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The Trustees of Reservations

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Primer on the MA Endangered Species Act (MESA) and Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP)

Pictured below is a GIS map made by TTOR, showing a CR property in Central Massachusetts, and its context within the National Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) areas defined by the MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. (DFW).  NHESP's BioMap is meant to serve as a framework for both government and non-profit agencies like land trusts, to help identify priority habitat sites for land conservation efforts.  NHESP also reviews property site work in areas subject to the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA), for compliance with that legislation.   

Let's start with a primer on areas regulated under MESA, and what that means for landowners.  DFW designates sensitive habitat areas through NHESP, and any work performed in "Priority Habitat of Rare Species" (in red on the map below) is subject to MESA, which protects the habitats of 435 total native plant and animal species.  A subset of these Priority Habitats are "Estimated Habitats," which specifically protect rare wetland wildlife species, but not plants, and fall under the MA Wetlands Protection Act (WPA), which will be the subject of a separate post.  As you can see on the map, the red Priority Habitat has off-white hatching, which indicates that it is also an Estimated Habitat of rare wetland animal species.  Therefore, both MESA and the WPA would apply to work in that area. 

In Priority Habitat areas, the state requires that landowners submit MESA applications for any projects that could lead to habitat alterations, and are not on the list of MESA-exemptions.  For non-exempt work, NHESP reviews plans, makes a determination of effect on listed species, and issues (or denies) permits certifying that the activity does not result in a prohibited "take" of a state-listed endangered, threatened, or special concern species.

So what does this mean for you as a CR landowner?  Since you are stewards of land that may very well contain rare species habitat and fall into MESA or WPA-applicable areas, it is wise to check whether your property, or parts of your property, are subject to it prior to creating site plans or carrying out work that alters the landscape!  Failure to check and submit the proper applications to NHESP under MESA can lead to fines.  Checking whether MESA is applicable is ultimately the landowner's responsibility, and we hope that the links above will get you started on finding that information if you need it.  Project proponents must apply directly to NHESP for MESA determinations. For projects subject to the WPA, the applicant must go through the town or city Conservation Commission. 

The helpful links to MESA above outline the application process that landowners must go through via NHESP in order to receive permits for work in Priority and Estimated Habitat Areas, and can help you to determine whether any part of your property is designated as such.  It even has a handy online viewer accessible from your home computer.  On a further note, beyond MESA, site alterations of greater than two acres of Priority Habitat requires a more rigorous review under what is known as the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), legislation which we will not get into right now! 

NHESP also identifies important habitat areas that are NOT regulated by MESA in its new BioMap2, published in November 2010.  These are the areas seen in blue and orange hatching on the legend above, "BioMap Core Habitat," and "BioMap Critical Natural Landscape" (none present on this sample map). The program also tracks certified and potential vernal pools, which are subject to the MA Wetland Protection Act (WPA), to be covered in a separate post.  BioMap2 is intended to serve as a framework for habitat-oriented land protection across Massachusetts. 

Core Habitat identifies key areas statewide that are important to protect, as they are prime habitat for a list of species that includes 256 plants, 111 invertebrates, 50 birds, 15 reptiles, seven amphibians, and nine mammals.  Core Habitat also includes 94 identified Priority Natural Communities, quality vernal pool habitat, Forest Core, Wetland Core, and Aquatic Core. 

Critical Natural Landscapes complement and sometimes overlap Core Habitat.  These landscapes include the largest identified landscape blocks in each of eight ecoregion designations by which NHESP defines the Commonwealth, as well as habitats adjacent to identified Wetland and Aquatic Core ecosystems.  Overall, Critical Natural Landscapes are designated as support landscapes for supporting intact ecological processes, maintaining habitat connectivity, enhancing ecological resilience, and buffering wetland Core Habitats for long-term integrity. 

This short summary of NHESP only scratches the surface, and draws from the full sixty-page summary report of the state's BioMap2, just released in November 2010, which you can download here by clicking on the "Summary Report" link by the middle of the page. 

If you would like to request a map similar to the one pictured above, showing your CR in relation to MESA-regulated Priority and Estimated Habitats, NHESP-identified Core Habitat and Critical Natural Landscape, and known vernal pools, just send an email to

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