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GROUPS COOPERATE TO PROVIDE CREATURE COMFORTS

Since one major missing link in our ecology these days is upland grassland habitat, it is heartening to report two major projects in Niagara County will develop that kind of critter space over the next few years.

"The Lewiston Plateau behind the village and adjacent to Artpark is going to be split into athletic fields and wildlife habitat, and will link to the Artpark Woods," said Greg Tessman, Niagara County's U.S. Department of Agriculture conservationist. Tessman also is the habitat chairman for WNY Pheasants Forever, and thus brings farming and environmental experience plus a good working relationship with area farmers to the job. He's helped PF do a lot more useful habitat work than it otherwise might be able to.

He, and PF, are also working on a major project at Four Mile Creek State Park, which, if it succeeds will be a pilot project for a state parks establishment that, until now, has not had wildlife habitat in its mission statement.

But at Lewiston, PF is only a tiny part of the project.

"There are several major players," said Bob Baxter, a charter member of the Niagara Frontier Wildlife Habitat Council, a group that embraces everything from botanists and entomologists to hunters, anglers and people who just like to walk around outdoors.

"At least five years ago we began thinking about making the plains near Artpark into wildlife habitat," Baxter said. "When the town of Lewiston got the land from the New York Power Authority, they wanted playing fields, but they agreed to split the 50-acre tract. The area to the east will be playing fields, to the west, toward Artpark, it will be grassland habitat. And the list of people and organizations that will help is enormous -- truckers, soil, pond diggers and seed providers. Right now we are deciding what plants to put in, what trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs to plant."

It is a cold winter's day and we are in bright sunlight looking over a ridge that seems more suited to yak habitat than to birds: sparse windblown grasses poke through the flinty ground overlooking the Lewiston Library.

"This place used to be 40 feet lower," said PF's Dave Whitt. "It is a spoils bank from when they built the power plant."

Lower down the slope a wildlife pond will be dug, probably near Artpark woods; topsoil will be trucked in and native grasses planted on the non-playing field half. In time, this should be a haven for songbirds and small mammals, Tessman says.

That kind of habitat will help pheasants, too, although PF isn't donating seed for that, nor are several other outdoor organizations donating money, brains and sweat equity because of hunting opportunities.

"The fact is, grassland habitat is declining due to the slow regeneration of forests into abandoned farmland along with the spread of the suburbs," Whitt says. "Just like Ducks Unlimited works to save wetlands, we work to save grasslands."

That's something Baxter echoes. The retired Niagara Community College English professor is an outdoor generalist who is more interested in seeing bobolinks at his backyard feeder than game birds, but early on he's tried to forge links between the preservationists, conservationists, hunters, anglers, entomologists and botanists -- especially in trying to remove portions of the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls and reestablishing the Niagara Park reservation.

The coalition seems to be working for grassland throughout the area, as well: The NFWHC has pledges of 2000 acres in their "no-mow" program, where land owners agree to leave their pastures and meadows undisturbed until after the ground-nesters have had a chance to bring off their broods.

Several miles away, in Porter, Four Mile Creek State Park has the land and the soils and even some grassy meadows on the east side of the creek. The west side has camp sites.

This park, unlike Joseph Davis or even the duck blinds at Fort Niagara, does not allow hunting, says park manager Dave Clark. "But we have a chance to put back some native grasses and keep the trees from spreading, so I wanted to try a demonstration project."

Last year PF gave him the seed to establish a butterfly garden, but when state park poo-bahs from the regional office and Albany met with Clark, Whitt and Tessman their first reaction was: "Why would a group of hunters want to develop an area where there will be no hunting?"

"Simple," Whitt says. "We think it's a good chance to give back to the environment. Besides, if pheasants can nest safely here they will spread to other areas where hunting is allowed."

More important, if this works, the project could become a pilot to show how planning for wildlife habitat could be incorporated in all state park plans in the future. Today, the parks mission statement does not require the development or preservation of wildlife habitat -- although there is nothing that prevents a park manager from choosing to do so.

But the upland meadow area at Four Mile is stalled right now.

"I have the money and authorization to plow, but Albany wants us to plant only Northeastern native species and they have not given us a list," Clark says. "I assume I'll get that list before planting season."

In all, it looks as if Niagara County's Lake Plains, once teeming with pheasants and meadow-loving songbirds, will be getting some new patches where such species may thrive. That not only bodes well for the birds, but for future cooperation among disparate groups interested in outdoor recreation.

To learn more, check out the wildlife habitat council Web site (www.nfwhc.org) or the Niagara Heritage Web site (www.niagaraheritage.org) or attend the Pheasant Forever banquet in Salvatore's Italian Gardens, March 23. A banquet ticket and one membership in PF costs $50, and there are special prices for spouses and kids. Whitt is ticket chairman and can be reached at 702 Ridge Road, Lewiston, 14092, or by phone at 754-1678.

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