Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge
IUCN category IV (habitat/species management area)
View of the Shawangunk Ridge from within the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge.
|Location||Shawangunk, Ulster, New York, United States|
|Area||0.84 sq mi (2.2 km2)|
|Named for||schawan, Dutch transliteration of Munsee Lenape for "in the smoky air"|
|Governing body||U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service|
|Website||Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge|
The Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge is a wildlife refuge located in Ulster County, New York, United States. Formerly the Galeville Military Airport, it was decommissioned in 1994 and turned over to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999. It serves as a waypoint for grassland-dependent migratory birds.
The 565-acre (229 ha) refuge first became federal property in the early 1940s, when the Army bought what was then swampland and filled it in with soil from the nearby flood plains to build Galeville Army Air Field to train pilots as a result of World War II. It stopped using the field years after the war, in the early 1970s and in later years it would be used by the nearby United States Military Academy. FBI agents also trained there. as did the U.S. Marshals Service.
In 1994 the Department of Defense decided it no longer needed the property. Five years later, it was conveyed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which had wanted to protect the land as one of the state's top ten areas for grassland-dependent migratory birds. It is today managed as a subunit of the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge, 35 miles (56 km) to the south.
The Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge is situated in the central portion of the town of Shawangunk, closer to the hamlet of Wallkill than Walker Valley. It is a roughly rectangular parcel that sits slightly west of the Wallkill River, just north of the crest of the divide between it and its tributary Shawangunk Kill, itself a relatively unspoiled stream and important habitat the FWS has been working to protect. The site is roughly bounded by Hoagerburgh Road (Ulster County 18) on the west, Albany Post Road (Ulster County 9) on the east, Long Lane (Ulster County 18A) on the north and Bates Lane to the south. Public access is provided near the southwest corner, off Hoagerburgh.
The central area of the property, the former airport, is bounded on all sides by woodland and shrubland (except for a small corridor around the main public access road) which makes up 165 acres (66 ha) of the total. The 400 acres (160 ha) that account for the core grassland also boast the former airport's 3,500-foot–long (1,067 m) runways and equivalent taxiways, taking up about 30 acres (12 ha) along the southern and western bounds of the grasslands. From this open space, it is possible to see the Shawangunk Ridge to the west.
Like much of the Hudson Valley, the Shawangunk Grasslands show the signs of glaciation during the last Ice Age, even though they were created much more recently through human action. The topsoil in the grasslands contains a high level of clay, which forms a barrier to most water filtering downward. Throughout the entire refuge, the water table is at least 3 feet (1 m) below the surface. Frequent freezing and melting during the winter results in pit-and-hummock topography throughout much of the refuge.
Ecology and biology
The grasslands created by the airport's construction are one of only two such locations in the region that can support the 12 species of birds dependent on them. Some of them, according to the FWS, need at least 10–20 acres (4.0–8.1 ha), per nesting pair. 190 bird species, 58 of which breed there, have been documented in the refuge.
The Shawangunk Grasslands are especially important to these grassland-dependent species:
- Eastern meadowlark
- Grasshopper sparrow
- Horned lark
- Northern harrier
- Savannah sparrow
- Short-eared owl
- Upland sandpiper
- Henslow’s sparrow
In addition several hawk and falcon species (not grassland-dependent) have been seen at the site, and black-billed cuckoo and wood thrush have been nesting in the woodland portions. Non-bird species that have settled into the habitat include several turtle species, small-mouthed bass and sunfish in the one small pond on the site and white-tailed deer in the woodlands.
The FWS has also been alerted to the possibility that Indiana bats, a federal endangered species, may be exploiting opportunities provided by the refuge. A hibernaculum of 30,000 bats has been reported 18 miles (29 km) to the northeast, and there is evidence that some have roosted closer to the refuge. The agency has been monitoring the refuge to see if any Indiana bats have begun to use dead trees as roosting sites or begin to forage on the site.
While the refuge is protected primarily for the bird life, several rare or uncommon plant species have also been found in the grasslands, where Kentucky bluegrass is the dominant species Frank's sedge, small-flowered agrimony, purple milkweed, small white aster, Bush's sedge, coontail and watermeal. A few tree species, such as white ash, American elm, eastern red cedar, and pin oak, also flourish in those sections. The woodlands on the periphery are dominated by several oak species, red maple, sugar maple, shagbark hickory and tulip trees.
The grasslands have also been inviting for several invasive species, most notably purple loosestrife, mugwort and gray dogwood. FWS's mowing and other grassland-preservation efforts are aimed at removing or controlling those species.
In 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service finished its first final Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Shawangunk Grasslands. Its primary goal in managing the area is to preserve and, where possible, extend the existing grassland. By mowing, deshrubbing and continuing to work with local farmers who are allowed to graze animals on the land and hay it under special use permits, it hopes to maintain a diverse enough selection of grasses for all species. Similarly, one mature tree per 10 acres (4 ha) of grassland will be maintained for predatory bird species.
