Commentary

Advancing salt marsh sparrow conservation

The wildlife of our great marsh and the battles they endure
Published on
October 6, 2023
Contributors
Allies and Partners
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Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series of educational opinions about fostering environmental stewardship and leadership coordinated by ACES — The Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service understands that one may not care (or know) much about a saltmarsh sparrow. Chris Elphick, a conservation biologist who has dedicated most of his career to researching the small pale bird, doesn’t care much about an individual sparrow, either. He’s only partially joking. “In my mind, at least,” Elphick said, “saltmarsh sparrows are [part of] this chain, and they're telling us what's going to happen in the future to other species. Trying to figure out what's going on with saltmarsh sparrows will better help us think about what we can do for those other species.” 

Thankfully, we have come a long way in our perceptions and treatment of salt marshes over the decades. Once thought of as wastelands or areas needing to be reclaimed for livestock, farming, and development, as well as draining to manage mosquito populations, we now know that salt marshes are among the most productive and biodiverse habitats on the planet. Among their many benefits include protecting infrastructure, sequestering carbon, improving water quality, and providing essential fish nursery habitat. In the case of the Great Marsh in our own backyard, it is also a critical stronghold for a globally imperiled species: the salt marsh sparrow.

Due in large part to habitat loss and sea level rise, we have lost over 80% of salt marsh sparrows since 1998, and populations could collapse within 50 years. We in The Great Marsh – which supports half of the Massachusetts population and 5% globally – have a unique opportunity to make an outsized contribution for this imperiled species, and to bring the lessons learned elsewhere throughout the sparrow’s breeding range from Maine to Virginia.

Together with our partners, we have developed and successfully piloted a comprehensive suite of low-tech, low-cost solutions that will not only improve salt marsh sparrow habitat but will also restore natural hydrology, reverse marsh loss, and provide pathways for marshes to adapt to future climate impacts. Collaborations are ongoing to plan, design, and implement landscape-level projects across ownership boundaries, with Great Marsh partners recently having received 3 grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to advance restoration of over 3,600 acres of salt marsh, remove 5 upriver dams and 2 tidal restrictions. Benefits of this work will reach far beyond salt marsh sparrows; the proverbial canary in the coal mine, healthy sparrow populations mean healthy
marshes, and healthy marshes provide ecosystem services for everyone.

If you want to learn more about the refuge’s future plans for advancing salt marsh sparrow conservation, along with a host of other upcoming biological priorities, please join us for one of two open houses at 12:30pm and 6:00pm on Wednesday, October 11, at the refuge visitor center (6 Plum Island Turnpike, Newburyport). Refuge staff will be on-hand to field questions and take comments on our draft Habitat Management Plan and Environmental Assessment, the public comment period for which extends through October 28. The plan outlines the long-term vision for the refuge’s biological program and includes proposals to restore three freshwater impoundments back to the salt marshes they once were, introduce prescribed fire as a habitat management tool, combat invasive plants, and protect threatened and endangered species.

Matt Hillman is the Project Leader of Parker River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex and can be contacted at matthew_hillman@fws.gov.

ACES Youth Corps team members ask readers to consider learning more about the great work of the Refuge team. Please share any other observations with us around the species you value and want to perpetuate and send us a note at acesnewburyport@gmail.com . To learn more about ACES and its Initiatives, visit https://www.aces-alliance.org.

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