The Nantucket Conservation Foundation recently received news that we have been awarded a $24,075 grant to undertake a sandplain heathland and scrub oak barren habitat management project on 24 acres within our Middle Moors properties in the central portion of the island, just north of Altar Rock. This funding comes from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) Habitat Management Grant Program, which provides financial assistance to open space landowners to improve and manage habitat for rare wildlife and game species and expand opportunities for hunting and other outdoor recreation. This is the sixth year that the Foundation has successfully applied for grant funding through this program. In this round of grants, $307,631 will be distributed to support 10 wildlife habitat projects on a total of 308 acres across the Massachusetts. We are very honored to be one of these!

The Foundation’s Fecon mulching tractor. Photo: NCF Land Management staff.

The work funded in this project, which will take place over the coming winter months prior to the bird nesting season, consists of one dormant season brushcutting treatment using a Fecon FTX148-L mulching tractor. This cut will reduce the height of woody vegetation to within 4-6 inches of the soil surface, effectively eliminating shade and improving habitat conditions for grasses and low-growing heathland species during the following spring and summer. Follow-up treatments will be conducted once every 2-3 years to maintain the low stature of the vegetation in this area and maintain these habitat conditions.

This management work will further expand sandplain heathland and scrub oak barren habitat continuity in this area of Nantucket. These vegetation communities support some of the highest concentrations of rare and endangered plant, insect and wildlife species in Massachusetts, including the eastern silvery aster, sandplain blue-eyed grass, barren’s buckmoth and eastern whip-poor-will. Increases in shrub cover resulting from the cessation of historic sheep grazing, fire suppression and lack of management have reduced appropriate habitat available for these rare species on Nantucket. This brushcutting will be the first vegetation management undertaken within these units since they have been under the Foundation’s ownership and will set the stage for future follow-up work.

Left: an annually mowed firebreak. Center: the north portion of the management unit. Right: Altar Rock Road. Photo: Karen Beattie.

The completion of this project will also improve wildfire risk reduction by expanding habitat management adjacent to firebreaks established and maintained by the Foundation as part of its Wildfire Risk Reduction Program. The shrub species within these units, including huckleberry, bayberry and scrub oak, are highly-flammable and can produce extreme fire behavior when burned. This, coupled with the lack of prompt mutual aid from off-island fire departments in the event of a wildfire, led the Foundation to start developing wildland fire management plans for our properties in 2011. These plans complement the goals of our habitat management efforts by targeting strategic locations for reducing flammable vegetation to protect adjacent properties and lower the risk of catastrophic wildfire. The Foundation is committed to maintaining these established firebreaks with annual mowing.

Left: firebreak during the growing season after the initial mow treatment. Right: firebreak during the second growing season after the initial mow treatment (note establishment of new grasses). Photo: Karen Beattie.

The work funded by this grant will enhance visibility of the vast expanses of open space that comprise the Foundation’s Middle Moors for the many visitors that enjoy this property. The reduction in woody vegetation height and density will also provide hunters and bird watchers with improved access to the area, as shrubs like huckleberry and scrub oak are essentially impenetrable due to their dense growth forms. The Foundation owns over 3,400 acres of directly contiguous protected conservation land within the Middle and Eastern Moors area that are open to the public for passive recreation and enjoyment.

The Foundation’s Fecon mulching tractor at work. Photo: NCF Land Management staff.

We are very grateful and proud to have been selected for this completive round of funding. According to Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides,“Conservation science has shown that periodic active habitat management for both common and rare wildlife and plants is necessary to maintain ecological resiliency and diversity, making these projects critical to the preservation of the Commonwealth’s natural resources and their resiliency to climate change. Through this grant program, we’re able to partner with property owners, municipalities and organizations to improve the environment and quality of life throughout Massachusetts.”

Left: annually mowed firebreak. Right: untreated scrub oak and other shrubs within the management unit. Photo: Karen Beattie.

The Foundation’s Science and Stewardship Department has a long history of partnering with MassWildlife on many conservation initiatives. We provide detailed data to their Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program database on population trends of rare species occurring on our conservation lands, ensure that rare beach-nesting shorebirds are managed according to state and federal guidelines, and incorporate feedback from their staff biologists into our property and wildfire management plans so that they can be approved for implementation.

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us now!