Grassland Restoration: How it Began
Grassland Restoration started as an effort by concerned Island residents to reclaim bird habitat and has evolved into a model for restoration and successful invasive species management in an eastern grassland. The broad-based Fishers Island Bird Habitat Committee formed in 2009, developing a long-range strategy to protect the Island’s grasslands and reclaim them as bird habitat.
The Conservancy took the lead in 2010, when its board signed a three-year contract with the Fishers Island Ferry District to restore, preserve and maintain West End grasslands, including the Parade Grounds, Race Point, South Beach and Elizabeth Airport. Southold owns the land.
Initially, massive amounts of stone, concrete and invasive growth had to be removed. Much of the land had been overtaken by invasive plants, such as autumn olive, non-native honeysuckles, porcelain berry, oriental bittersweet and kudzu, which were threatening the Island’s ability to produce food and habitat for birds and other wildlife. The plan was to remove the invasive plants and replace them with grasses and shrubs that birds could use to build nests and forage for food.
By the end of 2013, the Conservancy had managed to establish one or two species of grass in both the airport and Parade Grounds, but invasive plants were winning the battle in too many areas, outcompeting other plants for space, water and nutrients. Although establishing grasses is key, grasslands consist of much more than just species of grass. You need a diversity of grasses, forbs (flowering herbaceous plants), shrubs and trees to attract an insect community, which in turn, feeds the birds. The more kinds of plants you have, the more diversity of food there is in the landscape for insects, birds, and other wildlife. This wasn’t something that was known by the public until the publishing of Dr. Douglas Tallamay‘s book, Bringing Nature Home.
Longtime Island resident and conservationist Joe Henderson happened to read Dr. Tallamy’s book in 2014 and was struck with a new understanding of grassland restoration. He immediately called Dr. Tallamy, a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, to ask if he would consult with the Conservancy on invasive plant removal and strategies to return native wildlife to the Island. Dr. Tallamy was interested in Fishers Island because it is an island and not prey to creeping invasives from adjacent townships. Also, when invasive plants are removed from the Island, the only way these plants can return is if members of the community bring them back, either by ferry or by plane.
The Conservancy agreed to fund a graduate student, Adam Mitchell, under the tutelage of Dr. Tallamy, to assess the health of the grassland and help fulfill objectives. From 2014-2017, while Adam pursued his doctorate, he monitored the progress of the restoration by sampling the plant, insect and bird communities. The Grassland Restoration project is now in the tremendously challenging stage of maintenance and exists as encouragement from the Conservancy to the Fishers Island community to wage the ongoing battle against invasive plants and be vigilant about removing them from their own properties.
By Adam Mitchell, Associate Wildlife Biologist®
PhD Candidate, Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, University of Delaware