One Square Mile Johnston: Wildlife Finds Unlikely Refuge At State's Central Landfill

Feb 6, 2017

In recent years, Rhode Islanders have spotted wild visitors not typically found in the Ocean State: Arctic beluga whales in Narragansett Bay and even snowy owls. It turns out the Central Landfill in Johnston is another draw for wildlife.

As part of series “One Square Mile: Johnston,” Rhode Island Public Radio’s Ambar Espinoza reports that more than 100 different species of animals have been spotted in this unlikely place. 

The area where trash is buried at the Central Landfill spans about 270 acres, and it will expand to a total of 350 acres by the time the landfill reaches full capacity. But that's just a fraction of the property, which comprises roughly 1,200 acres, leaving plenty of untouched acres to hug the landfill, acting as a natural buffer and providing a home for a variety of animals and plants.

"There's scrub habitat, early successional habitat, and then you have mature forests," explained Samuel Vito, a wildlife technician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Service Unit, who is stationed at the landfill.

Vito's main job is to keep seagulls away from the trucks bringing in the trash, using sounds to scare them off. But he also keeps track of wildlife species for the landfill agency.

"We're going to one of my favorite spots on the site," Vito told me on a recent tour. "There's a pond that beavers have dammed up again. I found river otter latrines over here. When there's not a lot of work going on in the area, you can be back here and you can forget you're at a landfill."

Wildlife technician Samuel Vito often finds animals tracks, such as this deer track, and scat, the scientific term for animal droppings.
Credit Ambar Espinoza

Along the path to the pond, we walk past forest. A large visible nest stands out. Vito says red-tailed hawks built it. To the far right, there's a capped landfill that looks like a large grassy hill. It's covered in wild flowers and native grasslands, attracting all sorts of song birds, especially in the spring time.

"It's actually pretty noisy with the amount of bird activity of tree swallows, barn swallows, you'll have hundreds of them just picking off insects and you have wild turkeys – it's a pretty remarkable area in the spring when things are happening," said Vito. "Middle of winter like everyone else [it's] kind of dreary."

Cut wood indicates the presence of active beavers.
Credit Ambar Espinoza

As we approach the pond, we stop in front of a road that's been flooded by a beaver dam. 

"Late fall, early winter they're going crazy," explained Vito. "They're cutting up trees and they want to make a stash over their lodge, which is pretty hard to see. It's kind of tucked away over there. But there's some fresh markings over here, so you know it's active."

Deer have also left their mark on trees around here. They've rubbed the velvet off their antlers by scraping them against tree branches. That lets other male deer know this territory is taken. The fact that the pond has attracted beavers, river otters and other wildlife indicates that the water quality is good.

The landfill agency has made a commitment to improve wildlife habitats throughout its property. That earned them a conservation certificate from the Wildlife Habitat Council back in 2011, and the agency has been re-certified twice since then, says Krystal Noiseux, the landfill agency's education and outreach manager.

The landfill agency has installed different types of nesting boxes for bluebirds, swallows and kestrels.
Credit Ambar Espinoza

"We have nesting boxes for blue bird, tree swallow and american kestrel. We have done native plantings, native trees and shrubs. We've removed exotic invasive species," said Noiseux. "We've planted a pollinator garden. We've created snags for birds of prey. So all these various projects were recommended by the wildlife habitat council and we implemented them here to receive our certification."

More than 100 other corporations across the country have also earned this wildlife habitat certification. With Wildlife Technician Samuel Vito's help and the help of other workers, the landfill agency puts together a quarterly report with a count of the number of species spotted on site. The tally is up to 118 species now, but there's likely more than that, when you consider nocturnal animals.

Krystal Noiseux and Samuel Vito hop into an SUV to go back to the agency's offices. On the drive back, they see a large bird high in the sky.

"Is that a bald eagle?" asked Noiseux. "It's huge. Bald eagle right there, massive."

Vito confirmed the sighting, a bald eagle, soaring high above the trees and the trash.