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Ecological Management Strategy at Tifft Nature Preserve
Tifft’s condition as a degraded natural area is the consequence of both its current circumstance as an island of nature surrounded by industry and other urban use, and its storied history as a farm, shipping facility, and dump. Present-day Tifft Nature Preserve has undergone several periods of extensive change following european settlement of Buffalo. Over the past 175 years, dredging, filling, and dumping have left novel soil substrates including coal, cinders, slag, construction and foundry waste, as well as municipal refuse (Klips, Sweeney, and Gall 1983). These activities, in addition to adjacent development including the installation of the outer harbor breakwaters and hardening and dredging of the Buffalo River navigation channel, have permanently altered the site’s hydrologic regime. When the site was abandoned following its use as a shipping facility and dumping ground, it was colonized by long-distance wind-dispersed plant species such as eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and bird-dispersed species such as common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.). A lack of adjacent natural areas has prevented many other plant species from emigrating to the site.
Tifft Nature Preserve appears to be on a trajectory of diminished biological diversity (Labatore et al. 2017), whereby dense stands of invasive common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) replace native tree and shrub species through suppressed regeneration driven by deer browse, competition from invasive plant species, and lack of seed emigration from plant species not currently found at Tifft (Labatore et al. 2017; Karl A. K. Stromayer and Warren 1997). Just one example of the impact of exotic-invasive plant dominance includes reduction in the diversity of moths and butterflies (Burghardt et al. 2010), which are an important food source for many birds and small mammals. A 2015 study at Tifft found significantly lower species richness and abundance of moth and butterfly larvae feeding on buckthorn compared to several species of planted native trees (Grunzweig et al. 2015). The trajectory toward diminished biological diversity also appears to apply to Tifft Marsh, where a lack of natural disturbance has allowed common cattail to become entirely dominant over other marsh vegetation. To the casual visitor to Tifft, this degradation is difficult to discern, as it is happening over the scale of decades, rather than seasons or years. Without intervention, Tifft is likely to continue to lose plant species, as well as its tree canopy.
Biological research at Tifft, and management of Tifft’s ecological communities is essential to prevent further degradation. Restoration of Tifft’s landscape to its pre-settlement state is virtually impossible. However, goals to increase biological diversity, resiliency, and to improve ecological functions are attainable. A primary approach to this effort has been to re-establish functional native plant communities, which serve as a foundational piece of many ecological communities. However, other approaches will be increasingly important in creating lasting change and in maintaining healthy ecological communities in the long-term. This includes management of other biotic factors, including overabundant wildlife populations, and abiotic factors, including hydrologic regimes and shoreline slopes.
The strategies listed below aim to make significant progress in changing the trajectory of ecological conditions over the next 10 years. However, it should be stressed that the fields of applied ecology, ecological management, and ecological restoration are still in their infancy. Nature is extraordinarily complex, and management actions are taken at the coarsest of scales; scalpels are not yet available. Adaptive management is critically important to the success of this work. The effects of management actions will be assessed and the latest available information in the field of applied ecology will be considered. These strategies will be reassessed and adjusted as necessary.
- Implement strategic and systematic 2-3 year site-based comprehensive ecological restoration projects, and maintain past projects. This includes site planning, wholesale invasive species control, and extensive native plant community establishment. Examples include the 2015 Wetland Planting Project, the 2017 Vernal Pools Enhancement Project, and current Mosquito Junction Swamp Restoration Project.
- Conduct broad but strategic vegetation and invasive species management efforts across the preserve. Controlling strategic stands of invasive plants, continuing to plant and establish new trees throughout the preserve, and preventing the establishment of new invasive plants or forest pests should continue in tandem with comprehensive restoration efforts. Examples include the 2009 Tree Regeneration Project, Galerucella beetle release (Lythrum salicaria bio-control), black swallow-wart (Cynanchum louiseae) containment efforts, and removal of tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) in mitigating damage from future invasions of spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula).
- Manage overabundant and ecologically-damaging wildlife populations, while improving habitat for rare or focal wildlife species. Thoughtful and appropriate management of overabundant wildlife populations will help in restoring ecological balance to Tifft Nature Preserve and adjacent properties, by increasing diversity, resilience, and function of ecological communities. Maintaining or improving habitat of rare or focal wildlife species will ensure their continued viability at Tifft Nature Preserve. Examples include oiling eggs of Canada geese (Branta canadensis), maintaining high marsh water levels to encourage population growth of muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), and the 2017 Vernal Pools Enhancement Project, which created vernal pools for Ambystomid salamander breeding.
- Monitor change in ecological communities and assess the effects of ecological management. Regular monitoring of ecological assets and communities will help to understand both positive and insidious changes, informing future management practices. Effective monitoring is a critical component of adaptive management. Monitoring efforts include participation in several larger efforts including the Bird Studies Canada Marsh Monitoring Program, Great Lakes Collaborative Phragmites Adaptive Management Framework, and the CrowdHydrology program. Additionally, past projects are regularly monitored, and a preserve-wide annual vegetation monitoring program was established in 2020, which aims to track changes in preserve vegetation over time.
The Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences has been invested in managing for a healthier and more ecologically diverse Tifft, but these efforts have benefited greatly from community involvement. Students and faculty from several local colleges and universities routinely conduct research that answer management questions or that shed light on new problems. Several regional non-profit, state, and local partners collaborate on projects or provide guidance on project design or management decisions. Volunteers from schools, scouting organizations, corporations, and other parts of the WNY community have donated thousands of hours of their time to advance restoration work, or helped to maintain previous projects. Finally, regional funding, including the Niagara River Greenway Ecological Standing Committee, have been essential in making this work possible.
Want to volunteer? Our stewardship program hosts volunteer workdays once or twice per week year-round assisting with ecological management work as well as trail maintenance. Visit our volunteer webpage to learn more and get involved.
Burghardt, Karin T., Douglas W. Tallamy, Christopher Philips, and Kimberley J. Shropshire. 2010. “Non-Native Plants Reduce Abundance, Richness, and Host Specialization in Lepidopteran Communities.” Ecosphere 1 (5): 1–22.
Grunzweig, L., D. J. Spiering, A. Labatore, and R. J. Warren. 2015. “Non-Native Plant Invader Renders Suitable Habitat Unsuitable.” Arthropod-Plant Interactions 9 (6): 577–83.
Karl A. K. Stromayer, and Robert J. Warren. 1997. “Are Overabundant Deer Herds in the Eastern United States Creating Alternate Stable States in Forest Plant Communities?” Wildlife Society Bulletin 25 (2): 227–34.
Klips, R. A., C. R. Sweeney, and W. K. Gall. 1983. “Vascular Plants of Tifft Nature Preserve.” Unpublished Report, 76.
Labatore, A. C., D. J. Spiering, D. L. Potts, and R. J. Warren. 2017. “Canopy Trees in an Urban Landscape–viable Forests or Long-Lived Gardens?” Urban Ecosystems. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11252-016-0601-x.
A volunteer repairs wooden shelters around planted trees.
Created vernal pool, 1 year after construction.
Crew from WNY PRISM (Parnership for Regional Invasive Species Management) in an area recently cleared of invasive buckthorn.
Staff and volunteers install native plants inside Heritage Boardwalk as part of the 2015 Wetland Planting project.
Volunteers help collect seed from native plant species off-site, for future restoration work at Tifft.