COLONIE Scattered across 3,200 noncontiguous acres between the towns of Colonie and Guilderland, lies one of Earth’s best examples of a specific and rare ecosystem, home to a surprising array of flora and fauna that depend on it to survive. Efforts are currently underway to expand a habitat that has all but disappeared after thousands of years, and conservationists are hoping to add more than 2,000 additional acres of protected land in an area that is, at the same time, experiencing significant commercial development.
Noting that the Albany Pine Bush Preserve has been named a National Natural Landmark as the largest inland field of sand dunes in Eastern North America, Neil Gifford, the conservation director for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, said, “There are 64 rare species of wildlife here, most which depend on that particular habitat and periodic fires.”
Among the largest of only 20 inland pine barrens ecosystems in the world, Albany’s Pine Bush was created after the last ice age more than 12,000 years ago. Prior to that, the region was under roughly a mile of solid ice, which, when it melted, created a large glacial lake that stretched from Newburgh to Glens Falls. As the water gradually drained, sandy deposits left behind were blown by winds to their current location from several miles to the west, near present-day Schenectady. Many of the plants and animals that made their homes in the unique habitat that was created have evolved to become codependent on each other-and what little of that habitat is left. “It’s crazy how it’s all connected,” said Gifford, who is working to restore and expand the diminished habitat and rebuild the populations of species that have lived there. Without a clear blueprint, however, it hasn’t been easy.
“When we first started this, there was nowhere in the United States that you could walk out your door into a pitch pine scrub oak barrens and say, ‘This is what we need to restore,’ and then measure it and go restore it elsewhere,” said Gifford. “So, it’s kind of been a working hypothesis. We knew it was open and that it was a grassy shrub land underneath this open canopy of pitch pine that supported large numbers of these animals. A lot of the wildlife work that we do is trying to let the wildlife tell us if we’re managing the habitat appropriately.”
To that end, scientists and volunteers at the preserve work to monitor the populations and reproductive health of the numerous species of animals and plants that inhabit the area. “We think we know what it needs to look like, but really all we have are historical photos and historical information on population levels,” he explained. By comparing reproductive rates and populations with available information, they attempt to learn from any aberrations in the habitats that they manipulate-primarily, somewhat counter-intuitively, by clearing trees and setting fire to the environment. So far, they’ve had considerable success.
“For the Karner Blue Butterfly,” Gifford said of their most popular and most endangered denizen, “we’ve been trying to recover and build the population up to a point where it’s more or less self-sufficient.” When the Albany Pine Bush Commission began managing the land in 1991, Gifford said that there were only 13 acres of habitat hospitable to the butterflies-which depend on a flower called the wild blue lupine as a food source-and only a few hundred butterflies.