TOM ROGERS, Special to the Free Press12:05 a.m. EDT August 23, 2015
(Photo: Copyright Susan C. Morse)
Vermonters have lived close to the land since Colonial times. As the most rural state in the nation, with more than 60 percent of our population living in rural areas, Vermont has created a collective identity that features back roads, maple trees, forests, farms and fields.
As if that were not enough, we also care deeply about wildlife and cannot envision our lives without its regular presence, a constant and gentle refrain that wildness in all its forms deserves our attention.
But most Vermonters don’t realize that unlike many western states, with their vast national forests, wildlife refuges, and other publicly owned properties, Vermont’s land is mostly under private ownership. Eight-one percent of the Green Mountain State is owned by individuals and businesses.
When conservationists work to conserve species as diverse as lynx or spiny softshell turtles, they must take state and federal borders into account — political boundaries that the animals themselves typically ignore.
So what should a conservationist do when wildlife leaves a park or refuge and starts affecting nearby farms? Perhaps most challenging of all, how does one create a strategic plan to conserve species in Vermont within an acre-by-acre patchwork of land controlled by tens of thousands of landowners?
Where the wild things are
John Austin, manager of Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s lands and habitat program, has devoted his life to ensuring Vermont’s forests and fields remain places where wild things can thrive. A large part of his career has involved working with private landowners, sharing advice on how they can best manage their land to promote wildlife.
Austin recently helped write and edit a 132-page book for landowners entitled A Landowner’s Guide – Wildlife Habitat Management for Lands in Vermont. Nearly 10 years in the making, the guide combines the knowledge and experience of wildlife and fisheries biologists, foresters and land managers.
John Austin posts signs in Dummerston in December as part of his work conserving wild spaces. (Photo: Courtesy of Tom Rogers, Vermont Fish and Wildlife)
When asked to summarize some of the simplest suggestions from the book, Austin gave seven easy recommendations that provide landowners with ideas for promoting wildlife on their property.
“Every landowner can take a few simple actions to help improve the habitat on his or her land,” Austin said. “Many of the suggestions we give landowners aren’t difficult, and in fact many involve just standing back and letting things take their natural course. Not doing something is sometimes more important than doing too much.”
Tip 1: Leave dead trees standing
When asked by a landowner what they can do to promote wildlife on their property, Austin’s first answer is always the same. “Leave dead trees standing.”
“People often cut down standing dead trees because they think they’re ugly or to make room for more live trees,” said Austin. “In fact, for many birds and mammals, these trees provide some of the best habitat in the forest.”
Dead trees, often referred to as “snags,” provide nesting sites for cavity-nesting birds such as owls, and create perches and feeding sites for insect-eating birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches. Many of Vermont’s endangered bat species use snags with sloughing loose bark as daytime roosts and maternity colonies. And wood ducks, mergansers and other waterfowl use dead tree cavities found near wetlands as nest sites.
Tip 2: Don’t sterilize streams
Streams running through city parks are models of cleanliness. Wide, green lawns slope down to a tidy bank of stones and cement, with water running unimpeded down a wide, shallow channel. Without boulders, downed logs or aquatic plants blocking the view, these spaces are also barren of fish, salamanders, or invertebrates –and regularly exhibit no signs of wildlife at all. Landowners should bear this warning in mind.
“Good aquatic habitat is often messy and complex. It’s full of downed trees, sticks, leaves, plants — items for fish to hide under and insects to cling to,” Austin said.
Austin recommends that landowners leave natural woody debris such as sticks and logs in stream channels, which can help create pools and provide cover and shade for fish and other critters. Landowners should also keep livestock and vehicles from getting too close to the stream to avoid allowing the stream bank to become trampled and eroded.
Austin’s rule of thumb for maintaining healthy streams is simple. “Don’t put material into streams and don’t take material out.”
Tip 3: The wetter, the better
It’s estimated that North America used to house 200 million beavers, meaning that there were 10 times as many of these wetland architects as today. Wetlands, where ducks and geese thrive and where amphibians mate, are some of the most productive wildlife habitat on Vermont’s landscape. Forested wetlands are the first places where green shoots sprout up each spring, supplying an important food source for hungry bears.
Wetlands and vernal pools also provide breeding habitat for amphibians, and are sources of water for a variety of wildlife. Austin recommends that landowners avoid draining these small, ephemeral pools and maintain forest cover around them to keep them shaded and cool.
Wetlands benefit wildlife, but they can also greatly benefit people too, acting as filters and sponges to soak up excess water during major flooding events. During the flooding that resulted from Tropical Storm Irene, Otter Creek jumped its banks in Rutland causing widespread destruction, but 30 miles downstream the creek did not swell nearly as much in downtown Middlebury. A series of wetlands between the two towns may have saved Middlebury from the devastation felt by many Vermont towns during the storm.
Intact forests along the water's edge help give wildlife a place to thrive at Green River Reservoir in Hyde Park. This photo was taken in September 2013. (Photo: Courtesy of Tom Rogers Vermont Fish and Wildlife)
According to Austin, wetlands not only benefit wildlife, but they are also major sources of carbon sequestration in the fight against climate change. “Maintaining wetlands is one of the best things we can do in the face of climate change, both for the carbon they capture and store, and for the water they soak up during major rain events,” he said.
Tip 4: Promote wild buffets
Many species of wildlife benefit from berries and nuts. Landowners who hunt will often be the first to recognize the importance of promoting trees and plants that provide food for wildlife.
