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Paradigm of Change

By Anne Raver

This article first appeared in our WildfloraRI Fall 2021

One hot, humid day in September 2020, the team of volunteers at the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown were awaiting a backhoe to dig the swales for the demonstration gardens they were building around the rustic cabin that serves as the refuge’s contact center. The backhoe never showed up, so they took up their shovels and moved the dirt by hand.  “With masks on, it was brutal,” recalled Mark Cordle, a RIWPS member and URI Master Gardener, who co-leads the project with Nick Ernst, USFWS wildlife biologist. Nick manages Trustom as well as the four other refuges within the RI National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

The volunteers laid down corrugated cardboard, soaked it, then shaped the mounds of soil — 15 cubic yards delivered from nearby Highland Farms. Janis Nepshinsky, who manages visitor services and outreach for the complex, purchased the weed-free soil and contributed earthmoving equipment. “Then we planted about 250 plants of 30 species in two days,” said Mark.

Group touring the restoration sites at Trustom Pond (photo ARaver)

A year later, a group of us from RIWPS were walking around the garden. Bumblebees nuzzled the yellow sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and white boneset thoroughwort (Eupatorium perfoliatum) still blooming in the rain garden. The garden now features close to 40 native species, including the sassafras and witch hazel already there and a beautiful old shadbush transplanted from nearby. Most of the plants were grown from seed collected from Kettle Pond.

That September afternoon, Dave Vissoe, who helped create this garden, leaned over a wavy-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum undulatum) eaten down to a nub by deer and nodded toward the white wood asters (Eurybia divaricata) next to the shadbush (Amelanchier sp.). “We’re hoping the wood asters will spread into the woods,” he said, gesturing to the trees to the north. But deer love asters of all kinds, so the team sprays them regularly with nontoxic repellents. On the other hand, broadleaved mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) and the goldenrods are unpalatable to deer, so these were flourishing.

The plants are labeled, so as I watched a bumblebee on a goldenrod, I could identify the species — wreath goldenrod (Solidago caesia) — and remember how its tiny yellow flowers cluster in the leaf axils of the arching stems. I also studied how rocks were laid in a lined trench beneath the downspout that directs water off the cabin roof into the swales of the rain garden, where cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus), and other moisture-loving species were planted.

Dave had learned a bit about collecting seeds and propagating native plants from Hope Leeson, when she ran Rhody Native, an initiative of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. He picked up the art of winter sowing from Peggy Buttenbaum, who has taught us how to turn plastic containers into mini-greenhouses. By the fall of 2018 the gardens at Kettle Pond were producing a bonanza of seeds — so volunteers collected them for winter sowing.  “We laid out a tarp in one of the classrooms, so we didn’t get potting soil everywhere,” said Dave. The volunteers poked holes in the plastic containers, planted the seeds, and took them home to sprout outdoors.  They then re-potted the thousands of resulting seedlings in Dave’s backyard and set them in an old dog pen no longer used his Jack Russells.  “We grew 500 to 1,000 plants the first year,” said Dave. “This year, we had a bumper crop of 5,000 plants.”

As the Kettle Pond gardens flourished, Dave set his sights on Trustom Pond, submitting a proposal to the URI Master Gardener program, which funded the project in March 2020. “Trustom is a special place to me,” Dave said. “When I was a kid, my parents and I would go to Moonstone Beach to swim and crab in Trustom Pond.” His parents ashes are scattered here. After launching the project, Dave and other early leaders stepped aside.

Mark and Nick are expanding the project into the grasslands behind the contact station. “Our mission is really to create awareness of the benefits of planting native species for habitat restoration,” said Mark. “The demo garden is a classroom where you can see all the species with labels. But it’s unnatural.” It’s also a gateway for 60,000 annual visitors, half of them birders. “There needs to be a paradigm change in our yards and landscapes,” said Nick. “These manicured lawns and nonnative shrubs are ecological deserts. But a lot of people think native plants are messy. The goal of the demo garden is to show folks how great it looks.”

Visitors might remember a few labelled plants – then recognize that same native species in one of four restoration sites along the trails. “People can see these plants spreading out in the natural environment,” said Nick, who paused by the tall grasses turning shades of purple, mahogany and orange.  He showed us how to tell the difference between big bluestem, whose flowering stalk resembles a turkey foot, and Indian grass, which is more of a feather. “Indian grass is rare in Rhode Island,” he said. “But most of the seed came from the Midwest.”

