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A Truly Extraordinary Effort of the AMJV Partnership

Attendees of a National Hunting and Fishing Day event in West Virginia enjoy bird and tree identification games at the Cerulean Warbler Appalachian Forestland Enhancement Project booth; Kyle Aldinger.
By Todd Fearer (AMJV), Amanda Duran (AMJV/American Bird Conservancy), Kyle Aldinger (AMJV/National Wild Turkey Federation), and Kylie Schmidt (AMJV/Green Forests Work)

2016 was the first full year of implementing the AMJV’s Cerulean Warbler Appalachian Forestland Enhancement Project. This 5-year project, funded through the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), dedicates $8 million of federal funds to address the conservation needs of the Cerulean Warbler on private lands in a coordinated fashion across the core of their range. Over twenty AMJV partners are assisting with this project, contributing an additional $8 million in direct, in-kind, and logistical support, resulting in a truly extraordinary effort by our partnership.

This project, along with initiatives like Working Lands for Wildlife and other regional and local efforts, are the initial steps in a long term investment by the AMJV partnership in Appalachian forests to promote sustainable and science-based forest management practices, contribute to forest health and resiliency, and create habitat for multiple bird and wildlife species.

Pennsylvania: Improving Habitat for Cerulean Warblers on more than 1300 Acres
Exciting progress has been made toward our overall goal of improving habitat for Cerulean Warblers on more than 7,000 acres in the state and reversing the decline of this imperiled species. Our team in Pennsylvania conducted our first outreach mailing to forest landowners to help identify those interested in participating in the program. About 1,000 mailings were sent to landowners with more than 50 acres of property within selected counties in Cerulean Warbler focal areas. As a result of this mailing, we received 63 responses from interested landowners, of which 14 went on to submit applications to participate in the program. Additional outreach efforts included presentations at local woodland owner groups and articles in publications aimed at hunters and outdoor enthusiasts.

We developed contracts with private landowners through NRCS. Through these contracts, we are providing landowners with technical and financial assistance to conduct active forest management to improve forest health and benefit Cerulean Warblers and other wildlife species. This year, 31 contracts were awarded in Pennsylvania, providing landowners with more than $950,000 in financial assistance and improving habitat for Cerulean Warblers on more than 1300 acres in 14 counties. Foresters are already offering technical assistance to landowners implementing their contracts. Most projects to improve Cerulean Warbler habitat include thinning the forest by removing low-quality trees. This year’s contracts include more than 1,200 acres of forest thinnings, with our foresters marking trees to indicate which should be removed and which should be saved to best address forest health concerns and improve Cerulean Warbler habitat. Moving forward, our team is checking in frequently with landowners to help ensure projects stay on schedule, and process payments for completed practices. We are currently accepting applications to be considered for funding in FY17, and so far, more than 90 have been received.

Finally, the Harrisburg Capitol Region Water’s Board of Directors unanimously approved an agreement to conserve its 8,200 acre DeHart Property in Dauphin County though a conservation easement with the Pennsylvania Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) through their Working Woodlands program. This Working Woodlands easement ties in with TNC-PA’s resiliency management strategies, and also ties into a larger partnership in the Central Kittatinny Working Landscape, where TNC is piloting a landscape-level collaboration that works to advance resiliency and Cerulean Warbler management approaches. The acres of this easement are considered as TNC’s contribution to the Cerulean Warbler Appalachian Forestland Enhancement Project, greatly surpassing their 2,000 acre goal.

West Virginia: Changing Attitudes on Dynamic Forests in Cerulean Warbler Global Hotspot
The first wave of private landowners embarked on a mission to enhance forest habitat for Cerulean Warblers in the state, with 438 acres contracted in 2016. The AMJV, National Wild Turkey Federation, NRCS, US Forest Service, WV Division of Forestry, WV Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) and West Virginia University worked together to plan and implement 52 individual outreach efforts that reached an estimated 461,244 people. Two articles in NWTF’s Turkey Country magazine, with a readership of 362,000, were some of the farthest-reaching. As a result, we welcomed 189 new landowners to the “I’m-interested-and-want- to-know-more” team by tackling over 1,600 correspondences and 48 technical assistance site visits.

On public land, the WVDNR devoted 91-acres on Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area in Berkeley County as a Cerulean Warbler habitat demonstration area. Wildlife managers Larry Hines and Josh Vance, forester Josh Simons, and partner avian biologist Steven Wilson selected the site to maximize benefit to Cerulean Warblers (territorial males found nearby) and public access (visible from a highly used County Road). Forest management on the site may begin during fall 2017 with tours to
follow.

Project partners learned valuable lessons in 2016, particularly how to assist a larger pool of private landowners. We revised the application screening process by relaxing the requirement to have an existing forest stewardship plan and refined the project focal area using results from the WVDNR’s recently-completed breeding bird atlas. Although 2017 is young, we are already well ahead of where we were at this point in 2016! To learn more about the Cerulean Warbler project in West Virginia, contact project coordinator Kyle Aldinger (304-284-7595, kaldinger@nwtf.net).

Kentucky and Ohio: Reforesting Mined Land is Addressing Significant Threats Facing Ceruleans
Given the overlap of the Appalachian coal basin and Cerulean Warbler focal areas, mined land reforestation offers an excellent opportunity to address two of the three most significant threats facing Cerulean Warblers in its breeding range: the loss of mature deciduous forest and forest fragmentation. To convert these grass- and shrub-lands, which often consist of exotic and invasive plant species, back into native forests, a modified version of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative’s Forestry Reclamation Approach is used. This approach involves unwanted vegetation removal, soil decompaction, and native tree and shrub planting.

The original intent of the surface mine aspect of this project was to reforest mine land acres in each of the five states involved. However, after further consideration by NRCS offices and partners in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, a decision was made to focus the entire 1,000- acre reforestation goal in Kentucky and Ohio to achieve a greater landscape-level impact on the ground. In 2016, three private landowners in Kentucky and three in Ohio enrolled in the program, with one project from each state determined as suitable. The Kentucky project (30 acres) is located in Knox county, near Barbourville, at a site close to lands enrolled in the NRCS’s Wetlands Reserve Program. Reforesting this site will build on existing conservation efforts to create a more resilient ecosystem. Invasives were mechanically removed by a large bulldozer with a brushing blade. The site received an herbicide application in the fall of 2016 and plantings in the spring of 2017. The Ohio project (120 acres) is located in Harrison county, near Cadiz, on a site that is currently leased for hay production. Because of the lack of woody plants, the project site only needs an herbicide application to control the unwanted vegetation, which reduces the overall project cost.

Moving forward, landowner outreach efforts in Kentucky will focus around the Pine Mountain area, where the Cerulean Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler’s Focal Areas overlap. Reforestation in this area will capitalize on existing efforts by the Kentucky Natural Land’s Trust to create better connectivity between protected lands. Potential new project sites in Ohio have already been identified.