species), and Eastern Silvery Aster pdf format of Eastern Silvery Aster
(a state Endangered Species) are becoming increasingly rare.

MassWildlife uses active management to provide a range of grassland, shrubland, and forested habitats that are no longer provided frequently enough by natural processes to help support both common and declining species. Forestry practices, along with mowing, prescribed burning, and invasive plant control are used to manage sites.

All New England states have outlined goals to increase open habitats and associated wildlife. Link to State Wildlife Action Plans.

Bird Population Trends

 

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New England Cottontails