cottontail, ©Tom Barnes/USFWS

Take Refuge: Newest protected areas for wildlife

What better time to celebrate new wildlife refuges than during National Wildlife Refuge Week? Take a minute to learn about four of the most recent refuges designated (or about to be) to protect and preserve wildlife and some of the rarest habitats in the country.

Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge bog turtle, ©Gary Peeples/USFWS

Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge is nestled at the foot of Three Top Mountain in western North Carolina. The refuge was established in April 2015 to protect southern Appalachian mountain bogs, one of North America’s rarest habitats. These bogs support a rich diversity of plants and animals, including five species listed under the Endangered Species Act: bog turtle, green pitcher plant, mountain sweet pitcher plant, and two flowers, swamp pink and bunched arrowhead. The bog turtle, North America’s smallest turtle, is vulnerable to habitat loss and illegal collection for the pet trade. The population in the southeastern United States was listed as “threatened” in 1997 to support the species’ conservation and recovery throughout its range, extending from Massachusetts to Georgia. To date, the Mountain Bogs Refuge only covers 39 acres, but the goal is to collaborate with willing landowners, conservation organizations and the public to expand the refuge to more than 20,000 acres in North Carolina and Tennessee. Working together, the refuge hopes to conserve and restore this unique habitat for bog turtles and the many other species that depend on it.

Great Thicket National Wildlife Refugecottontail, © Steve Arena/USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed establishing a new national wildlife refuge that would include up to ten areas strategically located in six states in southern New England and eastern New York. Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge would protect up to 15,000 acres of young forest and shrubland habitat (commonly called “thickets”) that are essential for the New England cottontail rabbit, American woodcock, blue-winged warbler, amphibians, bats, butterflies and other dependent species. The proposed refuge would encompass lands in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Brushy habitat has become rare in the Northeast as human development has expanded across the region and remaining forests mature into old growth stands. Great Thicket Refuge was proposed to protect what’s left of this important habitat type, and enjoys broad support from conservation organizations, sporting groups and local communities. The Service is expected to finalize the plan for the refuge soon.

Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area Regal Fritillary, © Laura Hubers / USFWS

Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area is one of the newest additions to our National Wildlife Refuge System. First envisioned in 1999, the refuge in Illinois was finally established with the donation of the first 66-acre parcel of land to the Fish and Wildlife Service this past May. The Kankakee Refuge conserves black oak savanna and marsh habitat in an area that was once part of the largest wetland complex in North America, even larger than Florida’s Everglades. The remnants of this critical ecosystem support deer; turkey and a myriad of other bird species, including black-crowned night-heron and red-headed woodpecker; the regal fritillary, a butterfly under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act; and every manner of small mammals and fishes. The Service hopes to expand Kankakee over time to protect as many as 30,000 acres of this rare habitat.

Bear River Watershed Conservation Area Bear River, © Brian Ferguson / USFWS

Announced as the 565th unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, the Bear River Watershed Conservation Area was formally established this past June. A local family in Utah donated a conservation easement on their property to become the first parcel included in the conservation area. In fact, the plan for Bear River Watershed is to create a network of privately held conservation lands in the region to conserve wildlife and wildlands in three states. The Bear River is the largest tributary to the Great Salt Lake, draining mountainous forests, rolling hills of sagebrush and farmland in northeastern Utah, southeastern Idaho and northeastern Wyoming. The river and its watershed are vital habitat for migratory birds, fish, and myriad other critters, and an important wildlife corridor for pronghorn, mule deer, and elk. The river passes through three existing national wildlife refuges—Bear Lake, Bear River, and Cokeville Meadows—and the new Conservation Area has been strategically designed to encompass and connect these refuges to support wildlife movement across the region. Bear River Watershed Conservation Area is an ambitious, but essential endeavor, and another example of how our National Wildlife Refuge System conserves wildlife, even beyond public lands.

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