WEST MONROE — For many, when it comes to the topic of land management, forests are king. And certainly the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation pays them their well-deserved respect and concern, having designated 442 areas, comprising almost 800,000 acres, not including the Adirondack and Catskill state parks, as state forests. Fourteen of them are in Oswego County.
But there are also other types of land the DEC oversees, and though they may be less majestic than old-growth forests, and far fewer in number, in many ways they’re just as important, and in some ways even more so.
Wildlife Management Areas fall into this somewhat lesser-known category. There are 128 WMAs in New York state, comprising nearly 235,000 acres. Five of them are in Oswego County.
The Three Mile Bay Wildlife Management Area, at the northeast tip of Oneida Lake, is one of those five and its 10-year Habitat Management Plan written by the DEC was recently presented in an hour-long Zoom meeting available for public viewing at https://meetny.webex.com/recordingservice/sites/meetny/recording/ef4ec606255f4776890009ec577e0d82/playback.
Beginning with the history of Three Mile Bay as a WMA, the 43-page report gives an overview of the purpose of its 10-year plan and follows up with a detailed breakdown of how that plan will be applied to the six separately-defined environmental sections of the 3,908 acre WMA.
Land designated as forest within Three Mile Bay is dealt with first, followed by shrubland, grassland, agricultural land, wetlands, and open water.
According to the report, “The first parcels of land that eventually became Three Mile Bay Wildlife Management Area (WMA) were acquired by the state in the 1950s using Pittman-Robertson Funds.”
The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, popularly known as the Pittman–Robertson Act, named for the Nevada senator and Virginia congressman who sponsored the bill, was approved by Congress in 1937. The act provides funding for the selection, restoration, and improvement of wildlife habitat and for wildlife management research. It is funded by an excise tax on guns, ammunition, and archery equipment and by license fees on hunting. Those fees cannot be diverted for “any other purpose than the administration of said state fish and game department,” according to the Act. According to the Congressional Research Service, “Since its creation, Pittman-Robertson has provided over $18.8 billion to states and territories.” In 2019, New York state sold 564,612 hunting licenses. In 2018, New York was awarded $20.8 million in Pittman-Robertson funds.
Because conservation funding has primarily been funded over the years by hunters, some accuse conservation policy as being skewed in hunters’ favor. Hunters counter that as they are funding conservation and wildlife management efforts, they should have a considerable say in how those funds are spent. They also argue for increasing the funding sources for such conservation efforts in order to ensure a consistent source of funds, a policy proposal known as the “backpack tax” on other members of the public who enjoy the outdoors in ways other than hunting. That proposal may become more and more of a real possibility as, according to the Sierra Club, “a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey shows that as of 2018, only about 5 percent of Americans hunt—half of what it was 50 years ago—and the decline is expected to accelerate over the next decade.”
In recent years, a number of conservation-concerned non-profits have stepped up their financial contributions to wildlife management, the Nature Conservancy ranking at the top of that list. And as hunters expected pro-hunting policies enacted in response to their large share of conservation funding, environmentalists expect policy to now tilt more their way in response to their increased funding. As a result there has been some relaxation nationwide of anti-predator (wolves and coyote) policies along with increased funding of all wildlife management whether a species is hunted or not.
At Three Mile Bay WMA, plant life plays a big part in the DEC’s 10-year management plan. From the beginning, the lands were identified as important to waterfowl species for both their nesting and seasonal migrations. Later after the 1962 Recreational Bond Act, more lands were added to the property. Parts of the area in the 1920s were cleared and drained for muck farming, but with those operations abandoned in the 1930s and the eventual succession of the habitats, signs of those old operations are long gone now. Additional parcels were added to the property in the 1980s with the purpose of further protecting wetlands and water quality through funds available via the Environmental Quality Bond Act of 1986.
The area is largely wetland, with the muck-peat soils influencing what plant life is viable on the WMA. The WMA is generally low and flat with several ridges or islands extending across the interior. Elevations vary from 369 to 439 feet with most of the area not exceeding 30 feet above Oneida Lake. Much of the WMA acreage is swamp hardwood forests of various ages with red and silver maple dominating the tree species. In the select areas of upland, more typical northern hardwood trees like oaks, hickories, ashes and softwood species such as white pine and cedar can be found. Some areas of open space and larger fields have been maintained through routine mowing and interspersed with those areas of wetland and transitional areas of shrublands with species such as dogwood, cranberry, and spirea being found. Three Mile Bay WMA, also known as Big Bay or Toad Harbor Swamp, has been identified as both an Important Bird Area and a Bird Conservation Area largely for its expansive wetland forests and its proximity to nearby Oneida Lake.
One reality of the area must be appreciated to understand the management of Three Mile Bay. By far, most of it is almost inaccessible wetland or open water and is left untouched. Almost all of the DEC’s management of Three Mile Bay could be described as working around the edges as the interior is either inaccessible or unworkable. Their 10-year plan, therefore, is one primarily of maintenance of things as they are. The only exception concerns the percentage of old forest to young forest. The DEC intends to decrease old forest acreage, presently making up 79% of the WMA, by 3%, replacing poor quality forest while promoting the regeneration of native species. Young forest, presently comprising less than 1% of the WMA, will be increased to 3%, growing from two acres to 124. All other lands, those being shrubland, grassland, agricultural land, wetland, and open water will remain as they are now, according to the plan.
