Avalonia Land Conservancy, Southeastern Connecticut

Clearing Trees – and Hurdles – to Help Cottontails

Read a December 7, 2020, blog post, "On the trail of the elusive cottontail," by Beth Sullivan on young forest habitat and New England cottontails on Avalonia Land Conservancy properties.

The Avalonia Land Conservancy holds more than 3,200 acres in eight towns in southeastern Connecticut, most of them in the Ledyard-Coastal Focus Area for New England cottontail restoration. In 2011, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requested that the conservancy consider making young forest to help cottontails on two of their parcels connected by a utility right-of-way in the town of Stonington. The right-of-way provided patches of briars and shrubs where cottontails could hide and find food. And although the nearby Avalonia tracts had very little dense ground cover beneath an overstory of mature trees, they offered great potential for creating new habitat to help New England’s native rabbit.

Avalonia Land Conservancy 2

In this middle-aged woods, sparse ground vegetation offered limited food and cover to wildlife. A timber harvest would remedy that problem.

Beth Sullivan and Binti Ackley, stewards for Avalonia properties in Stonington, began the hard work of carrying out a 22-acre forest regeneration cut on the Conservancy’s Peck and Callahan preserves. After dealing with insurance details and gaining approval from Conservancy leaders, Beth and Binti got help from Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Suzanne Paton in filling out the applications needed to get funding from two federal sources: the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

After those first steps, the Conservancy members faced a logistical nightmare.

Wild turkeys foraging at Avalonia Land Conservancy habitat project

Wild turkeys use young forest for foraging, nesting. Here, turkeys move from feeding areas into deeper cover./B. Sullivan

One of the characteristics that made the property a good candidate for management – having limited public access – made it hard to get logging equipment in and out. It took exhaustive property research, hours spent contacting neighboring landowners, and ultimately begging and bartering to secure access – at which point the Conservancy still needed a permit from the utility company to let logging machines cross the right-of-way. That permission came nearly a year later, along with seasonal limitations because transmission lines sag in hot weather and can be a hazard for large equipment trying to pass underneath.

In her blog, Avalonia eTrails, Beth Sullivan described the emotional roller coaster that she and her colleagues had to ride to get the project off the ground.

It was researched, talked about, plotted, posted, planned, obstructed, rearranged, fought for, and researched even more. At times it seemed the hurdles were too great to surmount. We wondered if the effort was worth it. But we were convinced it was.

The timber harvest finally got underway in 2013. Beth cried to see the first trees fall, but she also understood the benefits that soon would be coming. After the contractor left the site, she posted her thoughts.

What remains isn't pretty at first glance. The long swath of the Peck Preserve is open now. From a distance, it is pretty brown, a little disconcerting to a self-described tree hugger, but we looked closer. The machines used were designed to have a low impact on the earth, so we do not have any large areas of torn-up ground. The wetlands were respected and left buffered and the stream now runs clear and clean.
Specially chosen trees remain standing to provide reseeding sources, mast for wildlife, and some shelter. A nice diversity of species is still present. Understory shrubs lie unharmed in most areas. Blueberry and huckleberry plants, as well as smaller seedlings, ground-covering vines, and small plants, will thrive [beneath] the open canopy.
Referred to as slash, those tree tops and branches left on the ground provide instant cover for small mammals. The rough slash will also deter deer that try to enter the new area of inviting shoots and greenery. The decomposition over time will provide nutrients for the soil. As part of the funding agreement, large brush piles were created. These will provide longer-term shelter for many animals, and hopefully the New England Cottontail will be one of them!

Funding also paid for plantings to boost native species diversity, prevent erosion, and give the new young forest a start. In fall 2013, Beth wrote:

We were joined by our DEEP forester with his chainsaw, and a USFWS biologist with plants and supplies. We lugged in a large garden cart with shovels, rakes, bags of grass seed, plants, netting, flagging tape and miscellaneous small items as well as water in large jugs. We had to clear the skid trail as we went along, moving branches and large debris and ultimately made it a half mile in to the far east of the property where a steep slope needed attention. There we raked the earth to plant a special conservation seed mix of grasses to germinate rapidly and stabilize the soil on the slope. We dug holes, no easy task in the rocky earth, and planted dozens of small seedlings, plants known to be beneficial for the wildlife we hope to attract. However, all these new seedlings and sprouts are like candy for the deer. Each plant needed to be staked and netted and surrounded by slash to deter the deer from nibbling.

A year passed. After several visits to the site, Beth reflected on the project in a posting titled “A New Approach to Stewardship.”

Over the years the goal of environmental stewardship has shifted from pure preservation to more active conservation and management of land entrusted to us, for its best usage and greatest value. We were convinced that turning 22 acres of mature forest, past its prime for supporting diverse wildlife, into a young forest restoration area was the best use for the land and our best action for the future of many species.
We spent hours back-tracking through all corners of the areas as we worked, examining new growth, becoming excited over resurgence of vines and thrilled at the ground cover of low-bush blueberries. It was a wildlife heaven. Wild turkeys foraged in the brush and took dust baths in the trail. There were grasshoppers all over, as well as dragonflies, bees and uncountable other insects. Fly-catching birds of several species were using the brush piles and tree snags to swoop and catch the insects. There were bluebirds singing everywhere. Eastern towhees chorused from spots low and high throughout the area. The little vernal pond was still cool and shady, having been protected during the project. We found a small wood frog in the fern glade nearby. The clear stream ran fresh through the moss-covered boulders in the low land.

In the end, Avalonia members concluded that the worry and work, and the hurdles that had to be cleared, were worth it. Says Lisa Wahle, a biologist with the Wildlife Management Institute and Connecticut DEEP, “It will be even better when we document the first New England cottontails using the new habitat, but in the meantime this much-needed patch of young forest is providing benefits to myriad wildlife species.”

Towhee singing in new young forest habitat

Towhee sings from brushy habitat on Avalonia Land Conservancy property./B. Sullivan

In April 2015, the New England Chapter of The Wildlife Society awarded a Certificate of Recognition to Beth Sullivan for her persistence in seeing through a major habitat management project and her efforts to educate others about the importance of young forest. In her nominating letter, DEEP biologist Judy Wilson wrote, “While many hard working Avalonia Land Conservancy volunteers helped to make this project a success, Beth went above and beyond when she stepped up and became a passionate, articulate communicator, describing her experience in articles, interviews, blog posts, and participating in DEEP’s Wildlife Division workshops throughout the state.”

(Read Beth Sullivan’s blog. See postings for April, August, and September 2013, and July 2014 for photos and the full story of creating young forest on Peck and Callahan Preserves.)

Partners and Funding

Avalonia Land Conservancy, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Management Institute