South Mashpee Pine Barrens, Cape Cod

Restoring Pine Barrens Habitat for Wildlife

The goal: Restore a neglected pine barrens on Upper Cape Cod to a productive ecosystem where New England cottontails, box turtles, buckmoths, whip-poor-wills, and dozens of other rare animals and plants can thrive.

Barrens buckmoth

A barrens buckmoth clings to a scrub oak stem at a pine barrens restored by The Trustees of Reservations./R. Hopping

There hadn’t been a fire on the South Mashpee Pine Barrens in 50 years. That meant oaks and pitch pines had grown in more densely than they normally do in a pine barrens setting, where, before humans began suppressing wildfires, frequent fires kept the trees small and scattered and the shrubs and low vegetation thick and vigorous. Many different groups own and manage land in the area, including the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the state of Massachusetts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Town of Mashpee, and several land trusts.

Ted Kendziora, a habitat biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, considered how to reduce the tree and old-shrub components so that the habitat could safely be burned and ultimately be managed through prescribed fires in the future. Working with George "Chuckie" Greene, a resource manager for the Mashpee Wampanoag, along with local contractors and consultants, Kendziora set up a 1-acre test plot on tribal land. An equipment operator used a large tracked machine (often referred to as a “brontosaurus”) to chew down trees and shrubs into medium-sized pieces – “not chipping, not cutting, but something in between,” Kendziora says.

Controlled Burning a Key Step

A carefully conducted burn then consumed the shredded tree parts. The fire increased soil fertility, and it set back the old, straggling scrub oaks and other shrubs that had been hanging on in the shade beneath the large oaks and pines. After cutting and burning, the shrubs’ root systems sent up prolific new growth, and many other shrubs and plants sprang up in the direct sunlight that could now reach the ground.

Biologist Ted Kendziora

Biologist Ted Kendziora holds wood shards produced by brontosaurus machine./C. Fergus

One advantage to using a brontosaurus is that it has tracks rather than wheels, so it doesn’t compact the ground or do as much damage to low-growing plants as a wheeled vehicle would. The brontosaurus can make a trail into an area, then reach out 30 feet on each side with its boom – which ends in a tooth-studded drum spinning at high speed – and reduce standing trees and shrubs to scattered shards of wood and bark. (Doing this work in winter avoids harming box turtles and other reptiles that hibernate underground. Also, birds and mammals aren’t breeding at that time.)

Fire then follows, and a functioning pine barrens is reborn. In the future, controlled burns will periodically consume fallen branches and other debris, reducing fuel loads on the ground and lowering the risk of dangerous, out-of-control crown fires in this region of fairly dense housing and other developments.

Putting a Formula to Work

The formula has worked so well that a host of conservation partners are using it on their lands in Mashpee and adjoining Falmouth. “All of the tracts are within corridor areas or the dispersal range of existing New England cottontail populations,” reports Kendziora.

Since 2010, this loose partnership has treated more than 400 acres, with fire applied to around 150 of those acres as of summer 2014. (More controlled burns will take place in the near future.) Partners include the Town of Mashpee (76 acres), the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge (120 acres), the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (100 acres), the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe (40 acres), the Orenda Wildlife Land Trust (30 acres), and The Trustees of Reservations (50 acres). The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has contributed important funding to help make many of these projects a reality.

New England Cottontail an Umbrella Species

Russ Hopping is Ecology Program Director for The Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit that preserves and manages more than 100 properties with exceptional scenic, historical, and ecological value in Massachusetts.

Barrens habitat on Upper Cape Cod

New England cottontails rely on pine barrens habitats on Upper Cape Cod./C. Fergus

On a recent October day, he and Kendziora inspected a pine barrens site on TTOR’s Mashpee River Reservation that was being restored. Said Hopping, “The New England cottontail is an umbrella species for the young forest and shrubland that are so important for a host of other wild animals like hognose snakes, prairie warblers, towhees, and buckmoths. We couldn’t have completed this project without help from the Fish and Wildlife Service and NRCS. Most likely we wouldn’t even have started.”

He adds, “What’s really exciting is that it’s not just us improving habitat for New England cottontails. A critical mass has been achieved here, with a whole bunch of conservation partners contributing to make habitat at a landscape level.”

Many of the projects are accessible to the public. “Here at Mashpee River Reservation, we’ve put in a parking lot for visitors,” Hopping notes. The 35-acre core habitat is divided into four management units, and hikers and nature-lovers can use the firebreaks between the units as trails to go birding and watch wildlife.

Says Hopping, “We hope people will visit here often and in all seasons. When they do, they’ll leave with a better understanding of how pine barrens work and how managing them benefits both humans and wildlife. I know that whenever I come here, I learn something new.”

Watch a three-part video produced by the USDA Natural Resources Service on making habitat for New England cottontails on Cape Cod.

Funding and Partners

Town of Mashpee, Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, Orenda Wildlife Land Trust, The Trustees of Reservations, Cape Cod Conservation District, Massachusetts Wildlife, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wildlife Management Institute

How to Visit

The Mashpee River Reservation site is next to a paved road and has a parking lot. The Trustees of Reservations encourages responsible visitation to its Carl Monge Sanctuary, on the north side of Old Barnstable Rd. between Falmouth Rd. (state route 28) and Great Neck Rd.