Connecticut’s Sandplains Need Protection
Sandplains are one of New England’s rarest ecosystems. Areas of dry sandy soil left by glacial outwash, sandplains support sparse vegetation and bare ground. At first glance, a sandplain looks like a scruffy wasteland, hardly something worth standing up for—and typically, no one has. Sandplains have been subjected to mining, development, and fragmentation resulting in a loss of up to 95% of this habitat type. But these unusual environments are home to a number of rare plants and insects.
Unfortunately, more of this special habitat might soon be lost. The North Haven Sandplains in Wallingford, Connecticut, one of the largest and best-preserved sandplain in the state, is at risk. A special permit to excavate, process materials, and build an office and warehouse on the site has been filed with the Wallingford Planning and Zoning Committee Connecticut.
The North Haven Sandplains contain two habitats of particular conservation concern, sand barrens, and dry acidic forest; sand barrens are considered an imperiled ecosystem in Connecticut. This site should be made a priority for conservation because it supports and enhances biodiversity in the region. The North Haven Sandplains is currently recognized by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) as containing two of the state’s twenty-five Critical Habitats, specialized communities that support rare wildlife. This designation is important for land use planning and conservation efforts.
Much of Connecticut was densely wooded, meaning open ecosystems like sandplains were unusual. Sandplains typically have medium-fine sand and gravel sediment and are disturbance-dependent communities. At the beginning of the twentieth century, these areas were considered poor and “improved” upon when converted to agriculture. We now realize, however, that these areas are rich in species diversity.
Sandplains are important because they can support complex insect-dominated communities that have been overlooked in many conservation efforts. Surveys of inland sand communities in this area done by David Wagner and colleagues, from the University of Connecticut and the University of Vermont, between 1999 and 2001 (see note at foot of blog) documented 323 species of insects and added more than a dozen Connecticut state records! This three-year survey of the inland sand communities of southern New England found Hymenoptera (including bees, wasps, and ants) to be one of the groups with the greatest number of species. For example, the survey team found over 150 species of bees and wasps in the sandy ecosystems of the Connecticut River Valley—and at the North Haven sandplains site found two solitary bees, Perdita bradleyi and P. consobrina, that were new discoveries for Connecticut. Additionally, in the Northeast, sandy areas host the highest diversity of velvet wasps (families Multillidae and Bradynobaenidae) as well as a range of other rare grassland and sandplain specialists.
Tiger beetles were also well represented on sandplains. Two of the tiger beetles found on these habitats, a big sand tiger beetle (Cicindela formosa generosa) and a festive tiger beetle (C. scutellaris lecontei), are sand barren specialists that prefer well-drained sands. The big sand tiger beetle is one of the largest North American tiger beetles, so big in fact that it takes longer to warm up than smaller species and is therefore active later in the day. It is listed as a Special Concern species in Connecticut. A third tiger beetle, the oblique-lined tiger beetle (C. tranquebarica), is listed as a Threatened Species in Connecticut; both it and the big sand tiger beetle are present at the North Haven Sandplains site.
Experts have suggested that the continued development on sandplains in the region could mean the loss of potentially more than 150 species of sand barren specialists from Connecticut. The Quinnipiac River Watershed Based Plan—which includes North Haven Sandplains—suggests prioritizing the protection of “undeveloped privately-owned critical habitats as open space, including sand plain habitats around industrial parks in North Haven and Wallingford” and highlights the importance of limiting development to protect and preserve watershed health. Since the North Haven Sandplains host a diverse insect community, including several rare or at-risk species, the proposed sand excavation and construction will have irreversible effects on biodiversity in this watershed.
Hopefully, it’s not too late to protect this remarkable example of an inland sand barren habitat. Frequently these days, development is accompanied by mitigation of built-on habitat, but this is not a habitat that can be replaced. Mitigation efforts for sandplains will not replicate the complex dynamics because (1) little is known of them, (2) nutrient-poor habitats, like the sandplains, are often shaped by unique soil and microgeographic conditions and (3) disturbing the site (or trying to create new habitat) will introduce and favor invasive species that will outcompete native species. Keeping intact habitat is crucial, and further fragmentation of these unique places will only magnify prior losses. The North Haven Sandplains is one of the few remaining undeveloped sites and should remain intact so that it can continue to give a rich and unique assembly of plants and animals a chance to persist.
You can voice your opinion! If a permit for development is being considered, it should be on the condition that the Wildlife Division of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is consulted to assess impact to wildlife and provide their expertise on Connecticut’s natural resources.
There is a public hearing on the development of this property during the next Wallingford Planning and Zoning Commission Meeting on Monday, May 14 at 7 p.m. at Wallingford Town Hall, 45 S. Main St., Wallingford, CT 06492. If you have questions about the meeting you can contact the Planning and Zoning Office at 203-294-2090
Note: The information about the multi-year survey was kindly provided by Dr. David Wagner of the University of Connecticut. The survey results are not formally published, but can be cited as: Wagner, D.L., K.S. Omland, and M. Wall. 2018. Insect-dominated sand communities in the Connecticut River Valley. Unpublished manuscript.
By Katie Hietala-Henschell, Endangered Species Conservation Biologist