In the longer term, FWS plans to create up to 30 acres (12 ha) of additional grassland by removing the runway pavement and restoring the original cover. An 8-foot (2 m) wide strip of concrete would be left for use as a public trail. While grasses are already beginning to grow through cracks in the runways, the agency would prefer not to wait as aircraft continue to make illegal landings at the refuge, disturbing the birds, despite markings on the runways themselves and on aviation charts of the area indicating that the facility is closed. It has not yet determined how this will be done in the most environmentally sensitive fashion. Similarly, it hopes to restore the original stream pattern through the property by removing the culverts and other reroutings made during construction of the airfield.
Since the woodlands surrounding the grasslands cannot be converted into grasslands, FWS will maintain them as such. The 26 acres (10 ha) of grass and shrublands within the woods, which also have become important habitat, will be allowed to return to woodland.
FWS has also committed itself to exploring a number of ways to control the invasive plant species in the refuge, such as herbicides, releasing beetle and weevil species that feed on the invaders and annual prescribed burns in addition to the methods it already employs. Its goal is to reduce their presence to less than 10% of the refuge within 10 years.
Some of its employees have expressed concerns about whether any pollutants might be left over from previous military use of the site, particularly around a communications center demolished in 1973. While the agency does not presently believe there is any cause for concern, it will be monitoring the situation and plans an environmental assessment.
The FWS has credited other organizations, public and private, with helping it to fulfill its goals for the refuge. The former is represented by its state-level counterpart, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), which has shared data with it, participated in the planning process and works with local communities to protect wildlife habitat. Among the latter, the local and state Audubon Society chapters advocated strongly for the area's protection, since the society had declared the airport site an Important Bird Area in 1998. Other organizations have played supporting roles by helping to perform management tasks and raising awareness. There is a Friends of Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge, which was formed in 2017. This refuge is staffed by two FWS volunteers.
While the refuge is easily accessible to the public, activities within it are strictly limited to those that are wildlife-dependent: walking, nature photography, birdwatching and, in winter, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Jogging is not allowed, nor is any activity that would bring other animals (such as dogs or horses) or motorized vehicles into the area, since that would likely disturb the nesting birds. All visitors must remain on the paved roads, parking areas, trails or the observation platform. The refuge is open sunrise to sunset year-round.
Among the motorized vehicles banned from the refuge as are radio-controlled aircraft and drones. Model airplane enthusiasts, who took to the site and its abandoned runways before it was transferred to FWS, had hoped to continue to be allowed to do so under its management. Many of them wrote in with public comments favoring their hobby, saying wild birds and model airplanes could indeed coexist as they had for 30 years of model aviation at the former airport. While eventually 90% of the comments that addressed it supported model airplaning, FWS did not believe that it was compatible with the goal of preserving a safe habitat for the birds, and officially banned it. Academy of Model Aeronautics president Carl Maroney charged that the agency had made up its mind before soliciting public input. Three years later, the controversy had still not faded as Eastern U.S. Free Flight Conference president Robert Langelius told Congress that the USFWS had been "completely intransigent" and that many enthusiasts had given up the sport for lack of available space.
FWS was also criticized by animal rights groups for its decision to allow bowhunting of deer on the refuge during the state season in the fall, the only hunting it decided was compatible with the refuge's mission. Most bowhunters, it responded, will be using tree stands on the perimeter and will only need to enter the site briefly to retrieve any kills. It will be administered under a special fee permit system. Catch-and-Release Fishing will also be permitted in the refuge's pond, but it will not be stocked although it may be expanded if it proves to be a popular enough activity.
Currently, the agency estimates the refuge receives about 20,000 visitors a year, contributing $257,840 to the local economy. The FWS also makes annual revenue sharing payments to the town at various amounts between $2–3,000 a year. Most visitors have been birdwatchers, many drawn by the chance to watch the short-eared owl, one of the few owls that hunt in daylight. Ultimately the agency hopes to provide a more complete trail system, possibly connecting to an adjacent 55-acre (22 ha) town park and allowing better wildlife viewing. It would like to expand the current parking area and provide an interior contact point for the public, with one employee at the refuge at all times.
- "Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge, Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP), Chapter 3" (PDF)., (701 KiB) 3-8, retrieved July 17, 2007.
- "History". Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge. Archived from the original on 2007-05-27. Retrieved 2007-07-18.
- Rothbaum, Rebecca; June 20, 2002; "Wildlife lives on in Shawangunk Grasslands Archived 2004-06-14 at Archive.today"; Poughkeepsie Journal; retrieved July 18, 2007.
- CCP, 3-6. "The recent past of the refuge has included a history as a farm field, use as an airport, and a role as a training location for U. S. Marshals."
