Restoring Habitat on the Lower Connecticut River

An elm replanted by The Nature Conservancy (Credit: CT Examiner/Werth)


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LYME — Standing in the middle of Lord Cove, on the edge of the Connecticut River, you can see thousands of salt marsh bulrushes poking up through the muck everywhere, a plant that has appeared on the Connecticut and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Rare Species lists for more than 40 years.

“It’s hard to find it anywhere in the state, but here it’s coming back in abundance,” said Richard Snarski, a wetland consultant, resident of Lyme and a large part of the reason that the bulrush have returned.

In 1971, Lord Cove was designated a place of international importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. It is the largest tidal marsh in the lower Connecticut River and when filled with native plants is a great habitat for waterfowl like egrets and herons.

But five years ago, when Snarski purchased a large camp property on Lord Cove, the area was overwhelmed with European phragmites 12 feet tall. Counting neighboring properties, there were 220 acres of a solid monoculture. Phragmites is an invasive plant that thrives in the marsh and meadow lands along the Connecticut River. Phragmites can outcompete native plants and in the process make it impossible for waterfowl to land and nest.

Richard Snarski on his Lord Cove Property (Credit: CT Examiner/Werth)

“When phragmites comes in solid they overtake the native plants. You lose biodiversity which has cross effects on wildlife and waterfowls,” Snarski said. “It displaces native plants and different wildlife species.”

The State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) has been involved with invasive wetland plant control for more than 20 years, said Roger Wolfe a wetland restoration biologist for the DEEP.

Inconsistent efforts

“We did start work out there [in Lord Cove] 17 years ago…but then the funding dried up and for a good eight years nobody touched it,” Wolfe said. “So the phragmites comes back. Especially in those river systems, it all came back.”

Funding typically does not last for one particular area longer than two to three years so whatever progress is made is lost.

Snarski, who has spent the last 30 years raising native wetland plants, decided to make eradicating the phragmites and restoring the natural habitat of Lord Cove his mission.

Phragmites sprouting back (Credit: CT Examiner/Werth)

Snarski, with his wife Laurie Snarski, the Connecticut River Gateway Commission, the Nature Conservancy, Connecticut Fish and Wildlife Services and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection formed a coalition to eradicate the phragmites. Beginning in 2017, they sprayed herbicide and mowed down the stalks with a machine called the marsh master. Now at the start of the third year, they are at about a 98 percent kill.

“It’s really nice to see the ecosystem change back,” Snarski said.

To complete this project the coalition has received contributions from the Connecticut Gateway Commission and the Nature Conservancy totaling close to $50,000. John Prichard of the Lyme Land Trust also helped to raise money through fundraising efforts.

This year instead of using a marsh master, Snarski will go out with Wolfe from DEEP in July and August to individually wipe each phragmites plant with an herbicide called imazapyr which halts amino acid production inside the individual plant. This kills the phragmites while leaving native plants intact.

“It’s going to be a minor effort compared to previous years, but you need to do it. Otherwise, the phragmites will just come back,” Snarski said. Lord Cove has been sprayed in the past, but when there is no follow up maintenance, the phragmites will quickly take over again.

A new fee for boaters

The same is true for several other invasive species in and alongside the Connecticut River. The Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Government (RiverCOG) currently operates several programs to keep invasive plants like the water chestnut under control.

“If you get them early and take care of them before they become a problem it is a lot less costly and you can actually do something about them,” said Margot Burns, an environmental planner for RiverCOG. “If you let it go for two to three years, then you have a real issue.”

Most recently, RiverCOG has identified that there are hydrilla in the river, one of the most difficult to control of all aquatic invasives according to Cornell Extension.

RiverCOG has applied for an environmental review team report from the Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development to help the twelve towns adjoining the river in the region to determine how much hydrilla is present and how to move forward, said Burns.

This week the legislature sent a bill aimed at fighting invasive species and preserving Connecticut’s lakes, ponds and rivers to Governor Ned Lamont’s desk.

The bill would require Connecticut residents to pay $5, and out-of-state residents to pay $25, to offset costs for the removal of invasive plants and animals from Connecticut’s waterways. The fee is supported by State Sen. Norm Needleman.

“Supported by numerous environmental groups and boating and lake associations, this legislation will provide much-needed funding to address the growing issue of aquatic invasive species in our ponds, rivers and lakes,” said Needleman. “Collected funds will be deposited into the Connecticut Lakes, Rivers and Ponds Preservation Fund for programming to eradicate aquatic invasive species, education and public outreach programs, and provide grants to conduct research and education on managing these bodies of water. I am pleased to see it pass the Senate.”

Burns and RiverCOG hailed the new funding.

“Protecting our regional economy of public recreation in regards to boating, fishing, and swimming is dependent on our ability to maintain water quality of the highest standards and healthy wildlife habitats,” said Burns. Funding is necessary to research, survey, plan and execute responses to invasive species in Connecticut waterways, she said.

A gradual approach

Meanwhile Snarski has expanded his efforts to the upland invasive plants like multiflora rose, Morrow’s honeysuckle, bittersweet, barberry and Japanese stiltgrass. These plants have transformed the coastal forests neighboring the meadows and marshes.  

Snarski – with another $6,000 grant from the Gateway Commission – hired a contractor to mow and chop up the invasive plants in order to expose the native plant seeds to sunlight and encourage growth.

Operating a Marsh Master (Credit: CT Examiner/Werth)

“We are saving native plants as best we can and mowing everything else,” Snarski said. Once mowed, the invasive plants will return in about three months. That’s when Snarski will spray herbicide, but only on a small section.

Clearing entire landscapes can have consequences for other species, in this case the close-to-endangered New England cottontail rabbit.  

“That’s the dilemma, people have gotten to understand that invasives are bad, and sometimes it’s really hard to talk them down to not do it all at once. People feel like we are sending mixed messages,” said Lisa Wahle, a contractor to the Wildlife Management Institute at DEEP.

Instead of removing all invasive upland plants that create wonderful habitat for the New England cottontail rabbit, they must be removed over the course of years.

“As much as Rich hates invasive plants, he’s been pretty good about managing the bunny issue,” Wahle said. “You simply can’t go ask the rabbit to sit under a rock for five years while the native shrubs grow back.”

The native upland plants also create thickets for the endangered New England cottontail rabbit, but it takes time. Once mowed it will take two to three years before the thickets are really viable rabbit habitat. The New England cottontail has been completely wiped out of Rhode Island and much of Eastern Connecticut, so preserving what little habitat they do have left is important.

“It is still an uphill battle, this bunny is not out of the woods,” Wahle said.

Restored landscape (Credit: CT Examiner/Werth)

Elm trees, which were entirely wiped out of Eastern Connecticut by dutch elm disease, are also finding a home in Lord Cove. The Nature Conservancy planted twenty disease-resistant elm trees along the riverbank last year and will be planting twenty more this spring.

“This is what the area looked like in the sixties,” Snarski has heard from longtime residents, meadows with just a few trees, rabbit briars and elms.