Comments On The PRNWR Management Plan - Thomas Wetmore

Comments on the PRNWR Management Plan

Introducing Myself.

     I am Thomas Wetmore, Ph.D. My education in computer science brought me to Massachusetts in 1982 to work for Bell Labs. I have lived in Newburyport since 1982, and have birded on the refuge since 1981. Before working in software I worked in biological areas. I did contract work for the Fish and Wildlife Service in near Prince William Sound, Alaska, monitoring the spring migration in the Pacific flyway. Data I collected was key to understanding the effects of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez years later. I worked for LGL Environmental Research Assoc., Ltd., in Edmonton, Alberta, for two years. My roles were field biologist and manager of data processing. I did field work, primarily on bird populations, in the tar sands of Alberta, and on the north slopes of Alaska, and Yukon and Northwest Territories, surveying, among other things, Snow Goose populations during fall staging. I participated in a large project conducted by the University of British Columbia to model the arctic ecosystem. I did fish capture/recapture studies in the Peace Athabaska region of northern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories, and in Simpson Lagoon on the north coast of Alaska. I conducted bird surveys on Pingok Island, one the the barrier islands enclosing Simpson Lagoon.

     Since moving to Newburyport in 1982 I have birded on Plum Island. Over 25 years ago I embarked on a project to survey and monitor the birdlife of Plum Island. My original plan was to update Ludlow Griscom’s 1955 work, “Plum Island and It’s Bird Life.” When I realized how little I knew about the details of the annual cycles of the birds’ lives on the island, I knew I would have to collect data from the island for many years.

     In the intervening two plus decades I have birded on Plum Island on 6,240 days. In recent years I have birded the island over 350 days per year. I am sure I have devoted more hours to the birds of Plum Island than any one else, living or dead. My database of bird sightings is approaching one million records.

     My data is so extensive that many trends that affect the populations of the birds on Plum Island are apparent. I recently gave a talk for the Friends organization where I presented many of my findings, highlighting the species under the most stress and disappearing from the island, and those that are increasing in numbers. I plan to publish this data.

     For the past twenty plus years I have maintained a web site ( that I update every day, keeping track of the changing bird life on the island. For many visitors to the refuge I serve as the resident bird expert, often inundated with questions of identification, life histories, and what birds are around and where to find them. I prepared the bird list that is the basis of the refuge’s current bird list pamphlet.

Destroying the Fresh Water Impoundments

     I am opposed to the proposed destruction of the fresh water impoundments. And I am annoyed by the repeated use of the term “restore” to mean “destroy.” The proposal is to destroy the impoundments in order to possibly “restore” the land to the way it was before the impoundments were created. It is disingenuous to use government double speak for this. It would be so much more honest to be honest.

     The PRNWR was formed around 1950 with the goal of providing staging, migration, feeding and nesting areas for waterfowl in the Atlantic Flyway. Building the impoundments was of the highest priority in preparing the refuge to meet these goals.

     The impoundments have performed their intended job for 75 years. Thy are stopover points for thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds and their camp followers every year. Waterfowl of many species breed in the impoundments. Shorebirds and many species feed voraciously in the impoundments as they stage for the next phases of their migration. In addition, many marsh species of special concern use the impoundments, including several that breed. These annually include Least Bitterns, Virginia Rails, Soras, and less frequently American Bitterns, King and Clapper Rails, Common Gallinules, Pied-billed Grebes and American Coots.

     The impoundments are not “natural”. They are man-made fresh water impoundments. This is an argument the refuge has made to justify destroying them. This ignores and contravenes the refuge’s clear mandate and their stated goals to manage the refuge to the best advantage of wildlife. “Management” often involves modifying the natural environment in ways that benefit wildlife.

     Phragmites are an invasive species. However, they have no impact on the birds that use the impoundments. In fact, my data, collected over 40 years of observations, provide direct evidence, especially for Least Bitterns and rails, that phragmites provide a more productive environment than native cattails. The refuge cites the phragmites as a reason for destroying the impoundments.

