Chief, Division of Habitat Conservation, Chesapeake Bay Field Office
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program
Although Dan Murphy has been working on habitat conservation at the heart of the Chesapeake Bay watershed from the Service’s Annapolis-based field office since 2003, he has been paying increasing attention to something happening in another watershed in recent years. In the spring of 2016, a team of conservation partners representing non-governmental organizations and state and federal agencies completed an 18-month effort to develop a landscape conservation design for the Connecticut River watershed based on shared goals and the best available science.
Called Connect the Connecticut, the final design provides a roadmap for stakeholders in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut to identify the best starting places for conservation — areas in the watershed that partners agree should be priorities to ensure that important species, habitats, and natural processes will be sustained into the future, even in the face of climate and land-use change.
Road map for conservation
For Murphy, it provides a road map to carry out a similar effort closer to home: a landscape conservation design for the Patuxent River watershed in Maryland. By the time the Connect the Connecticut effort was wrapping up in May, a team of 50 partners from 20 public and private conservation organizations in the Patuxent region had followed the lead of the pilot project in New England to lay the groundwork for their own design, with Murphy leading the charge.
While Connect the Connecticut provided a framework for the modeling approach and partnership process, conservation objectives are not necessarily transferable between geographies. So the partners involved in the Patuxent effort agreed to their own set of shared goals and objectives, and began to identify sources of information that could help them get there.
“We were just starting to look for other datasets to use when Nature’s Network was completed,” said Murphy.
Now, he said, they have exactly what they were looking for. “None of the information we have worked with before was based on the degree of collaborative, careful, in-depth analysis as has gone into these products.”
Moving the needle
As part of the Service’s Coastal Program, which focuses on habitat conservation and restoration on public and private lands, Murphy explained, “I spend most of my time protecting land.”
One approach for doing so is to work with willing landowners and conservation partners to expand upon the existing boundaries of a National Wildlife Refuge in order to achieve measurable objectives for fish, wildlife, and habitat.
In order to achieve objectives, you need to identify them, and then figure out exactly what actions will move the needle forward. You need a plan. “Around 2011, the concept of landscape conservation design came up as a way of justifying a Refuge expansion,” said Murphy.
In 2014, the Service released a new Strategic Growth Policy for National Wildlife Refuges, which identified landscape conservation design as a means of satisfying the mandatory scientific criteria for considering an addition to the Refuge System, including population objectives for key species, and priority areas that contribute to measurable targets, all determined in collaboration with conservation partners.
When partners interested in the potential expansion of the Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland got together in 2015 to talk about next steps. “We had an inkling we would have to do a landscape conservation design, but we didn’t really know what that meant,” said Murphy, “But we knew there was a pilot in progress in the Connecticut River watershed, so we decided to wait for that to finish before moving forward.”
Technical support for landscape planning
Now building upon lessons learned from Connect the Connecticut, and equipped with regionally consistent information and tools from Nature’s Network, the Patuxent Waters Conservation Area Landscape Conservation Design is underway, and underwritten by the regional conservation community. All county government agencies within the LCD boundary are engaged in the work, have agreed to staff the project team, and are invested in using the resulting information to guide decisions made in their jurisdictions.
But planning at the landscape scale requires information at the landscape scale, and that’s where the Nature’s Network products offer unprecedented insight.
“We have a lot of great datasets from states, but we have never had access to resources that reflect this level of analysis, modeling, and discussion among partners across an entire landscape,” said Murphy. “This will help us prioritize and target on the ground conservation protecting and restoring the most important habitats throughout our area.”
Foundation for conservation design
Murphy and his team are using Nature’s Network as a foundation from which to compare different datasets and identify gaps as they build out their conservation design. Murphy pointed out that several of the priority species that partners identified for the Patuxent design aren’t among those whose habitat requirements are incorporated into Nature’s Network.
“We will use our own information for locally important species to make sure their needs are covered in the design.” For example, to represent the full range of needs of floodplain species, they are adding data on spotted turtle to complement the data on Louisiana woodthrush that is part of the Nature’s Network package.
“What’s great about Nature’s Network is that it’s all in one place,” said Murphy. “It makes it easy to look at the data, download shapefiles, and overlay it with what we have.”
When doing so, Murphy has found what he expected, and more. “If someone had asked me to outline where the best stuff is located, I probably would have come up with something that looks a lot like the terrestrial cores and connectors,” he said, adding, “I think it does a good job of showing what’s left that can be protected, and what can be restored.”