DEEP: Marsh Restoration Project at Great Island Now Complete

Marsh Restoration Project at Great Island Now Complete
Adapted from an article that appeared in the September/October 2002 issue of  Connecticut Wildlife.

{Aerial photo of a portion of Great Island}
Taken in April, this photograph shows an aerial view of a portion of Great Island after ponds were created in the marsh over the previous winter. This site can be seen from the boardwalk observation deck at the DEPís Marine Headquarters, in Old Lyme.

Restoring Habitat at Great Island
This past June, work was completed on a three-year project to restore degraded coastal wetlands at the state-owned Roger Tory Peterson Wildlife Area at Great Island, in Old Lyme. Well-known to waterfowlers and birders, this 588-acre tidal marsh, located at the mouth of the Connecticut River, provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, especially birds. Unfortunately, the ecological value of the Peterson Wildlife Area and the areaís use by wildlife had been greatly diminished from the effects of grid ditching and the encroachment of the invasive plant, phragmites.

Virtually all of Connecticutís coastal marshes were "ditched" in the 1930s. That is, ditches were cut into the surface of the marshes in a grid pattern to drain off water and remove mosquito breeding areas. Unfortunately, this process removed the open water habitats most attractive to wildlife, especially waterfowl. Grid ditching also resulted in decreased soil salinity, thus enabling the salt-intolerant plant, phragmites, to become better established and eventually displace native plants, reducing wildlife diversity.

To help remedy this problem, the Wildlife Division applied for funds through the North American Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant program and received a $218,000 grant. This program is administered through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and provides funds for wetland protection, restoration and enhancement. NAWCA grant funds must be matched by contributions from project "partners." Partners for the Roger Tory Peterson Wildlife Area restoration included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, Valley Shore Waterfowlers, The Nature Conservancy, Connecticut Waterfowl Association and the Northeast Utilitiesí Foundation. The greatest portion of the matching funds was provided by supporters of Connecticutís Duck Stamp Program; that is, the hunters and citizens who have purchased state Duck Stamps. The value of a specialized amphibious mulching machine, which was purchased with Duck Stamp money, was used as the bulk of the matching funds. The mulching machine was used to complete much of the wetland restoration work. This public/private partnership helped restore tidal wetlands essential to Connecticutís migratory and nesting shorebirds, finfish and native plant species.

The goal of the Peterson Wildlife Area project was to restore 300 acres of degraded marsh habitat to a mixture of brackish meadows interspersed with shallow, open water areas, a condition that approximates the pre-ditched marsh environment. The restoration also involved the elimination of 200 acres of phragmites by plugging and filling ditches to restore the natural tidal flow of saltwater into the marsh. A 180-acre site at the Peterson Wildlife Area now has 30 new ponds with pannes and plugged grid ditches. Native plants and grasses have been able to return to the area, benefiting wildlife.

Restoration work at the Peterson Wildlife Area was conducted by the Wildlife Divisionís Wetland Habitat and Mosquito Management (WHAMM) Program, with assistance from the USFWS McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. The WHAMM Program, established in 1994, was one of the first wetland habitat restoration programs in the country with dedicated staff and specialized, low-ground pressure equipment used exclusively in restoration activities.

Whatís Next?
Once the wetland restoration project was completed, staff from the WHAMM Program began monitoring birds, vegetation and water quality at the site. The WHAMM Program, in cooperation with the DEP Office of Long Island Sound Programs technical staff and Scott Warren of Connecticut College, will continue monitoring the site during 2003. Data collected during the monitoring period will be helpful to the WHAMM Program as it undertakes other proposed projects along the Connecticut River estuary.

Since the completion of the habitat restoration project at the Peterson Wildlife Area, a number of brackish plant species have been reestablished, such as cattail, bulrush, tearthumb, water hemp and marsh mallow. Several bird species also have been returning to the wetland, like black ducks, mallards, green-winged teal, egrets and rails. Other wildlife that has been observed include muskrats, meadow voles and deer.