Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Habitat Priorities in Connecticut

This morning Sphere linked to an interesting article in the Courant about a biologist conducting a multi-year census of bird populations in Connecticut. One of the more interesting findings is that the state's resident bird population shifts from northern Connecticut to southern Connecticut during the winter. As a result he argues that coastal forest habitats are the most important habitat types to preserve.

"What it tells us is the principal winter reservoir of our species is coastal forests," Craig said. "And those are the ones that are most under siege from developers."

In fact, Craig argues that, with only so much money available for land preservation, it is the forests of Southern New England, coastal and inland, that ought to get all the attention, even if it means abandoning efforts to preserve other habitats like prairies or marshes....

It is, he said, time for what might be called eco-triage, a most unconventional point of view that puts Craig at odds with most other biologists.

High-quality hardwood forests, he argues, are the single most valuable remaining habitat left in the region, and every effort should be directed at preserving them. Prairies of taller grass, which support some wildlife species like grasshopper sparrows — birds that have become extremely uncommon in Southern New England — can't be a priority.

"Is that the kind of thing you really want to invest dollars and effort into here? The grasshopper sparrow is one of the most abundant species of birds on the continent," Craig said. "In the East, they are not doing well, of course, because the land use has shifted. Is there anything practical you can do about that? Probably not."
The article gives the impression that his views on grassland preservation are not widely shared and quotes one biologist in disagreement. I think that coastal forests – and coastal habitats generally – are extremely important, and states along the Atlantic Coast should do what they can to preserve what is left of them. (From personal experience, my best winter birding experience are typically along the coast.) Regional diversity, though, is important too. Maybe the local populations of grassland birds are not globally signficant, but they are part of our natural heritage and, as such, deserve protection.

In addition, I suspect that exurban development will soon reach a high water mark, if it has not done so already. High energy prices, particularly high gas prices, are already affecting how much Americans drive, and that has implications for where we live. A retraction in the market for exurban and suburban housing could make it easier for more habitat types to be protected, so that land managers do not need to make the triage choices that Craig envisions.