Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan

By the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies

Rhode Island’s wildlife is remarkably diverse considering it is the smallest state in the nation and supports the second-highest human population density. From the highlands in the northwest to the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Rhode Island has thousands of resident and migratory aquatic, terrestrial wildlife species.

Rhode Island’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (CWCS) process identified threats to these important species and their habitats, and it identified habitat loss and degradation from human population growth, with its associated impacts, as high on the long list of threats. The plan outlines a series of actions prescribed for the next decade to address these threats and to effectively conserve Rhode Island’s important wildlife resources.

The CWCS planning process began with an exhaustive inventory of existing natural resource information, programs and stakeholders. This broad and inclusive approach was taken to compile and represent information on the status of wildlife conservation in the state and the diversity of public and private stakeholders. It included a review of other programs and efforts in the state, region and nation. Information on the full array of wildlife was researched, solicited and compiled. This information is presented as a summary of the status of wildlife species and their habitats in the state, and as the foundation for identifying species of greatest conservation need and their key habitats.

The resulting product provides the vision and direction for effective and efficient wildlife conservation in Rhode Island, including collaboration with the conservation community and citizens alike for the next decade. It is designed to respond and adapt to current needs and to be evaluated at regular intervals in order to provide the most appropriate and effective conservation for wildlife in greatest need of conservation in Rhode Island.

Wildlife Highlights

Included in this natural diversity are 23 mammal species, 129 bird species, 21 reptile and amphibian species, 34 fish species and 157 invertebrate species that the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) has identified as being “in greatest conservation need” (GCN). These 364 GCN species are supported throughout the state in 64 different types of key habitats.

Primary Challenges to Conserving Wildlife in Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, regional and localized threats add to national and international threats such as climate change, habitat conversion, overfishing and pollution. Development, human disturbance, catastrophic oil spills, and inadequate funding for surveys and management threaten the region’s shorebirds. The state’s forests and their fauna are threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation, residential development, pests and pathogens, climate change, acid deposition, and invasive plant species. General or statewide threats identified in multiple plans and by stakeholder input include:

  • Habitat loss and fragmentation from lack of conservation planning and coordination (resulting in land conversion, etc.);
  • Habitat loss from inadequate-sized reserves (including poor landscape context, loss of connectivity, etc.);
  • Habitat fragmentation from lack of focal area approach to conservation;
  • Lack of GCN species and key habitat data needed for incorporation into the comprehensive strategy;
  • Lack of research to guide threat assessment and prioritization of conservation planning;
  • Lack of strategy to implement landscape-level biodiversity and water quality/quantity monitoring to support planning and assessment;
  • Lack of strategy to support priority research;
  • Lack of advocacy for environmental review;
  • Lack of authority from and enforcement of current regulations;
  • Lack of advocacy for comprehensive wildlife conservation; and
  • Broad scale temporal and spatial climate change.

Some of these general statewide threats reflect landscape-level land use trends in Rhode Island. The state’s cultural history has played an important role in shifting land uses over time, leading to changes in the abundance and distribution of various habitats.

As true historically for Rhode Island as for other New England states, the natural landscape has been significantly altered by the increase in human population and associated human activities. Colonists quickly cleared the state’s forests (which dominated the landscape) and converted them to farms, but by the 1850s, when the state’s agricultural production was eclipsed by the country’s westward expansion, the abandoned fields gradually reverted to forest. Forest recovery peaked in the 1950s and has been declining ever since; by 1998, only 59% of the state was forested. During the 1990s, the human population grew by 4.5%, making Rhode Island the second-most densely populated state in the nation. Yet the state ranks 9th in the nation in percentage of forest cover, making the state one of the few places in the world where so many people live within the forest.

For aquatic species and habitats, the CWCS identifies primary, overarching threats, including: loss of habitat value for wildlife through hydrologic impacts such as water withdrawals for irrigating agricultural fields and golf courses; non-point source pollution from development and urban runoff; and point source pollution from municipal and industrial discharges. Increased sedimentation and pollution from adjacent land use changes/development was another important multi-habitat problem needing conservation action.

 Working Together for Rhode Island’s Wildlife

A wide array of stakeholders participated in the development of the process as well as the resulting lists of wildlife species and habitats, threats and conservation actions. Extensive input was provided by natural resource staff throughout the DFW. The resulting process engaged a broader network of individuals and entities and sparked increased communication, coordination and integration.

Close coordination with the Teaming with Wildlife and Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies committees as well as local, state, regional and national conservation partners was maintained in order to capitalize on advancements and encourage integration and future coordination through the implementation of the CWCS.

Coordination cut across traditional program divisions to encourage integrated natural resource priority setting to result in mutually beneficial efficiency and economy of scale. It fostered the broader “system” approach that identified and addressed wildlife species in broader habitat associations and more holistic assemblages representing biotic communities for more effective conservation.

 

The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies represents all of North America’s fish and wildlife agencies, promotes sound management and conservation, and speaks with a unified voice on important fish and wildlife issues.

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