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Connecticut’s Sand Plains Need Protection

By Katie Hietala-Henschell on 11 May 2018

These unusual environments are home to a number of rare plants and insects.

Sand plains are one of New England’s rarest ecosystems. Areas of dry, sandy soil left by glacial outwash, sand plains support sparse vegetation and bare ground. At first glance, a sand plain looks like a scruffy wasteland, hardly something worth standing up for—and typically, no one has. Sand plains 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.

 

 

wallingford sandplains
The Wallingford sand plains may not look like much, but they are a rare ecosystem that supports incredible biodiversity not found elsewhere in Connecticut. (Photo: Dave Zajac, Record-Journal)

 

Unfortunately, more of this special habitat might soon be lost. The North Haven sand plains in Wallingford, Connecticut, among the largest and best-preserved sand plains in the state, are 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 Commission.

The North Haven sand plains 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 sand plains are currently recognized by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection as containing two of the state’s 25 critical habitats, which are 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 sand plains were unusual. Sand plains typically have medium-fine sand and gravel sediment and are disturbance-dependent communities. At the beginning of the 20th century, these areas were considered poor and were “improved” upon when converted to agriculture. We now realize, however, that these areas are rich in species diversity.

Sand plains 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 footnote) 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 more than 150 species of bees and wasps in the sandy ecosystems of the Connecticut River Valley, and they found two solitary bees, Perdita bradleyi and P. consobrina (new discoveries for Connecticut) at the North Haven sand plains site. Additionally, in the Northeast, sandy areas host the highest diversity of velvet wasps (families Mutillidae and Bradynobaenidae) as well as a range of other rare grassland and sand plain specialists.

Tiger beetles were also well represented on sand plains. 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 species of special concern 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 sand plains site.

 

tiger beetles
Clockwise from top: Cicindela formosa, C. tranquebarica, C. formosa generosa, and C. scutellaris, all photographed in Connecticut. (Photos: Mike Thomas, used with permission)

 

Experts have suggested that the continued development on sand plains 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 the North Haven sand plains—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 sand plains 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.

We hope it’s not too late to protect this remarkable example of an inland sand barren habitat. Frequently, development is accompanied by mitigation of built-on habitat, but this is not a habitat that can be replaced. Mitigation efforts for sand plains will not replicate the complex dynamics because (1) little is known of them, (2) nutrient-poor habitats like the sand plains 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 sand plains are 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.

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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 multiyear 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.

 

Authors

Katie holds a master’s degree in Forest Ecology and Management from Michigan Technological University, where her research focused on monitoring emerald ash borer and assessing tree health in southeastern Michigan. Prior to joining the Xerces Society, she was a researcher and lab manager at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the Entomology Department and assisted with research on invasive insects and pollinators in agricultural systems and beneficial insects in biofuel crops and native ecosystems.

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