Slow and steady


With the third round of applications now open for the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund — launched in 2018 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to achieve the goals of the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act — it’s a good time to reflect on what the program has delivered so far.

To date, the fund has awarded $8.74 million to 53 projects that support recreation, water quality, water management, and habitat. The grantees have generated $12.04 million in matching funds for a total conservation investment of $20.78 million. Collectively, those investments will add up to 17 miles of restored stream habitat, 119 acres of conserved wetland habitat, 3,737 acres of improved forest habitat, and 200 acres of enhanced public access.

The stats are impressive, but it’s probably hard to picture what all of that “impact” looks like on the ground.

The face of the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund. Kristen Meistrell/New Jersey Audubon

So instead, picture a four-inch long, mud-brown turtle, with orange patches on its cheeks, and big brown eyes reminiscent of baby Yoda’s.

As a result of the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund, agricultural landowners in New Jersey are changing management practices on their land to support the bog turtle, a species listed as threatened in the northern part of its range under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The beauty is, farmers aren’t just changing their practices because it’s good for the turtle; they are changing their practices because it’s good for business.

“We start by addressing the resource challenge the farmer is facing, and then we look for a wildlife nexus,” said John Cecil, Vice President for Stewardship for New Jersey Audubon, the grantee that is leading the project to restore and connect bog turtle habitat in the Upper Salem River Watershed.

“That’s the sweet spot for the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund,” Cecil said. “Because it lies at the intersection of water, habit conservation, and recreation, it helps us leverage water-quality work to address needs for wildlife as well.”

As part of the proposal for the project, which was funded in the first round of grants in 2018, New Jersey Audubon planned to conduct outreach to landowners in areas that had been identified as potential bog-turtle habitat, and in areas that connect pieces of potential bog-turtle habitat together.

But a few farmers came directly to them. Through a cooperative agreement with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, New Jersey Audubon is on call to provide technical assistance to landowners who are interested in learning about on-farm conservation practices, say to improve water quality by reducing erosion. To support this work, the organization can tap into funding sources that focus specifically on water quality.

Thanks to the grant, if the farm lies within a priority area for bog turtle, New Jersey Audubon can also suggest voluntary measures to improve bog-turtle habitat, which they can support through the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund.

Fencing keeps livestock from grazing inside bog-turtle habitat during spring and summer when the turtles are active. Kristen Meistrell/New Jersey Audubon

“For an individual who runs a livestock operation, we may start the conversation by talking about cover crops, or no till,” explained Kristen Meistrell, Stewardship Project Director for New Jersey Audubon, and the project lead. “Then we talk about bog turtle.”

It’s actually a natural connection. It turns out bog turtle and cattle have compatible needs. Livestock need a year-round supply of nutritional forage grasses and legumes. Bog turtle need open wet meadows, fed by ground water. But during the winter when turtles are hibernating, they can share that habitat with cattle.

“The goal is to keep bog-turtle habitat open using the right management techniques at the right time, not all the time,” Meistrell explained.

When the ground is frozen (or just less wet), farmers can graze their cattle in the wetland areas, which can benefit turtles by helping to keep the vegetation open. As spring approaches, farmers just rotate their livestock to a different pasture before the turtles wake up and start looking for mates.

“It works out well for the landowner because it helps them maintain better pasture conditions and better forage for the animals,” Meistrell said, adding, “They also don’t have to deal with livestock getting stuck in the mud.”

Implementing a rotational grazing system requires investment in new infrastructure, like fencing, which New Jersey Audubon supports through the grant. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered on the project to help navigate the permitting required for working in wetlands, and on a federally listed species.

Although bog turtle may not be the chief motivation for landowners to participate in the program, Meistrell said they appreciate the significance of being able to provide a home for a rare turtle that few people will ever see.

“It also helps them get past the idea of thinking that having a federally listed species on your property will close doors,” she said. “We want to convey that in this case, it will open doors: You can get work done that benefits you, bog turtle, and water quality.”

An agricultural field that is no longer in production has been converted to natural cover for bog turtles. Kristen Meistrell/New Jersey Audubon

In addition to working closely with five private landowners, New Jersey Audubon plans to restore and connect a total of 50 acres of wetland habitat, and reach 200 private landowners with information about conservation practices to support bog turtle as part of the grant. The effort was born from an existing partnership between New Jersey Audubon and New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife to restore active bog-turtle habitat on state land in the Upper Salem River watershed.

“The restoration started in 2015, and evolved over time through a combination of different efforts: invasive-species control, converting former agricultural land to native cover, restoring the hydrology in old agricultural ditches,” Meistrell said.

Eventually, the partners started to wonder about the big picture. “We thought, we’re doing great work at this one site, but what does it mean for the population overall?” she said. “We decided it was time to expand, and look for connections.”

That happened to be right when the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund came into being. Meistrell said it was the perfect opportunity to advance their work on this species beyond state land. “We were able to meld all of the priorities and strategies together into this one project,” she said. “Everything fit together perfectly.”

Wondering if the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund is a good fit for you? Sign up for the webinar for prospective applicants, hosted by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation on Wednesday, February 26th, from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m.

The Request for Proposals for the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund is now open, and accepting submissions until 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, April 9th, 2020.