New York State
Ornithological Association

For the birders and birds of the Empire State

ConservationPosted 7/7/09
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Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge
Gail Kirch, NYSOA Conservation Committee
Published in the October 2008 issue of NY Birders

Short-eared Owl

One of the jobs of the NYSOA Conservation Committee is to write position papers to agencies that oversee public lands in NYS. Both the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have to submit Draft Management Plans for the public to see and comment on. In January 2006, the US Fish & Wildlive Service (USFWS) released a draft of their 15 year management plan for the Shawangunk (pronounced "SHAWN-gum") Grasslands NWR, a satellite of the Wallkill River NWR. This grassland is in southern Ulster County. The Shawangunk Grasslands is one of the most important nesting sites for grassland dependent birds in NYS. It also serves as a migratory destination / stop-over for grassland dependent birds.

This refuge comprises approximately 430 acres of grassland bounded by about 130 acres of shrubs and hardwood forest. The grasslands were created during WWII when the military filled in a wetland to make airstrips. It was known under the name of the Galesville Airport. When the military stopped using the airstrips, mowing and grazing livestock kept the shrubs and trees from growing, thus maintaining the area as grassland. In 1999 the ownership was transferred to USFWS. NYSOA, then the Federation of NYS Bird Clubs, supported this transfer.

The Draft Plan presented in 2006 presented several options. One would let the area return to woodlands. NYSOA strongly rejected this option. The plan NYSOA favored supported the management of the area as grassland and included the removal of the air strips. Four hundred plus acres is large enough to support a variety of grassland dependent species. Many of these species are declining, even disappearing from NYS as their habitat is disappearing and being replaced with homes, shopping centers and woodlands. Some species which are considered Endangered, Threatened or Species of Special Concern are Short-eared Owl, Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, Henslow's, Grasshopper, Vesper and Savannah sparrows, Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark — all found at the Shawangunk Refuge. We urged the USFWS to remove the runways with as little disruption as possible, to use herbicides judiciously, to allow bow, not gun, hunting of deer and to restore the natural hydrology which the military had filled in for runways. All of these positions were adopted in the final Comprehensive Conservation Plan.

Visitors to the Refuge in November or December are apt to see Short-eared Owls, Black Vultures, Northern Harrier, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon. In November there are migrating passerine species that favor grassland habitat The refuge is located in the valley below the Shawangunk Mountains near Wallkill. For directions visit the USFWS website.

Read the Shawangunk Grasslands NWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan.

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