He explained why a seed isn’t just a seed: “The plants in New England have evolved for thousands of years with local growing conditions,” said Nick. “So if you use seed from the Midwest, the plants might not grow as well here, they might have differences in bloom times that might affect their pollinators.”

Restoring native species (photo MCordle)

In 1995 USFWS seeded the 15-acre field we were standing in with warm-season grasses intended to provide habitat for ground-nesting birds. However, “there are no songbirds nesting here, because it’s so dense,” said Nick. “It’s not really meeting our objectives.” It’s also too small an area for many bird species to reproduce. So Nick is shifting the goal here to creating  a diversity of native plant species that are larval hosts and nectar sources for insects, including moths and more than 38 species of native bees.

But where to get enough local genotype plants is the challenge. “We were getting plants from Hope Lesson, but the Rhode Island Natural History Survey is no longer doing Rhody Native,” Nick said. “The Master Gardener partnership has really filled that hole, by collecting seed from local plants and putting them back on the refuges. Early last year, Mark and Nick chose four restoration sites with different topography and soil and light conditions. Then, the crew of volunteers and USFWS interns started clearing the invasives. A Bobcat Skid Steer grinding up a tangle of multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle hit a wall, literally.

The low stone wall was a remnant of the farm that once belonged to Ann Kenyon Morse, a sheep breeder and keen horsewoman who also flew fighter planes as a WASP during World War II. In 1974, she donated 365 acres of land to USFWS, which was the start of the 787-acre Trustom Pond Refuge.

As the team pulled out grapevine and honeysuckle, they found black cherry and shadbush. Clethra, spirea, and swamp azaleas were blooming in the wetlands. One morning, Nick spotted a hummingbird clearwing moth, Hemaris thysbe, sipping nectar from a swamp azalea flower. They were puzzled by a large treelike shrub with mottled bark on the edge of the swamp. “I thought it was a viburnum at first,” said Mark, who snapped a few pictures for PictureThis. “It was a poison sumac. With a trunk 18” in diameter.”Its old limbs were leaning out from the edge of the boggy woods toward the sun, its leaves turning apricot-red.

The crew started planting in mid-August and worked through September, putting in about 5,000 plants sourced from Kettle Pond. Nick contributed 2,000 more, from Planter’s Choice Nursery in Connecticut. “I tried to get a variety of species the MG’s didn’t have, so they could use them for future seeds,” said Nick. “But I also got some of the same species, to increase genetic diversity. We don’t want to collect seeds from the same garden over and over.”

Nick and Dave had recently toured one of the Connecticut farms that are growing native plants for the Ecotype Project. Botanists collect seed from wild plants in ecoregion 59; organic farmers then grow out the seeds in ‘Founder Plots’; tens of thousands of seeds are then harvested from the plots and sent to nurseries. That basic model is exciting to restoration ecologists. “Maybe East Farm or organic farmers in Rhode Island could grow Founder Plots,” said Nick. I would love to see infrastructure in the Northeast to produce seeds in volume like they do in the Midwest.”

At some point, “if we wanted to transform the field at Trustom, we could plow up strips, then do no-till or broadcast seeds.” And this time the seed would be from this ecoregion, not the middle of the country.In the meantime, he and Mark will be interested to see how well the native species in the restoration areas establish. “Considering the bluestem and the thatch, it’s unlikely that they would without any kind of disturbance,” he said. “Maybe a prescribed burn or light tilling of soil would open up an avenue for those plants to spread.” But just having them flower and set seed in the restoration sites will increase the seed bank of local genotypes.

Mark took a break near a site where yellow thistle (Cirsium horridulum), rare to Rhode Island, was flourishing.  “To me, it’s like restoring an old historic house,” he said. “Only we’re restoring the plants that have been here for thousands of years.”

 

Beavers Rebound

This article by Anne Raver originally appeared in our WildfloraRI, Spring 2021

You can’t help but wonder how the beavers are doing on Rhode Island, if you read Jeff Goldfarb’s Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. Our RIWPS book club had discussed Eager in early March 2021, marveling at the abilities of this natural engineer, Castor canadensis, to hold and cleanse water, and to create habitat for myriad species of plant and animal life. (Beavers also flood roads, farm fields and septic systems; and they kill trees. But more on that later.)