- "Grassland Management". Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Archived from the original on 2007-05-27. Retrieved 2007-07-18.
...[T]he refuge has marshaled significant resources to mow, brush-hog, and Hydro-Ax the refuge's primary grassland area to restore and maintain a grass-dominated plant community.
- Shawangunk Kill, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, retrieved from training.fws.gov, July 21, 2007. "The Shawangunk Kill is a relatively undisturbed Hudson River tributary. Its low nutrient levels, cool water, and lack of a major water control structure allow the lower Shawangunk Kill to support a regionally rare biological community."
- CCP, 3-15. "More than 141 species of birds, including 58 breeding species, have been documented."
- CCP, 3-17.
- "CCP Chapter 4: Management Direction and Implementation" (PDF). (805 KiB), 4-19; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, retrieved July 17, 2007. "136 acres of the refuge are composed of woodland or shrubland in transition to woodland, which cannot be converted effectively to grassland habitat. Black-billed cuckoo and wood thrush are declining species that nest in these small woodland patches."
- CCP, 3-14.
- CCP, 3-11, 3-12. "However, in August 2005 we learned from our Ecological Service’s New York Field Office that a hibernaculum of 30,000 Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis), a Federal endangered species, lies in Ulster County 18 miles to the northeast of the refuge. In addition, there is documented summer roosting by these bats nine miles to the north and south of the refuge. This new information indicates that the refuge could provide potential roosting and foraging habitat for these bats since they appear to be in the vicinity ... We will continue to work with our New York Field Office to obtain the latest information on where bats are located, and to assess the implications to our refuge management."
- CCP, 4-14. "Approximately 400 acres of the refuge is composed of grassland dominated by Kentucky bluegrass."
- CCP, 3-12. "Stevens documented one of the most noteworthy, Frank's sedge (Carex frankii), which is ranked endangered by the NYSDEC and S1 by the New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) (Stevens 1992). Stevens also documented small-flowered agrimony (Agrimonia parviflora), purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), small white aster (Aster vimineus), Bush's sedge (Carex bushii), coontail (Ceratophyllum echinatum), and watermeal (Wolffia brazilinsis).
- CCP, 4-10. "Our goal will be to create a diverse mosaic of grassland habitat structure capable of sustaining the full complement of grassland-dependent birds during all seasons. We will manage the various grassland structural types (short, medium, tall) as a shifting mosaic over time. We will also increase the available grasslands by up to 30 acres through the restoration of the asphalt and concrete runways and taxiways."
- CCP, 4-10 through 4-15.
- CCP, 4-16. "In the mosaic of grasslands, maintain scattered mature trees (1 tree /10 ac) for wintering raptor hunting and roosting perches."
- CCP, 4-17 and 4-18. "Altering the pavement is also an essential step to eliminating illegal landings and low-altitude overflights by small airplanes, which are highly disturbing to breeding birds. The current sectional aeronautical chart for the area indicates that the runways on the refuge are closed, and markings on the runways communicate this closure to pilots flying overhead ... We have not fully developed our restoration plan as we continue to explore options for recycling the asphalt and concrete.
- CCP, 4-20, 4-21.
- CCP, 3-9, 10.
- "Site Profile: Shawangunk Grasslands". Audubon Society. Archived from the original on August 20, 2007. Retrieved July 21, 2007..
- CCP, 4-5. "We will continue to prohibit the walking of pets, jogging, bicycling, riding horses, driving all-terrain vehicles, model airplane flying and competitions, and the touching down, taking off, or acrobatic flying of aircraft on the refuge ... We have observed the activity disturbing wildlife to a greater degree than impacts generated from visitors who's [sic] purpose is to watch or photograph wildlife"
- CCP, 4-9. "We will open the refuge for public use from 1 hour before official sunrise to 1 hour after official sunset, seven days a week, to ensure visitor safety and protect refuge resources."
- Brooks, Paul; Wayne Hall (February 24, 2002). "Birds and toy planes won't mix at refuge". Times-Herald Record. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
'We are shocked,' said Carl P. Maroney, special services director for the Indiana-based academy. 'The decision seems almost like a done deal from day one.'
- Langelius Sr., Robert (May 21, 2005). "Response to Letter of May 5, 2005 Questions from Rep. Wayne Gilchrest Reference Hearing May 26, 2005" (pdf). Retrieved May 29, 2009.[dead link]
- "Stop Bow Hunting in National Wildlife Refuge". Retrieved 2007-07-21.
- "Appendix I: Summary and Response to Public Comments" (PDF)., retrieved July 23, 2009.
- CCP, 4-6.
- CCP, 4-29
- Hall, Wayne (December 28, 2004). "Wintering owls take to the skies at dusk". Times-Herald Record. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
- CCP, maps 4-1 and 4-2, pages 4-11, 12. Also see text at 4-24, 25 and 26.
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