     In 40 years of observation I have seen no evidence that water quality plays a part in the number of birds and other wildlife that use the impoundments. The refuge lists decreasing water quality as a reason for destroying the impoundments.

     In 40 years of observation I have seen no evidence that berm subsidence is causing problems, or even occurring. The refuge lists this as a reason for destroying the impoundments.

     The refuge argues that sea level rise is another justification to destroy the impoundments. This eludes me entirely. Do they envision destructive waves overtopping the berms from the sound side? This might be possible after eight feet of sea level rise, a century or two down the line.

     The last time the refuge was considering destroying North Pool, the refuge had described North Pool as “barren of birds.” To prove them wrong I conducted marsh bird surveys of the pool by canoe, with my wife on some surveys and with Rick Heil on others. We played tapes of several species of marsh birds throughout North Pool and had remarkable success. We confirmed the conventional knowledge that North Pool marsh, far from being barren, is an important breeding area for many secretive marsh birds such as Least Bitterns, Virginia Rail, King Rail and Sora, with sightings of Pied-billed Grebe, American Bittern, coots and gallinules. Black Rails have been recorded at North Pool, and the last breeding area of Northern Harriers in eastern Massachusetts was on high ground within the impoundment. A large number of night-herons of both species are seen regularly both in the islands within North pool and the nearby Hellcat forest.

     The fresh water impoundments are at the very core of the purpose of the refuge. They are the key habitat that best demonstrates the whole reason the refuge exists. I cannot imagine a worse management decision for the refuge to make.

Diversity Concerns

     The refuge has a primary stated goal to provide diverse habitats. They mention their attention to diversity in their literature. Destroying the impoundments will remove one of the most productive and arguably the most important habitat on the refuge. Many species of birds absolutely depend upon the impoundments. Destroying the impoundments will have a
significant impact on the numbers and species that will use the refuge.

     Other recent activities put the refuge’s commitment to diversity into question. In years past North Field was the largest field on the island, an important breeding area for Bobolinks, Savannah Sparrows and the occasional Eastern Meadowlark, all birds in decline. It was a feeding and staging area for Wilson’s Snipes, and a frequent site for American Golden-Plovers, Whimbrels and Upland Sandpipers. The refuge decided to stop mowing the south end of the field as an experiment in forest succession. A few years later they stopped managing the field entirely, and now it is gone. The loss of North Field took with it a great deal of the refuge’s important habitat diversity. South Field seems to be on the way out as well. Engineering drawings created the last time the refuge was considering destroying North Pool showed that inundation of water from the sound would flood much of Hellcat forest, destroying one of the richest and most mature maritime forests in the area. Hellcat forest is a major stopover area for thousands of neotropical migrants in the spring and fall. It is one of the best areas in New England to witness the spectacle of flycatcher, vireo and warbler migration. Destroying North Pool will have the double impact of also destroying the most significant maritime forest habitat on the refuge.

Saltmarsh Sparrow

     The Saltmarsh Sparrow is a species of concern, and the refuge has directives to study and to work to preserve its population. Destroying the impoundments is cited as important to this goal, as a way to increase habitat for the sparrow. This should be called into serious question. First, there are thousands of acres of excellent Saltmarsh Sparrow habitat throughout the Great Marsh. There is no need to create more habitat for this species. Efforts would be better spent improving areas already in the Great Marsh. Secondly, there is no assurance that the results of destroying the impoundments would lead to quality Saltmarsh Sparrow habitat. The argument that restoring old habitat is important for the Saltmarsh Sparrow is simply wrong. Destroying valuable habitat used by hundreds of thousands of birds of many species, to create an insignificant addition to the habitat of a single species, is wrong from any viewpoint.


     The three freshwater impoundments on the Parker River NWR reflect the essence and purpose of the refuge. Destroying that habitat places the refuge adrift into an existence wholly unattached to its original purpose.