The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced Tuesday it will seek public comment on a plan to set aside 2,000 acres within a target area of more than 37,700 acres stretching from Pawling to Amenia and on into Litchfield County, Connecticut.
The land, it said, would be acquired only from property owners willing to sell or donate. In Dutchess, the federal government would seek to set aside as much as 1,500 acres. The rest would be in Connecticut. By comparison, Mills Norrie State Park is about 1,000 acres.
The goal would be to connect the parcels, officials said, but they would not necessarily have to be contiguous.
"We are in one of the earlier stages of the planning process," spokeswoman Meagan Racey said. "If this plan is approved, we would then be able to seek willing and interested landowners."
The Dutchess County refuge, dubbed the Northern Housatonic Focus Area, would be one of 10 in a necklace of areas running from New York to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine. The larger network would be known as the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuges would be modeled after other early-stage forest habitats, including the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Ulster County.
The effort is spurred by an alarming drop in the Northeast of more than 65 species needing grasslands and young forests for habitat. They include songbirds, mammals, reptiles, pollinators and other wildlife.
Scientists believe the decline is because the younger forests have given way to two other kinds of habitat — areas cleared for development and older, more mature forests.
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One scientist believes the effort could have an impact on the prevalence of Lyme disease nearby.
Monarch butterflies are among the species that would benefit from a wildlife refuge in Dutchess County, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (Photo: Tom Keoner/USFWS)
Richard Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, said a wider array of animal species could regulate abundance of white-footed mice, which are seen as one of the most efficient propagators of infected ticks. Ostfeld said more species could deflect ticks away from the mice.
The refuges, Ostfield said, could also discourage developers from "plunking new housing developments right in the middle of risky habitat."
"It would be interesting," he said, "to monitor Lyme disease risk and incidence before and after protection, or comparing protected and unprotected areas."
If the plan is approved, the Fish & Wildlife Service said it could be decades before all of the land is acquired.
In its announcement, the federal government stressed that all of the land would come from willing property owners. Racey, the spokeswoman, said the emphasis was not in response to land management controversies in the west, including the occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon by antigovernment protesters.
"We have had a lot of experience in our own region with putting together conservation plans," Racey said, "and have recognized through those experiences that there is sometimes a miscommunication and misunderstanding about the process."