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Celebrating Vermont Wetlands: Restoring Habitat for Rare Species

A review of conservation success in Rutland County

By Mary Jacobson, VT USDA-NRCS

A Pied-billed Grebe is seen nesting in a wetland conserved under the NRCS WRP program

 

 

 

 

In 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its partners officially named May as National Wetlands Month to celebrate the vital importance of wetlands to the nation’s ecological and economic health. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Vermont has a lot to celebrate in regards to work in wetland restoration and protection. At NRCS, May is a time to recognize private landowners whose properties are enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and the employees who implemented the contracts.

WRP helps private landowners protect, restore and enhance wetlands. Wetlands benefit migratory birds, other wildlife and plants, including species of concern and those that are listed on state and federal lists of threatened and endangered species.

A WRP project that deserves distinct praise can be found just north of Route 73 in Brandon and Sudbury. It is here where conservationists recently discovered nesting Pied-billed Grebes, which have been classified by the State of Vermont as a Species of Special Concern and a high-priority Species of Greatest Conservation Need. The land surrounding Route 73 in these towns contain a north and south cluster of fifteen total conservation easements, covering over 780 acres. Much of this land is owned by farmers and was previously converted to farm fields and annually planted with corn. The fields produced low yields and were seldom harvested due to flooding. Through implementation of the WRP program, the land is returning to its natural wetland state.

Roy Pilcher of Rutland County Audubon has been involved with monitoring progress of wildlife restoration on these WRP easements, and he was involved in the Pied-billed Grebe discovery. “Due to the diligence and persuasion of some of our local USDA employees who were able to convince the local farmers to switch [to restored wetland under a perpetual conservation easement from annually planted corn fields], these flood prone lands are now reverting back, with some help, to their former status under WRP” said Pilcher in a recent email to Sally Eugair. Eugair is one of the exceptional USDA employees Pilcher mentions, as she is well-known in the conservation community for her persistence in promoting the benefits of WRP in Rutland County.

WRP also helps restore active floodplains along creeks and rivers, aids in flood control and improves water quality by restoring environmentally sensitive, frequently flooded cropland back to permanent vegetation. The WRP program along the Otter Creek contributed to flood mitigation during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, benefiting landowners throughout the watershed. Water flow data collected at U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gauging stations along the Otter Creek show significant flood mitigation due to the capacity of wetlands in the floodplain to hold and dissipate flood waters. For more information on this topic, please view a video report created by the Vermont Conservation Law Foundation on the anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, http://action.clf.org/site/PageNavigator/hurricane_irene_anniversary.html.

When a property is enrolled in WRP, the landowner retains ownership, while agreeing to restore and manage a certain portion of the land as wetlands. Program participants voluntarily restrict agricultural and other activities for compatibility with the wetland management, but retain title, quiet enjoyment, recreational uses, access control and water rights not necessary for wetland management.
Since 1992, 11,000 landowners have voluntarily restored 2.3 million acres of wetlands through WRP nationwide. 2,340 wetland acres have been restored and 3,493 acres conserved here in Vermont.

For more information about the program and its success, download the recently released publication Restoring America’s Wetlands: A Private Lands Conservation Success Story.

Click here for map of the Route 73 WRP cluster in Vermont

Images provided by Roy Pilcher, Rutland County Audubon:

A Pied-Billed Grebe seen nesting in a wetland protected under the NRCS Wetland Reserve Program

A Pied-Billed Grebe seen nesting in a wetland protected under the NRCS Wetland Reserve Program