Goldfarb fires the imagination with images of pre-historic North America, where beavers crossed the land bridge millions of years before humankind and may have numbered between 60 and 400 million before the year 1600. Forget that idea of clear, racing streams and wide rivers flowing through the wilderness. Beavers, driven to build dams, turn running water into mucky ponds and marshlands. As Goldfarb puts it, “a sluggish, murky swamp, backed up several acres by a messy concatenation of woody dams. Gnawed stumps ring the marsh like punji sticks; dead and dying trees stand aslant in the chest-deep pond. When you step into the water, you feel not rocks underfoot but sludge. The musty stink of decomposition wafts into your nostrils.”

Beavers, North America’s largest rodent, seem to be drawn to the sound of running water and driven to build dams of sticks and logs, packed with stones, grass and mud. These nocturnal mammalsusually construct a mounded lodge of logs and sticks in the pond behind the dam or on the edge of the bank. Plastered with mud, these cozy lodges remain above freezing, and are big enough for a male and female, who mate for life, to raise their young. The juveniles remain for two years, then move out to find mates and new territory. The pond has to be deep enough to enter and exit the lodge underwater, and to reach a submerged cache of tender stems of woody plants and roots for winter food. This watery lifestyle offers protection from land-dwelling predators.

Beavers’ back feet are webbed, and their front hand-like, clawed feet are built for digging and grasping sticks. Their incisors, which never stop growing, are sharpened and filed by constant gnawing. A beaver’s large, flat tail doubles as a rudder when swimming and as a prop when standing to chew down a tree. The animal’s transparent eyelids allow it to see underwater.

Indigenous people revered the beaver for many reasons. “Beaver is a hardworking animal,” said Lorén Spears, the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter. “It’s industrious, creative, and scientific in creating the type of dwelling that has multiple purposes. It also creates natural systems that create the balance that you need.” The museum, which is devoted to indigenous cultural education, takes its name from the Narragansett word for beavers.

Indigenous people throughout North America used the beaver’s fur for warm, waterproof clothing, its incisors for tools, its meat and glands for food and medicine. They traded these treasures with the first explorers, and then the colonists, who generated a craze for furs and castor sacs that Goldfarb likens to the Gold Rush. Beaver meat was also in demand, Goldfarb notes, once the Catholic church classified beavers as fish, which they are not, so that meat-lovers could eat this ‘fish’ during Lent.

“By the early 1800’s, the beaver had been extirpated from Rhode Island and much of New England,” writes state wildlife biologist Charles Brown, in Beavers in Rhode Island,  a guide he created for the Division of Fish and Wildlife, RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM). However, as farming declined in New England, forests regenerated. At the same time, a growing conservation movement and wildlife management practices, including reintroduction programs, brought back the beaver.

By the late 1960s, there were active colonies in Connecticut and Massachusetts. By the 1970s, trappers and fishermen began noticing chewed trees and peeled twigs in the western part of the state. “They probably traveled from Connecticut along the Moosup River,” said Brown, who joined DEM in 1999. By 1976, state biologist Charlie Allen had found an active lodge along the Trestle Trail in Coventry, in a tributary of the Moosup River. He later reported half a dozen colonies in the Moosup River watershed. By the 1980s, beavers were building dams in the Pawcatuck, Blackstone, Pawtuxet, Quinebaug, Hunt and Woonasquatucket watersheds. That’s when proper

ty owners started calling DEM about flooded roads, orchards and ornamental trees. By 1995, DEM established a trapping season. Brown extended Allen’s work with a survey of beaver and river otter occupancy. He covered the state’s largest watersheds—the Pawcatuck, the Pawtuxet, the Blackstone and the Quinebaug—on a five-year rotation from 2001 to 2012.

Beavers are now expanding their range in the northeast part of the state, primarily throughout the lower Blackstone the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket watersheds. “Beavers have defied everybody’s expectations,” Brown said. “I think it was widely assumed, they needed a certain amount of wild area, that they wouldn’t coexist with people. But they obviously have proved everybody wrong.” The determining factor, he said, is food. Beavers eat aquatic plants, such as cattails, water lilies, ferns and grasses during the summer, and the cambium of woody species, including willow, alder, cottonwood, poplar and red- osier dogwood in winter.

