Students of Vermont’s natural history know the state was largely clear-cut 100 years ago, and forests have been slowly regrowing ever since. But conservationists say the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way and that's changing how animals navigate the state.
Vermont’s large forest parcels are dwindling — that’s one of the takeaways from a report just released by the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
"We've had this huge success story of forest regrowing over, you know, a century of time since heavy land clearing," said Jamey Fidel, the VNRC Forest and Wildlife program director. "But now we’re starting to see that regrowth reversed. The [U.S.] Forest Service came out recently with an estimate that over the last five years we lost 102,000 acres of forest outright."
Fidel said one problem is that people are splitting up large forests to build more houses.
"We're looking at what’s happening in regards to subdivision and what’s called parcelization, which is taking large parcels and creating smaller and smaller parcels, and what that means for the future of our forests," Fidel said.
One of the problems with parcelization is that it interrupts the movement of wildlife. Animals like bear, deer, moose and bobcat need the ability to range. And scientists say there’s even more of a need as the earth warms.
"Species' ranges are increasing in response to climate change," said Paul Marangelo, senior conservation ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Vermont. "When I say that, meaning a species — as the climate gets warmer — species need to migrate their ranges north in order to adapt, at a range of 10 to 20 kilometers per year is the latest figure."
The Nature Conservancy has been working with Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Department and the Agency of Transportation, as well as local municipalities and regional planners, on finding some solutions. They’ve been using game cameras to record how animals are, and are not, navigating developed areas between blocks of forest.
One place where they’re tracking animals, and making some improvements, is in the Lamoille County town of Wolcott. Vermont Fish and Wildlife owns parcels on both sides of Route 15, where the Wild Branch flows under a pair of bridges, and meets up with the Lamoille River on the other side of the road.
"So in four years at this site," said Marangelo, "we’ve recorded one instance of a bear walking under the bridge. … After this work is done, we anticipate seeing that to increase – not just for bear but for deer, perhaps moose which have been seen in the area, bobcat, fisher and a whole host of other things."
If animals aren’t walking under the bridge, chances are they’re risking crossing the busy road.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife Conservation Planner Jens Hilke said this one small crossing is part of the much bigger picture.
"So there’s this bigger context of, sort of, where are those big forest blocks and how does this parcel serve as a connection between them? So there’s that macro scale," Hilke said. "And then there’s this micro scale of, at its most fine, how do we get wildlife under that bridge and along the Wild Branch here?"
Part of the answer is to make it easier for animals to cross under the Route 15 bridge. Currently the river flows between steep banks of riprap. Both the water and the large rocks are hard for many animals to navigate. So, Hilke said, they’ll make a dirt path over some of the rocks.
"What we’re looking for is really something of a goat path," he said, "just with soft footing that twists in and around those rocks, that has a solid path from one side to the other with that finer dirt, and not having to move on top of these big boulders."
That will make the underpass more attractive to hooved animals, like deer and moose. Planting trees along the Wild Branch will provide cover for all wildlife. That’s another way they hope to make the underpass a preferred crossing site.
The plantings are also part of a larger project to restore the natural flood plain on the land which had, until recently, been used for agriculture. That work will improve water quality as well as flood resiliency. Project planners hope it will also help keep wildlife on the move, despite the obstacles people have put in their way.
Disclosure: Vermont Fish & Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy are VPR underwriters.