Circuit Biologist for Land Trusts

The Conservation Agency Provides
Circuit Biologist to Assist Local Land Trusts

rose mallow, Dutch Island, Narragansett Bay

During 2002-3, the Conservation Agency was able to provide no-cost biological evaluations, management recommendations, and a centralized data repository for

island organizations specializing in land conservation and stewardship in Newport County, Rhode Island: The Aquidneck Island Land Trust (AILT), and the Conanicut Island Land Trust (CILT). The Conservation Agency received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to provide these organizations with a “circuit biologist” who helped develop and coordinate regional strategies and priorities for preservation.

Development in Rhode Island is increasing at a rate nine times that of population growth. Projections show 27,100 acres of our farm and forestlands, our remaining refuges for terrestrial biodiversity, being consumed by urban sprawl in the next 20 years. From 1964-1997 farm acreage was essentially halved in Rhode Island. The desirable coastal regions and islands are losing open space on the suburban-rural frontier at the greatest rates due to subdivision. Fragmentation has become a critical issue to wildlife.

In a race against time, Rhode Island’s 43 land trusts have been directing most of their limited budgets to the acquisition phase of conservation as opposed to stewardship. Staff expertise reflects this emphasis: none of the organizations employs a professional biologist to address issues of conservation value and long-term management. At closing, when management policies are finalized, most of the projects do not have management plans with directives concerning protection or recovery of important biological resources, maximizing habitat value, and increasing potential biodiversity.

Barn owl
As buyable land disappears, stewardship will eventually become the focus of these organizations. Many are realizing the value of having sound and professional management guidelines already in place. With increasing frequency biologists at TCA have been asked to help identify and prioritize the ecological aspects of lands considered for purchase, clarify the biological significance of properties (in terms of fauna, flora, and habitat qualities), provide justifications for open-space grants, balance conservation values on working lands to ensure environmental and economic viability, and draft management recommendations for long-term stewardship.

Dr. Numi Mitchell, who filled the Circuit Biologist post, has consulted for land trusts in Newport County for the past decade documenting existing conditions and making management recommendations concerning native plant and animal communities, wetlands, habitat corridors, rare species, and invasive exotic species. As a consultant, Dr. Mitchell developed a working familiarity with the currently available data and manages The Conservation Agency’s present GIS database. In this program she expanded her role by helping manage land acquisitions as a network, not as isolated parcels in the way a consultant would.

map-of-project-areaIf successful, this approach and the circuit biologist’s role could be extended to other land trusts or organizations addressing land habitat, or wildlife conservation in the region: Prudence Island Land Trust, South Kingstown Land Trust, Tiverton Land Trust, the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission (in regards to their West Side Master Plan), and others. Funding will be sought for program continuity and potential expansion annually.

What’s involved

As a circuit biologist, Dr. Mitchell served the following functions:

  • Biological inventories, surveying, and mapping – identifying biological priorities; conducting follow-up surveys, where required.
  • Baseline Documentation Reports (BDRs) – assisting with preparation of reports for each new acquisition and for prior acquisitions with insufficient baseline documentation. BDRs consist of descriptive material, maps, photographs and other exhibits that the landowner and land trust agree collectively provide an accurate representation of the conservation values and property characteristics at the time of the grant of a conservation easement. BDRs are intended to serve as an objective information baseline for monitoring compliance with the terms of the easement.
  • Management recommendations and Management Plans – providing hierarchical lists of suggestions for maximizing/sustaining ecological potential and drafting plans for long-term protection. Recommendations will balance conservation values with agricultural, recreational, and public access issues.
  • Archiving of developing regional data layers at The Conservation Agency – in-house storage of data to avoid dispersion, loss, or duplication of effort. Data layers such as rare, threatened, or endangered species occurrences, dominant plant communities, wildlife corridors, wetlands, invasive species occurrences, greenways, property bounds, priority acquisitions, etc., will be created or modified through use of on-site surveys and the incorporation of GPS data. The growing database would provide information about contiguous ecological communities in the greenway and help focus management priorities among the participating land trusts.
  • Partnering and accessibility – Providing finalized data layers to the internet-accessible Rhode Island GIS (RIGIS) database, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Distributional information would be shared with the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, and the Environmental Data Center, University of Rhode Island. Data on rare species would be provided to the Natural Heritage Program at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.109-0974_IMG

Long-term conservation goals

The Conservation Agency Circuit Biologist Program was designed to provide continuity contributing to a cohesive strategy for managing threatened species or habitats on Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands, increase data acquisition, and allow for a unified and centralized system of data management.

Funding for this project was largely provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation but also by local contributions. For more information please contact
Numi Mitchell
at the Branch Office, 67 Howland Avenue, or  call 401-423-0866.