Great Thicket Wildlife Refuge Gets Its Start in New York

Dover, NY – Federal, state and local officials gathered today in Dover, New York, to mark the establishment of the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s first land acquisition for the six-state refuge, the 144-acre Nellie Hill Preserve donated by The Nature Conservancy.

Nellie Hill Preserve

Nellie Hill Preserve, New York/TNC

“With habitat that can easily be managed for New England cottontails and other young forest wildlife, the Nellie Hill Preserve is an excellent first land acquisition for Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge,” said Northeast Regional Director Wendi Weber of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We are grateful for the close coordination and partnership with local and state officials and The Nature Conservancy that led to this exciting donation.”

Nellie Hill, managed by The Nature Conservancy for 25 years, is a unique property with varying habitats and rare plants. Formerly grazing land for cows, the preserve has since become a hotspot for migrating birds and other wildlife. From the rocky summit of a 120-foot cliff, visitors can view grasslands, sloping meadows, oak forests and limestone woodlands. Five springs and two ponds provide a constant water source for wildlife throughout the year.

“The Nature Conservancy is proud to partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and help kickstart the creation of the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge,” said Stuart F. Gruskin, Chief Conservation and External Affairs Officer for The Nature Conservancy in New York. “Donating the Nellie Hill Preserve to the Service is a great example of leveraging conservation opportunities to achieve the greatest potential outcomes for nature and people.”

At Nellie Hill, the Service will work with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on shrubland habitat management.

New England cottontail

New England cottontails may soon move into Nellie Hill Preserve, the first parcel of land in the new Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge./K. Boland

“DEC commends the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy for creating the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, a unique habitat that will serve as a home to countless birds and wildlife for generations to come,” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said. “We look forward to working with all partners on developing the management and conservation plans necessary to sustain this vital landscape.”

The property is close to other protected lands, including areas with New England cottontails.

Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge officially became the 566th national wildlife refuge on December 14, 2016, with the acquisition of Nellie Hill. The Service finalized the creation of Great Thicket in October 2016 following an extensive public process. Plans for the refuge were proposed in early 2016 through a draft land protection plan and environmental assessment that received more than 6,000 comments – over 90 percent of which were supportive.

Dutchess County Executive Marcus J. Molinaro said, “The collaborative effort between the County of Dutchess, Town of Dover, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has resulted in the use of the existing Nellie Hill Preserve to establish the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge. This balances the desired ecological goals with the concern of economic impacts.”

Town of Dover Supervisor Linda French added, “We are proud to be working hand in hand with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System to ensure that properties are preserved to protect the wildlife and the environment. Dover is very involved with ecotourism, so the lands that are protected will remain so for all generations.”

Now that the refuge is formally established, the agency will continue coordinating with government and private, non-profit partners to engage willing and interested landowners in 10 target areas of six states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island) to acquire up to 15,000 acres through various methods, including conservation easements, donations or fee-title acquisition. Current refuge staff would manage all acquired lands within existing resources.

This process is expected to take decades, as the Service works strictly with willing sellers only and depends on funding availability to make purchases. Lands within an acquisition boundary would not become part of the refuge unless their owners sell or donate them to the Service; the boundary has no impact on how landowners can use their land or to whom they can sell.

The nation’s newest wildlife refuge joins the largest network of lands in the nation dedicated to wildlife conservation, with 565 other national wildlife refuges – at least one refuge in every state – and other protected areas covering more than 850 million acres. A hundred years in the making, the refuge system is a network of habitats that benefits wildlife, provides unparalleled outdoor experiences for all Americans, and protects a healthy environment.

Wildlife refuges provide habitat for more than 2,100 types of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, including more than 380 threatened or endangered plants or animals. Each year, millions of migrating birds use refuges as stops to rest and refuel on their journeys of thousands of miles between their summer and winter homes.

Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge acquisition areas

Proposed acquisition areas for the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge are shown in yellow.

National wildlife refuges are also strong economic engines for local communities. A 2015 national report, Banking on Nature, found that refuges pump $2.7 billion into the economy and support more than 39,000 jobs. They are also excellent venues to hunt, hike, bike, boat, observe wildlife and more.

Learn more about Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization guided by science and dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to the world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. Working in more than 65 countries, TNC uses a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners.