Silvio O. Conte NFWR

Photo:David Govatski
With this Wingtips, we continue our journey through the National Wildlife Refuge System, and we focus on Region 5, in the Northeast, roughly from Maine to Virginia. We also recognize a refuge not particularly known for the high proportion of MBCF funds that have been used to acquire its land. This unique refuge was designed to protect a river valley and its ecosystems, rather than to provide a stopover for migrants following a flyway; it is one of only three refuges in the system that has the word Fish in its name. Also unusually, this refuge comprises properties that lie in four different states.

Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge was established in 1997 to protect the native plant, fish, and wildlife of the 7.2 million acres that comprise the Connecticut River watershed. Today, the refuge (more than 35,000 acres) is organized into six divisions and seven units, portions of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. A relatively modest 57% of the refuge's land was acquired with MBCF money. And it continues to grow, with an additional 191 acres coming under protection in the past year.

Rising just across the border with Canada, the Connecticut River flows more than 400 miles to its mouth at Long Island Sound. 142 species of fish; 250 birds; 100 mammals, reptiles, and amphibians; 1,500 invertebrates; and 3,000 plants call the watershed home. It supports a variety of habitats – northern forests, rivers and streams, and an internationally significant complex of tidal fresh, brackish, and salt marshes. Nine species of the watershed are federally listed as endangered or threatened. With such an extensive range of habitats, the list of focal species is quite diverse; a few examples include Shortnose Sturgeon, American Woodcock, Bank Swallow, and Cerulean Warbler.

The refuge cooperates in partnerships with a wide variety of organizations and individuals to provide environmental education, to support habitat conservation and management on public and private lands, and to protect additional habitat in the Connecticut River watershed.  

The refuge owes its existence to the advocacy of Silvio O. Conte (R-MA), who introduced legislation in 1991 to protect the river and its lands. Conte was a 26-year member of the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission (MBCC).

Of his fellow conservationist, John Dingell (D-MI) said, "Silvio Conte was a fierce defender of the fragile resources protected by the National Wildlife Refuge System and naming the refuge after him was a fitting tribute. Were he with us today, he would still be making his persuasive and colorful speeches in support of the Connecticut River Basin, the largest river basin in New England. As his colleague in the House of Representatives and fellow member of the MBCC, he was a dear friend and one I was happy to fight beside."

The refuge is graced with the support of not one, but at least five different friends groups, as well as coalition participation by state, regional, and national organizations.  Conte NFWR is powered by partnerships with 40 organizations and agencies. It is a symbiotic relationship that focuses on working together to achieve goals.

Refuge visitors are welcome at four facilities, including an education center at the Montshire Museum of Science.  To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Stamp next month, the Friends of the refuge's Pondicherry Division will sponsor a guided snowshoe hike on 16 March.

This National Wildlife Refuge profile first appeared in the 24 February 2014 issue of Wingtips.