A five-year program will preserve about 90 acres of grassland at the Florida Business Park while biologists monitor the site for bird species considered “at risk” by the state of New York.
The project is part of a wildlife habitat management plan developed after one of those species was spotted where the Hero Group plans to build a 635,000-square-foot Beech-Nut baby food plant and office building.
Biologists were making a site visit to review wetland boundaries at the Florida Business Park last October when a northern harrier, listed as threatened in New York, flew overhead looking for food.
There are thought to be fewer than 100 northern harriers in the state, and Montgomery County is not one of those places the bird is listed as frequenting, according to the New York Natural Heritage Program, which catalogs rare species of plants and animals.
So the sighting by Karl Parker, a senior wildlife biologist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, initiated a comprehensive review of the site and led to the Hero Group and Montgomery County officials agreeing to re-create grasslands destroyed by construction of a new factory.
The northern harrier is among 12 grassland bird species considered “at risk” by the state. These birds live in grasslands and marshes, and build nests on the ground. Loss of open fields, marshes and open pasture land is thought to be a major factor in the decline of their populations.
The upland sandpiper, short-eared owl and others lost an estimated 80 percent of their population in the past 40 years, prompting an increase in government officials to develop incentive programs that pay private landowners to maintain pastures in a state suitable for grassland birds and their prey. The programs, in part, limit mowing so as not to disturb nesting birds.
New York state’s landowner incentive program, developed in a partnership with Audubon New York, is in its infancy but similar programs in other states are showing signs of success, said Michael Morgan, a wildlife ecologist at the Audubon New York Office at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Morgan said the wildlife habitat incentives program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service use the same types of land management.
A grassland maintenance program in western New York provided sufficient habitat for a northern harrier to nest at the site, Morgan said. “They’ve had some really good success,” he said.
The management program at the Florida Business Park, providing for nearly 90 acres, is “pretty much right around the size that northern harriers need to make it work,” Morgan said.
Aside from the northern harrier, deer, wild turkeys, water fowl and other animals will benefit by the habitat’s preservation. “Pretty much all wildlife should be appreciative of that effort,” Morgan said.
To meet state permit requirements for the Hero Group’s Beech-Nut project, biologists from the engineering firm hired by the county Industrial Development Agency wound up spending several months at the site, documenting all the species they could find.
Clough, Harbour & Associates was commissioned by the Montgomery County Industrial Development Agency to review the site and work with the DEC. One of their goals was to see if the northern harrier was just passing through or if the site in the town of Florida was a frequent hunting ground for the raptor, which uses its keen hearing to find rodents and small birds.
“As a result of identifying it there, the state wanted us to do some survey work through the fall and through the winter to see whether this species was present just once or twice,” said Christopher R. Einstein, ecology operations manager at Clough, Harbour.
Einstein said it’s not uncommon for some species to be transients, but the survey pointed to the likelihood that the northern harrier frequents the site in the town of Florida. “What we concluded was the harrier certainly was using the site fairly consistently through the fall,” Einstein said.
The harriers disappeared during the thick of winter and returned in the spring, Einstein said. Biologists visited the site every week, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, from November 2007 through March of 2008 to conduct the survey.
During the survey, several bird species — some listed as threatened or endangered, others not listed at all — were identified.
These species included American crow, the northern harrier, horned lark, northern cardinal, black-capped chickadee, American robin, cedar waxwing, European starling and blue jay. The horned lark is listed of “special concern” in New York state because of the threat of habitat loss.
Northern harriers were considered abundant and widespread in the past, but populations declined as breeding habitat disappeared, through filling in wetlands, land use changes and development, according to the DEC.
It’s relatively uncommon for a project to be planned on a site where threatened or endangered species are known to exist, according to Karl Parker, a DEC Region 4 biologist since 1990.
“Certainly there’s an awful lot of projects that don’t have a lot of involvement concerning what we would call listed species. It’s kind of an unusual situation when you have a project that does,” Parker said.
“The result of those surveys identified a couple things. It told us earlier observations we had of a couple individual harriers on the site were not just individuals passing through, going somewhere else to winter. Birds were utilizing the site on a fairly consistent basis through the fall and early winter,” Parker said.
“What we basically saw was sort of a pattern of longer-term use. That really formed the basis for us to say ‘this is a little more important than we thought,’ ” he said.
The surveys led the DEC to request that a wildlife habitat conservation plan be developed before it would issue permits the Hero Group needed to start building its new baby food plant. Officials working on the development agreed to the plan itself, which aims to replace the habitat being used for the new factory with land near the site.
New York state law requires a review of impacts on the environment as part of the permitting process.
“The law basically says that birds are protected. That’s virtually every single bird in New York state, but there’s others that have significantly more protection as being listed as being threatened or endangered,” Parker said. “It’s a fairly rare situation where you have a project impacting those birds, but it does happen.”
Those cases result in extra scrutiny, Parker said, to “make sure that the birds we have as part of New York State’s wildlife component are here when our kids are grown.”
The wildlife habitat management plan calls for combining some land from an easement at the Target Distribution Center, also in the Florida Business Park, with land on the Hero site. The land will be monitored from 2009 through 2014, and bird species present will be documented to track trends.
The plan has two goals: to provide habitat suitable for northern harriers and to establish habitat for other grassland species.
Objectives of management include establishing large blocks of open grassland by removing and thinning hedgerows, mowing one-third of the land each year to prevent encroachment of trees and shrubs and protect the lands as a wildlife habitat.
Einstein said northern harriers are believed to be suspicious of areas with a lot of hedges. “In order for the birds to be comfortable with the site, they really need to have broad, open spaces,” he said.
The Hero Group, which is building the new factory for its subsidiary Beech-Nut as part of a $124 million project, will provide an escrow account to fund the establishment, monitoring and maintenance of the management area. Following the monitoring period, the Montgomery County Industrial Development Agency will take over responsibility for yearly mowing, according to the plan.
Confirmation that the northern harrier makes use of the site ultimately added $37,800 to engineering costs, $18,000 for the field survey and another $19,800 for the management plan, according to Montgomery County economic development director Ken Rose.
Future costs for maintaining the wildlife management area are estimated at about $55,000, plus the cost of mowing, according to Rose. The plan brings to 177 the number of acres in easements for permanent protection within the Florida Business Park, according to Rose.