Nature Conservancy links ecosystems, yard by yard

Claudia and Steve Ewing stand in front of a hibernaculum in their Edgartown yard. — Photo courtesy of Brian Lawlor

Why not in my backyard?

When it comes to our local environment, one Martha’s Vineyard property owner can truly can make a difference. And The Nature Conservancy (TNC) wants to show people how, by looking no farther than the flora and fauna on their own property.

The Vineyard Habitat Network is a new TNC program based on the principle that all of the Island’s ecosystem is interconnected. The Nature Conservancy wants to encourage Islanders to think of their own land as a link in the Islandwide chain, and take responsibility for stewardship of their property, no matter where they are situated.

The goal of the program is to better connect the Island’s habitats to mitigate or abate the effects of habitat fragmentation, according to Brian Lawlor, TNC program manager. “The Island has all this wonderful globally rare and significant habitat, but it has been carved up by roads and development,” he said. “When patches get broken up the risk for extinction gets higher and higher.”

That’s the bad news. But the good news is that the harmful effects of development can be offset.

An introduction posted on the Nature Conservancy website describes the changes that are possible. “Our science tells us that some small changes in how properties are managed can enhance populations of desirable wildlife, reduce the strain on our ponds and bays, offer new resources to migratory species and turn barriers into bridges for wildlife seeking to move around Martha’s Vineyard.”

The Habitat Network program offers consulting services to those who want to help make a difference. “A lot of people want to do the right thing but don’t really know what the right thing is,” said TNC restoration ecologist, Matt Pelikan. “The idea is to match the expertise with people that are interested.”

About 40 people so far have participated in the program which was launched in February.

“A staff member meets with the landowner and assesses where their property fits into the Vineyard ecosystem,” Mr. Pelikan said. After a tour, Mr. Lawlor or another expert help identify things that both positively and negatively impact the environment. They then present recommendations for individual initiatives, both large and small.

Mr. Pelikan explained that the program came about as the result of an analysis of the likely effects of climate change on Vineyard ecology, which was conducted three years ago. “When you put in a new road, you interrupt natural systems,” he said, “The breaking up of habitat can interact synergistically with climate change to stress natural systems.”

Habitat fragmentation occurs when any natural landscape is altered in a way that causes discontinuity. Plants and animals may become isolated on smaller plots of land and their natural growth and spread inhibited. And it’s not just housing, roads, concrete and cleared land that can break up the natural flow. Fields of crops are one impediment to contiguous ecosystems, while mowed lawns are another.

“Ceasing to mow a piece of your lawn produces habitat structure that attracts insects,” Mr. Pelikan said.

A close-cropped lawn also provides poor storage for storm water, according to Mr. Lawlor. “Mowing increases the amount of surface runoff on a lawn,” he said. He suggests that homeowners mow grass higher and less extensively and allow some areas to go wild.

Introducing or encouraging native plants, and working towards eliminating invasive species is another easy and inexpensive prescriptive. This past September the Nature Conservancy hosted a potluck and distributed several hundred native plants. Mr. Lawlor is hoping that program participants will be encouraged to foster helpful local genetic species and share plants with others.

Providing a welcoming environment for a number of different wildlife species can have positive effects for both homeowner and the Island’s ecosystem. For example, snakes are very helpful for controlling rodents and other pests. However, according to Mr. Pelikan, their presence on the Island has diminished, in part due to the lethal potential of slithering across roads to access shelter. People can provide hibernacula (hibernation refuge) for snakes by creating underground rock pits.

By installing a screech owl box property owners can invite another rodent hunter to their land. Earlier this year, TNC recruited the high school shop class to build about 40 screech owl boxes which were distributed to homeowners.

Introducing water sources is another way to attract and assist wildlife. Availability of fresh water is a limiting factor for lots of populations, Mr. Pelikan said. However, manmade water features are often designed for aesthetics alone.

“A lot of water features are built for human use, not constructed in a way that’s best for wildlife,” Mr. Lawlor said. “There’s often a steep slope and a plastic hard liner. A steep drop-off does not provide a shallow, gentle edge to access the water.”

Things like location and how a water feature is designed can promote the introduction of different species, like dragonflies or bats, according to Mr. Lawlor.

Sharon Britton of West Tisbury signed up for a consultation. Among other things that she was made aware of growing on her property was trailing arbutus, the Massachusetts state flower.

“It’s one of the first things to blossom and it’s a really important food source for the bees in the spring,” Ms. Britton said. Other helpful plants that were pointed out to her were relatively rare partridge erries and bayberries, which she notes are a high-quality food for birds. “If you learn to appreciate these things you’ll respect them,” she said.

She also discovered that dead wood piled up on the edge of her land is a great source for birds. “All my neglect is actually a good thing,” she said. Since the inspection, Ms. Britton has installed a screech owl box and is planning to put out some terra cotta pots for bee nesting areas. She also set up a mound of woodchips near her garden.

“That’s really good for snakes,” she said, “I don’t mind snakes. They eat slugs.”

Ms. Britton is enthusiastic about the program’s potential. “They’re trying to get people like me — an average homeowner — to better know what’s on our property and be a steward of it,” she said. “It’s about becoming more aware of what is there and trying to build this kind of network of people that then become a support for each other.”

Commenting on the changes she has made on her relatively small piece of property, she said, “I don’t think it’s going to make a huge difference, but if enough people do it, it might.”

To find out more, or to schedule a consultation, contact Brian Lawlor at 508-693-6287, ext. 11 or