On any given morning, thousands of Vermonters emerge from their bedrooms and head to the kitchen for a warm cup of coffee or some breakfast. But imagine if, instead of the easy and safe journey into your kitchen, you first had to dart across a busy two-lane highway before you could find some nourishment.
That’s exactly how it is for wildlife, says Tom Rogers, who handles outreach for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. Vermont’s moose, deer, bears, turkeys, amphibians, and other wildlife are increasingly being encroached on by roads and urban development. It makes it harder for them to meet their needs for survival, and that includes adapting to climate change.
Wildlife biologists in the state point out that measurable changes are occurring on our landscape and in our wildlife populations due to changes in weather patterns. Giving animals space to find resources and adapt to these changes is a critical strategy for increasing the odds of their survival in a changing climate.
“There’s still wildness in this state, but we’re slowly losing it, one road at a time,” said Rogers recently, when he spoke to a packed house at the Green Mountain Club in Waterbury. In his talk, titled “Vermont’s Wildlife in a Changing Climate,” held on Thursday, December 13, Rogers pointed to what he called the classic development pattern in Vermont: the long driveway, large lawn, and big house set back in the woods. “It’s what we all want,” he says of the idyllic setting he’s describing, but slowly, he says, we’re chipping away at our forests — and that’s having an impact on wildlife.
From a global perspective, as humans take over the planet in sheer numbers, plus the crop acreages and space for livestock needed to feed us, we’re entering what some biologists are calling the sixth major extinction in the history of the Earth, one which many agree is being caused by climate change. Rogers said he recently heard another biologist refer to this extinction period as a “biological annihilation.”
He pointed to examples around the planet of animals that used to have extensive ranges across vast wild landscapes, such as the Indian rhinoceros, but are now represented with just a few scant dots on the map. It’s a theme for wildlife globally, he said, and one that’s playing out in our own state, too.
Take moose, for example. “Moose are Vermont’s flagship species, when it comes to climate change,” Rogers said, bringing the focus onto animals in our own backyard.
When it comes to warming temperatures, moose have been hit hard. Data from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources website shows the average daily temperature has increased noticeably over the past 50 years, and mostly on the lower end of the temperature scale, points out Rogers. That makes a lot of trouble for a species that is designed to live in the cold.
Winters are getting shorter and, as a result of warming temperatures, especially in late winter, the winter tick population is exploding, to the point that tens of thousands of ticks can be found on a single moose. Infected animals eventually die of a combination of anemia, as the ticks drain the animals of blood, and hypothermia, as moose rub their bodies against trees trying to get the ticks off, losing fur — and the ability to keep warm — in the process.
One thing that keeps the number of ticks down is snow cover in late winter. The life cycle of these ticks takes them from hatching in the fall, after which they attach themselves to host moose, to late winter, when the ticks drop from their host to the ground to reproduce.
“If the tick drops onto snow, it dies,” said Rogers. “If it drops on bare ground, it survives, and more and more of these ticks are dropping on bare ground each year.” Across the screen behind him flashed pictures of blood-spattered snow from moose being bled to death by the ticks, and pictures of dead and dying moose.
In addition to the tick problem, increasing temperatures are stressing moose. More data on the ANR website shows the projected number of days that will see 90-degree Fahrenheit temperatures or above to be on the rise. Moose begin to struggle at 50 degrees, and things get really hard at 60 degrees.
“So, at the one time of year moose have to bulk up, more and more they are trying to avoid the heat.” The heat reduces the amount of food they eat, reduces reproduction rates, and lowers their immune responses. “We may start to see moose marching northward,” Rogers predicted.
But it’s not just moose that are struggling with warmer temperatures and less snow. Canada Lynx have large feet that are well adapted to hunting on snow, but they are less able to feed themselves on bare ground, and they lose out on food to competitors like bobcats. Snowshoe hares turn white at a certain time every year to blend in with their historically white winter landscape, but more and more they are a stark white animal sticking out to predators against a brown backdrop.
The Bicknell’s Thrush, which nests in high-elevation fir trees, is losing ground to mid-elevation species that are creeping higher up the mountain to avoid warming temperatures. And tree buds and insects are increasingly sprouted or hatched and gone by the time migratory birds arrive in the spring. Loss of insulated snow pack is a problem for small mammals, too. Even when it’s 32 degrees outside, it can be a balmy 50 degrees under a layer of snow, keeping mice, shrews, squirrels and chipmunks warm.
Increased temps also incubate more wildlife diseases, like those carried by mosquitoes and ticks, molds and fungus. White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats in the United States, for example, can cause as much as a 90 percent decrease in population from year to year: In Vermont caves where there were 1,000 bats, there can be 100 the next year, then 10, and, finally, the loss of a population.
