New Jersey Conservation Summary
While sometimes known for its network of highways, population density and place in the northeastern megalopolis, New Jersey supports a remarkably diverse landscape whose natural treasures merit greater renown.
Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats
Bounded on the east and west by two major rivers, the Hudson and Delaware, New Jersey is a mid-Atlantic coast peninsula that spans five ecoregions, from an extensive coastal plain to the Appalachians in the Kittatinny Mountains. The state’s diverse geology, glacial history and temperate climate all contribute to a remarkable variety of native species and habitats.
Along with a cohort of creatures inhabiting its land, freshwater, and marine shore—450 vertebrates, 85 freshwater fish, 28 marine mammals and 336 marine finfish—the Garden State hosts plant diversity rivaling that of much larger states. More than 2,100 native plants, including 812 listed as endangered or species of concern, grow here. Several of these plant species are only found in New Jersey.
The caves, sinkholes, fens and springs of northwest New Jersey support unique plant communities, globally rare plants such as spreading globe flower and animals such as the longtail salamander. The Highlands’ forested mountains supply pristine drinking water to the state. Rising to the spectacular volcanic ridges of the Palisades, Watchung and Sourland Mountains, the dry, rocky ridges of the Piedmont feature rare glade communities, important talus habitat for endangered Allegheny woodrats, and the best population in the world of the globally rare Torrey’s mountain mint. Diverse coastal habitats—beaches, dunes, and tidal marshes—lace the state’s coastal plain bordering the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which is home to dozens of globally rare species of plants and animals and one of the few places on the planet to see expanses of dwarf pitch pine.
Public and Private Conservation Efforts
Thirty years ago, only one nesting pair of bald eagles remained in New Jersey. Peregrine falcons had not successfully nested for over a decade, and the osprey was an endangered species. The State of New Jersey, which owns and manages approximately 750,000 acres, has been the largest player in arresting this downward spiral. But the preservation of thousands of acres each year has only been possible through the concerted efforts of its numerous non-profit land partners like the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust, Conserve Wildlife Foundation, NJ Audubon Society, NJ Conservation Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Pinelands Preservation Alliance, Ridge and Valley Conservancy, and Morris Land Trust.
Today New Jersey is home to more than 60 active bald eagle nests and 18–20 pairs of peregrine falcons which nest regularly in their historic cliff habitat on the Hudson River Palisades. The osprey has the distinction of being the first species in state history to be upgraded from the State’s endangered species list to threatened status.
Other successes include the reintroduction of turkeys and bobcats—species thought to be extirpated from the state—and the protection of New Jersey’s best population of Appalachian Mountain boltonia. Restricted to the karst regions of New Jersey and Virginia, this recently described rare plant inhabits rare calcareous sinkhole ponds like those now preserved within a State Park Natural Area. Elsewhere, private landowners, scientists, academics, agencies and non-profits all collaborated to protect Hammond’s yellow spring beauty, another state endangered plant species that is new to science, endemic to New Jersey, and globally imperiled.
Three large regions of the state have received noteworthy federal, state and local protection: the Highlands, Pine Barrens and Delaware Bayshore.
Noted for their beauty, the forests, wetlands, rivers and streams of the northern New Jersey Highlands host considerable diversity and yield 379 million gallons of drinking water daily for millions of residents in the state. The northernmost population in the world of the federally threatened swamp pink is just one of the 137 endangered and threatened plants that have been documented in the Highlands. The Highlands also features an assortment of 70-plus state listed mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies and mussels, three of which—the Indiana bat, bog turtle and bald eagle—are federally listed. The recent adoption of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act should bolster conservation efforts in this 1,250 square-mile area.
The Pine Barrens
The forests, barrens, lowlands, cedar swamps, bogs and riverside savannas of the Pinelands National Reserve provide a vast and critically important vegetative mosaic. Recognized as the first National Reserve under the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, the region also earned UNESCO’s designation as a U.S. Biosphere Reserve in 1983 and an International Biosphere Reserve in 1988. Covering approximately 1.1 million acres, the region’s aquifers contain 17 trillion gallons of water and support numerous rare animals, like the Pine Barrens tree frog and pine snake, and at least 850 species of plants, including the federally threatened swamp pink and Knieskern’s beaked-rush. It is also home to the only population of American chaffseed, a federally endangered plant species, north of North Carolina. The Pinelands Commission and Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan now protects the region in a manner that maintains its unique ecology while permitting compatible development.
The Delaware Bayshore
Encompassing the lower Delaware River Estuary and adjacent Atlantic coast, the Delaware Bayshore is a world-renowned site for bird migration on the Atlantic Flyway. Red knots and other shorebirds that winter as far south as Tierra del Fuego rely on the bay’s horseshoe crab eggs to fuel flights to Arctic breeding grounds. Wintering Atlantic brant depend on its eel grass and sea lettuce, and juvenile hawks and owls crossing the broad and sometimes treacherous bay depend on the food and shelter provided by the forests and fields of the lower Cape May peninsula. Hundreds of state endangered and threatened plants found only here make the Delaware Bayshore and Cape May Peninsula a hot spot of botanical diversity in the Garden State. This includes the only population in the world of New Jersey dewberry, a species that was first discovered in 1935, then not seen again for 68 years until it was relocated by staff of the Natural Heritage Program in 2003.
With the highest population density in the country, the major threat to biodiversity in New Jersey is sprawl and the resulting loss and fragmentation of habitat. The State lost a staggering amount of open space in the last 2 decades: approximately 15,000 acres every year. If this current pace continues, New Jersey could become the first state to reach full buildout of its remaining developable land.
Additional challenges to natural ecosystems come from invasive plant and animal species and, in many areas of the state, an abundant deer population. The impacts of climate change—predicted sea-level rise, increased storm intensity, and severe drought—will all affect water resource allocation and pose major challenges.
New Jersey’s Future
A long-term, large-scale protection strategy developed by an array of partners, including other government agencies, conservation groups, private landowners and members of the public, is crucial to ensure the protection and viability of New Jersey’s biodiversity resources. New Jersey’s State Wildlife Action Plan is one example of this type of protection strategy.
Recent events have clarified the critical role that private landowners will play in the state’s conservation future. The New Jersey DEP’s Natural Heritage Program worked with a northwestern New Jersey landowner to protect a site known for a rare ecological community and a concentration of more than 30 rare plants, leading to the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust’s acquisition of core land.
New Jersey DEP’s Endangered & Nongame Species Program biologists discovered the state’s single-largest colony of bog turtles on a private property in northern New Jersey. Enrolled into the Landowner Incentive Program with the help and collaboration of the landowner, the property is now undergoing habitat restoration to maintain the long-term success of this federally listed species population.