Their dam-building creates ponds and meandering side channels, marshes and wet meadows beneficial to so many plants, insects, and animals that biologists consider the beaver a keystone species. Brown has studied aerial photographs that show how beavers can change the landscape over decades. They can turn a forested red maple swamp, for example, into an open water marsh by flooding the area and killing the trees. “Great blue herons will nest in those dead standing trees,” said Brown. The quiet water channels provide nurseries for fish and amphibians. “Beavers will impound a section of stream with low topography, and sediment will accumulate on the bottom,” he said. If the beavers move on, the dam breaks down, “exposing rich sediment to plant growth.” That abandoned marsh then becomes a meadow, generating scrubland and trees.

Beaver ponds also filter pollutants and break down nitrates; their surrounding marshes serve as flood control and firebreaks. A study by scientists at the University of Rhode Island found that the processes of plants, soil, and microbes in beaver ponds could remove from 5 to 45 percent of nitrates in the water. Graduate students, led by Julia Lazar, collected samples from three beaver ponds in Washington County, during the fall of 2011 and the spring and summer of 2012. They paddled canoes into the middle of two ponds on the Chipuxet River and one on Roaring Brook to collect soil rich in organic matter deposited over decades.

Back at the lab, the students applied nitrate with a tracer to the samples. Bacteria in the organic-rich soil transformed nitrate (NO3) to nitrogen gas, which makes up 79 percent of our atmosphere. This process, known as denitrification, is constantly going on in beaver ponds and surrounding marshlands.

John Crockett, a master’s degree candidate at the University of Rhode Island, is building on Brown’s surveys in a joint project funded by DEM. The five-year project is focused on beaver occupancy and on the presence of river otters and muskrats. Crockett started out in December, on foot and by kayak, looking for dams, lodges, chewed sticks, and any other sign of beavers. One morning in late March, as we took a walk together, he pointed out a large lodge in the Great Swamp Management Area, in South Kingstown. He leaned over some dried gray scat, probably left by an otter, brushing it apart to reveal bits of dried fish scales, crayfish, and fish bones. Beaver runs, or paths, led up from the water and continued across the trail into the swampy woods. We found stumps of young trees and gnawed sticks with the telltale marks of sharp incisors.

Granted, beavers can cause problems for humans. In Westerly, where Route 91 bisects a wetland for about a mile, beavers have frequently plugged a As Brown said, “Beavers look at an existing dam, or a causeway bisecting a wetland, and they see the culvert as a hole in the dam, so they plug it up.” When beavers first built dams on the East Sneech Brook, in 2014, they flooded a swamp full of rare Atlantic white cedars, as well as hiking trails in the Cumberland Land Trust’s nature preserve adjacent to the Nate Whipple Highway.

Mike Boday, the land trust’s vice president, recalled pulling sticks out of an historic culvert that harks back to farming days. “When we broke that first dam, we released a few hundred thousand gallons of water and flooded the highway,” said Boday, who lives on the edge of the 154-acre forest and wetland. “The mayor wasn’t too happy about that.” The beavers just plugged up the hole again. “I would come in here with a garden hoe and break it open,” said Boday. “The next day, it would be filled again.”

When the Atlantic white cedars began to die, the land trust called up Mike Callahan, in Southampton, MA whose expertise in water control devices helps communities to live and let live with beavers. “We’re not going to trap them, because then you have to euthanize them,” said Randy Tuomisto, president of the land trust. “They do a lot of good, so we’d rather live with them.” Great blue herons now nest in the tops of the dead white cedars. There are wood ducks, muskrats and river otters.

Callahan visited the site and advised land trust members where to install each device—essentially a pipe driven through the dam, to allow water flow, surrounded by fencing to keep beavers from plugging the hole. Members built the devices themselves. “They work,” said Tuomisto. “But you have to maintain them.”

A large lodge, about five feet tall and 15 feet wide, sits within 50 feet of the hiking trail, which has been rerouted, and now includes a DEM-approved boardwalk and bridge over the beaver- engineered wetland. Another large lodge is hidden downstream. “You usually don’t see them, but if they hear a noise or notice the water level going down, they’ll come out and look,” said Tuomisto. “I was working away and saw this beaver about 20 feet from me. He slapped his tail in warning, and dove under the water.” To no doubt return later, to rebuild the dam.

“They work seven days a week; they’re not unionized,” said Boday, who has watched them, admiringly, jam sticks into the mud and push ten-pound rocks through the water. “They know exactly what they’re doing and they’re defending their home.”