And the problem isn’t simply with temperature. As the average global temperature increases, weather patterns begin to shift, causing what many refer to as “global weirding.” Rogers describes this as weather patterns that are “all over the place.” Think increased rain in winter, for example, which can drive sleeping bears out of their dens.
Not only is there more precipitation overall, but more of it is coming in the form of rain and wet snow, and more of it is coming all at once, like we experienced during Tropical Storm Irene. Streams can handle, and even benefit, from, minor flooding events. Moving boulders and trees can create new habitat for fish and other aquatic animals. But the wholesale wipeout of an entire streamside caused by large floods removes an entire type of habitat, and it’s very hard for a stream to recover from that, ecologically speaking.
There are strategies, though, to look on the bright side. Some strategies involve protecting wildlife and giving them space to access resources like food, water and habitat. Preserving and building new wetlands, for example, can protect wild lands and developed areas from flooding.
During Irene, points out Rogers, Rutland was flooded by the rain-swollen Otter Creek. But Middlebury, which is downriver from Rutland, didn’t flood, thanks to a series of wetlands that had previously been built by conservationists; the wetlands were able to capture the overflow and protect communities downstream, for both people and animals.
Other strategies include reducing the emissions that are contributing to climate change — but here is a classic “catch 22” in this instance. Ridgeline wind projects, like the Searsburg project being expanded in the Green Mountain National Forest, can displace the use of fossil fuels to make electricity, which in turn reduces the emissions that lead to climate change. But, these energy projects come at the expense of crucial food sources for bears, where a regionally significant area of beech trees is being disturbed.
Solar panels can also pose problems, for birds nesting in grasslands when the arrays are sited in meadows. “It’s a total tradeoff,” said Rogers that night. “Because, we need renewable energy to address climate change.”
Rogers showed what he called the “scariest map” — it depicts the shift of forest type with a warming climate. Under a low-emissions scenario, one that would occur if we started taking action to reduce the emissions contributing to climate change, Vermont could soon have a climate and forest type that is similar to West Virginia. If we don’t change a thing and continue on the path we are on currently, our state will look more like the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.
“That’s really going to be hard for wildlife to keep up with,” he said. Not only will wildlife have less habitat, as we continue our current development patterns, but it will be lower quality habitat, too.
But, he stressed that there are solutions. For one, groups like VF&W and the Vermont Agency of Transportation are working together to create roadways that are friendlier to animals. When culverts need to be replaced, for example, new underpasses can be built to allow animals like Canada Lynx and salamanders to cross unharmed, and also helping these animals to access the resources they need to survive.
Several groups are also working together to take a statewide approach to land conservation, called Vermont Conservation Design, that is designed to maintain the ecological function of the landscape. The method includes looking at conservation beyond simply the endangered species list — “that’s like if the emergency room was our only form of health care,” said Rogers. “Instead, we look at the whole system and conserve it at all the scales necessary to sustain wildlife.”
On the screen, Rogers showed a map of high-priority conservation areas based on this “systems” way of thinking. He pointed to a critical sliver of forestland that connects the Mount Mansfield ridgeline with the Worcester range. “There’s a connection between these two that we’ve identified to allow wildlife to move between these important large blocks of habitat.”
To prove his point, he showed a short video that has recently been circulating on social media. Called simply, “The Log.” It had the audience “oo-ing” and “ah-ing” as all types of animals used a downed log to cross a stream in the woods. But it also demonstrated the importance of a critical linkage between two parcels of forestland, just like connecting large pieces of habitat.
In addition to statewide conservation projects, there are backyard projects that help wildlife, too, ranging from pollinator gardens and bat boxes to maintaining healthy forests and adding conservation easements on private property.
“Anything we can do to maintain a natural forested landscape in this state to ensure wildlife can do what they need to do to maintain populations moving forward” is a good thing, said Rogers. He gave examples of organizations, like Vermont Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy, and state wildlife biologists, that offer resources for projects on private property to support healthy wildlife populations.
Along the lines of strategies for the future, Roger ended his talk on a high-note, giving some conservation success stories from our own backyard.
“There is lots of bad news if you’re talking about this subject, talking about all the threats,” he said. But there are success stories, and he ticked through a list of species that have come back from the brink of extinction. Timber rattlesnakes, peregrine falcons, loons and osprey have all been removed from the endangered species list in Vermont in recent years. Bald eagles, he said, will probably be delisted in the next few years as populations continue to recover thanks to statewide conservation efforts.
When it comes to reducing the effects of climate change and helping our state’s wildlife adapt to a changing climate, Rogers shared his optimistic view. “We’ve had successes of bringing this wildness back, and we can do this.”