“It’s easy to see when bears have been climbing up a large old beech or oak tree — one can readily spot the bear’s distinct claw marks,” says Sue Morse, who founded the wildlife nonprofit Keeping Track and serves as the science director. “Bears climb high up into the tree’s crown and bend and break in the branches in order to gorge on beech nuts, acorns or other fruits.”
Bears are not the only animals that enjoy a meal of nuts or berries. Deer, turkeys, grouse, squirrels, and songbirds all take advantage of this opportunity for an easy meal.
“Vermont’s old fields and mountain hollows are absolutely filled with ancient apple trees — a remnant of the days when our forested state was largely covered in farm fields,” said Morse.
These ancient trees are typically overgrown with dead wood and knotted branches, and are darkened and crowded by nearby trees. A small amount of time spent thinning the branches and opening up the surrounding forest can act as a virtual fountain of youth for these trees.
“Any tree that produces fruits, nuts, or berries helps feed the animals on your land,” said Morse.
Tip 5: Wildlife require connected lands
Among land conservationists there’s a saying that goes, “They’re putting up more roads and buildings all the time, but you don’t see them tearing many down.”
This observation may be true in Vermont, where development is increasing much faster than the state’s population is growing. Buildings and businesses are regularly built on land that was once forest or pasture. These developments remove habitat from wildlife. Perhaps more insidious are houses with big lawns and long driveways, which fragment Vermont’s habitat by pushing development further into forests and higher up on mountainsides.
The forest fragmentation that results when people carve small residence blocks out of the forest in rural areas has been termed “sub-ruralization,” a play on suburbanization. It’s a trend happening throughout Vermont, particularly in areas places where second homes are most desirable. Even backcountry activities, such as hiking, mountain biking or skiing, are increasingly encroaching on wild animals’ turf.
Susan Morse takes visitors around her property, known as “Wolfrun” in Jericho, to learn how to look for signs of wildlife, such as this beaver lodge. (Photo: Copyright Susan C. Morse)
Morse recommends that people search their property for places that animals frequent, where there are signs such as tracks and scat, and leave those places undisturbed and undeveloped for wildlife.
“Look for the hotspots where there are foraging opportunities or places that just feel a little more wild such as ridgelines, wetlands, or streams,” says Morse. “You wouldn’t want to wake up and have 10 strange people in your bedroom.”
Tip 6: Don’t clean up the forest
Many species, from snakes and salamanders to weasels and the rabbits they snack on, need spaces to crawl, slither and hide. Brush piles, downed trees and rock piles create structural diversity and are teaming with animals furred, feathered, or scaled.
“It’s difficult to turn over a rotten log during the early summer in the forest,” says Morse, “and not find some species of salamander.”
Morse, who works with landowners to help improve the wildlife habitat on their property, says some landowners she meets are interested in improving hunting opportunities, while others just like to give wildlife a place to thrive. Many need to learn the importance of leaving brush and snags where they stand. She recommends people leave brush piles for small mammals and nesting birds.
“One gentleman was excited to show me how nice and neat everything was in his woods,” says Morse. “He had cleaned out all of the undergrowth and downed trees from the forest floor. He thought he was improving the forest, but from my perspective I saw a forest totally devoid of any suitable habitat for wildlife.”
Tip 7: Leave some space by the water’s edge
The water’s edge is one of the most important places for wildlife, from fish and frogs to otters and bobcats. John Austin and other biologists recommend landowners leave at least 100 feet of forested habitat along bodies of water. “The bigger the buffer, the better,” says Austin, “but 100 feet is the bare minimum.”
Susan Morse points marks in May 2014 left by a moose who chewed park off a maple tree at her property in Jericho. (Photo: Courtesy of Tom Rogers, Vermont Fish and Wildlife)
Also of importance, but often overlooked by landowners who want a water view, is the stream-side vegetation. On streams, rivers, lakes and ponds, a vegetated shoreline can provide cover for fish to hide under and helps to keep water cool during the hot summer months. It provides nesting habitat for birds that prefer to nest in stream corridors and gives cover to deer, bear and other species in their search for a quiet place to drink.
A forested strip along the water not only provides a home for wildlife but can also dramatically improve water quality. Trees, bushes and the leaf litter duff on the forest floor provide a natural filter for rain and snowmelt as it runs into the water body.
The importance of these forested buffers for water quality was recently recognized with the passage of the state’s Shorelands Protections Act, enacted in July 2014, which limits development along Vermont’s lakes to improve wildlife habitat and filter runoff.
Private landowner as wildlife’s best friend
With the vast majority of Vermont’s land in private ownership, the conservation efforts needed to protect and conserve wildlife will require a collaborative approach. Landowners can have the greatest impact most often by doing the least; that is resisting the urge to rework the land into “civilized” space. Many of Austin and Morse’s tips for maintaining habitat for wildlife may seem counter-intuitive, but when practiced wisely, they can promote healthier, more abundant wildlife on private property.
Given that most Vermonters live in the state because of its wild and scenic beauty, living more lightly on the land is an attractive and prudent approach. For landowners seeking more advice from wildlife biologists or county foresters on how to begin, Austin recommends looking online for resources or thumbing through a copy of the guidelines he and his colleagues have created. Then, he says, landowners can “observe the wildlife species on their own property and thrive in harmony with the land around them.”
This story first published Aug. 23, 2015. Biologist Tom Rogers does outreach for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. Reach him at email@example.com.
Get the book:
“A Landowner’s Guide – Wildlife Habitat Management for Lands in Vermont,” by John Austin
The book is for sale at www.VtFishandwildlife.com under “About Us.”