With fish, wildlife and native plant populations under increasing development pressure in Southern Maryland, federal officials are weighing a major expansion of national wildlife refuge there.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in early March that it is looking to conserve up to 30,000 acres of land over the next 30 years in five counties: Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s.
Officials envision creating a “landscape scale” refuge similar to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, said Dan Murphy, chief of habitat restoration and conservation in the service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office. Established in 1996, that refuge encompasses about 10,000 acres in a series of mostly unconnected tracts across five counties along the river corridor.
As was done for the Virginia refuge, USFWS officials plan to identify a large acquisition boundary in Southern Maryland, then target the most ecologically important parcels within it for protection by either buying them from willing sellers or paying them to surrender development rights via conservation easements.
The move comes as development presses in on the Patuxent Research Refuge, the only national wildlife refuge in the region. Its 13,000 acres spanning Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties sit midway between Baltimore and the District of Columbia.
Prince George’s County is looking to develop 97 acres of forest and ponds between the refuge and Bowie State University.
Just last year, an effort by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to sell 105 mostly wooded acres bordering the refuge got put on hold after refuge supporters protested.
Murphy said the announcement of the regional refuge plan wasn’t triggered by any specific threats to the Patuxent refuge but more out of a desire to preserve critical habitats that are in danger of being degraded or destroyed. The idea, he said, grew out of former President Obama’s 2009 executive order directing all federal agencies to develop a coordinated strategy for protecting and restoring the Bay.
Over the last dozen years, USFWS staff have identified roughly 180,000 acres of ecologically valuable land in the region that is currently unprotected, Murphy explained. At the same time, he said, they recognized that the Patuxent Refuge was being increasingly hemmed in by development and in jeopardy of becoming an “ecological island.”
The service says it is primarily concerned with safeguarding native animals and plants that are in jeopardy of disappearing from the region. All of them face the threat of habitat loss from land use changes, climate change, competition from invasive species and other external population stressors.
The five counties targeted by the USFWS plan were among the fastest growing in Maryland over the last decade, trailing only Howard and Frederick counties.
Murphy said the USFWS plans to focus on protecting habitat in the watersheds of Mattawoman and Nanjemoy creeks, Zekiah Swamp and the St. Mary’s and Patuxent rivers. They’re also keen to protect more of Calvert County’s crumbling Bayshore cliffs, which are home to endangered Puritan tiger beetles.
In addition to the tiger beetles, the five-county area is home to several other endangered or threatened species. Dwarf wedgemussels hang on in Nanjemoy Creek and McIntosh Run in Charles County.
Increasingly rare plants, namely swamp pink and a flowering legume called sensitive joint-vetch, grow in the region’s remaining marshes, while endangered northern long-eared bats lurk in its forests. The tidal waters also provide critical habitat for Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon.
The service hopes over the next 30 years to protect about one sixth of that vulnerable acreage, using the federal Land and Water Conservation and Migratory Bird funds. Those funds draw revenue from sales of federal duck hunting stamps, wildlife refuge entrance fees, import duties on arms and ammunition and the sale of offshore oil leases.
Lands purchased to become part of a national wildlife refuge will be removed from the property tax rolls of the counties in question, but the USFWS pointed out that it annually reimburses localities for some of its lost real estate tax revenue.
The USFWS held two “listening sessions” in March and scheduled a third for April 18 at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, MD. The meeting begins at 7 p.m.
Comments from the public will be used, the agency said, as it drafts a land protection plan and environmental assessment. Those documents will be released later this year, officials said, after which the public will have at least 45 days to review and comment on them. Ultimately, the USFWS director has the authority to approve or disapprove the plan.
This article originally appeared on BayJournl.com.