As set forth in the plan, the 10-year goals of the DEC’s habitat management of Three Mile Bay are:
•Maintain the WMA’s intermediate and mature forested acreage at approximately 76% to continue to provide habitat and diversity for forest species.
•Manage approximately 3% of the WMA as young forest (4% of the total forested area) within the next 10 years to improve habitat for American woodcock, ruffed grouse, wild turkey, and golden-winged warbler, all but wild turkey being classified as Species of Greatest Conservation Need, the golden-winged warbler especially in need and labeled as High Priority.
•Maintain grassland and wetland at current levels to continue to provide a diversity of habitat.
Shrublands within the WMA are dominated by woody plants typically less than 10 feet tall with scattered open patches of grasses and forbs (herbaceous, not woody, broadleaf plants that are not grass-like) that provide floristic diversity. Typically, shrublands are characterized by greater than 50% cover of shrubs and less than 25% canopy cover of trees.
The DEC’s management objectives for Three Mile Bay’s shrublands call for:
•Maintaining a “soft-edge effect” around fields through young forest management.
•Monitoring for invasive species and treating as necessary with mechanical or, when appropriate, chemical means, and
•Establishing native, food-producing shrubland species areas around wetlands and fields.
Currently, there are 15 acres of managed shrubland stands within the Three Mile Bay WMA, split between 4 stands ranging from 1 to 7 acres in size. Shrubland habitat also exists on the property in wetlands. Soft-edge habitat along field margins will provide shrubland structure, and this soft-edge habitat will be created and maintained through young forest management. Non-native species such as buckthorn, honeysuckle, and multiflora rose have become established in some of these shrublands and soft-edge habitat. Due to the invasive biology of these species, they can quickly establish in an unmaintained field and become dominant. Native shrubs are also present including species of hawthorn, dogwood, viburnum, and willow. These native shrubs provide a valuable soft mast resource for wildlife and maintaining such species is important.
Shrublands contain unique food and cover options that differ from young forest and can often persist longer as a habitat type since dense shrubs can exclude the growth of trees.
Shrublands provide habitat for many wildlife species including several that also use young forests. Although young forest and shrubland provide habitat for similar species, both are needed to provide for the full range of wildlife species. The creation and maintenance of soft-edge habitat will benefit species such as ruffed grouse, American woodcock, wild turkey, golden-winged warbler, cottontail rabbit, and numerous songbird species.
Grasslands make up 146 acres of Three Mile Bay WMA’s habitat and comprise 16 grassland fields that range in size from 2 acres to 18 acres.
Grasslands are open, grassy areas with a minimal amount of shrub and tree cover (less than 35%) that are maintained, or could be maintained, without significant brush cutting. Grasslands may include areas where hay is harvested by late season mowing once per year. They are managed through routine mowing to prevent woody plant colonization. Some of the mowing guidelines set down in the 10-year plan include:
•Frequency of mowing, size of area mowed, and mowing techniques should be based on species present and current and desired habitat conditions.
•Block or spot mowing is preferred, and strip mowing should be limited (especially in fields over 25 acres).
•Unmowed blocks should be in the shape of a square as opposed to long rectangles.
•When mowing, consider mowing from one side of the field to the other side or start in the center and mow outwards to avoid concentrating animals in the area yet to be mowed.
In general, mow grass to a residual height of 6-12 inches.
Agricultural lands on WMAs include any acreage on which crops are grown, primarily areas that are under cooperative agreements or farming contracts, but also including wildlife food plots.
There is currently no acreage on Three Mile Bay WMA that is managed as agricultural land and there are no plans to create such habitat at this time.
Presently, there are 447 acres of natural wetlands in the Three Mile Bay WMA. Prior to state acquisition in this area, the portion of property located to the north of Toad Harbor and McCloud Road was comprised of a large wetland that was drained and farmed for truck crops. Following state acquisition of this area, beavers eventually built dams on the main drainage channel resulting in periodic flooding. The state developed plans for the creation of two marshes. One of these marshes, referred to as the main pond basin, was to be created by installing a dike along the western edge of the WMA paralleling a portion of Toad Harbor Road. This would have resulted in the flooding of approximately 1,000 acres. The second and smaller marsh, less than 100 acres in size, was to be constructed to the southeast of Depot Road. Ultimately, neither of these marshes was created and no explanations were provided.
Lastly, The DEC’s 10-year plan considers the management of the Three Mile Bay WMA’s 143 acres of Oneida Lake shoreline and adjacent lake bottom within the WMA’s boundary. Also included within that boundary are portions of Little Bay Creek, Big Bay Creek, and Threemile Creek.
The plan’s open water objective is to maintain those areas as they are today. Furthermore, according to the plan, the open water on this WMA is managed directly (shoreline) and indirectly (streams) by the New York State Canal Authority.