When you picture a conserved land in Vermont, a classic image that comes to mind is expansive mature forests, rocky outcroppings and panoramic views. It’s exactly what is found on the Burnt Mountain property, a recently conserved parcel that is now the largest among The Nature Conservancy’s network of 55 preserves in the state.
Together with nearby state parks, privately owned and conserved lands, and state forest, including the Long Trail corridor, this conserved land helps create an 11,000-acre block of unfragmented forest. That’s a big deal, because it’s home to songbirds, wildflowers and mature trees that will no longer be harvested, and it is prime habitat for larger wildlife species, like moose and bear.
Vermont, it turns out, is a critical link between larger conserved pieces of land, like the Adirondacks to the west, the White Mountains and Maine to the east, the Appalachian Mountains to the south, and the Maritime Provinces to the north. Says the TNC website, “Wide ranging species like bear, bobcat, fisher, and moose need to move through the region to locate sufficient food and overwinter sites and find mates.” In other words, conservation projects like Burnt Mountain are pretty important to the future survival of these species, especially as they adapt to stressors like climate change.
But down in the valley, along Route 15 and the Wild Branch River in Wolcott, sits an equally important conservation project, albeit far less scenic. Called a “wildlife shelf,” it is an underpass below the state highway that allows wildlife to safely pass the road without colliding with cars. Partners like Vermont’s Agency of Transportation and Fish and Wildlife Department, the Town of Wolcott and TNC worked together on restoring a nearby wetland, planting trees on either side of the crossing, removing an old bridge that was blocking wildlife from passing, and installing the new wildlife shelf.
Though the project lacks the impressive views of Burnt Mountain, it plays an equally critical role in conserving plants and animals.
When we think about conservation, “we tend to think of big acres with big views,” says Jim Shallow, executive director of TNC. “But then here’s this place,” he says of the wildlife crossing in Wolcott, which he calls “a fixer-upper.”
This spot in Wolcott was identified as an important linkage point between two large tracts of forestland in northern Vermont, the Worcester Mountains to the west and conserved lands in the Northeast Kingdom, like the Victory Basin Wildlife Management Area and Kingdom Heritage Lands. For wildlife, like moose and bear, who are looking to move between these zones to find food, water and shelter, there are many barriers. Route 15, says Shallow, was one of those barriers.
“As wildlife needs to move across the landscape, our road network is one of the barriers there,” he explains. In TNC’s analysis of the landscape, the site of the Wolcott wildlife crossing was the best place to improve what TNC staff calls “permeability” of the road network, that is, the ability for animals to cross roads safely.
Wildlife crossings like the one in Wolcott are part of the story of Vermont’s role in connecting those larger tracts of conserved land, and also of TNC’s work to identify these important connections. TNC focuses all around America, explains Jessica Levine, with the Vermont chapter of TNC. But Vermont, she says, has an outsized role, since “it’s a place where we believe life can survive into the future.” It’s all part of TNC’s work to identify what they call “resilient sites” and the critical connections between them.
To find these resilient sites, scientists at TNC asked two questions: What are the places that are most resilient for supporting life? And, where are the connections between those places? Answering these questions, and locating these spots on a map, resulted in a mapped network of resilient sites and the pathways for wildlife to travel between them. It’s led the TNC to focus their efforts in all states, including Vermont, on conserving this network, like the wildlife corridor on Route 15.
These connections also become increasingly important in the face of environmental challenges, like climate change. TNC has modeled the movements of plants and animals as they migrate and adapt to climate change, and that modeling shows Vermont is an important corridor connecting wildlife with healthy habitat, especially as climate change progresses.
“We know that climate change is here, we’re seeing it every day,” says Levine, mentioning recent examples of flooding, wildfires and stronger storms. “At the same time,” she adds, “we’re also seeing a real crisis in biodiversity. We’re losing species at a rate we’ve never seen before.” She’s referring not only the loss of individuals of each species, but also a decreasing number of species.
The work of identifying resilient lands, and the connections between them, gives a way forward, though. Levine says scientists and program staff at TNC are working to get this science into the hands of practitioners at partner agencies and organizations, “so we’re all moving in the same direction,” says Levine.
The Wolcott project is an example of exactly this.
“Almost immediately, deer started using it,” Shallow says of the wildlife crossing under Route 15. Game cameras installed under the road, he says, have shown animals are using it.
So, while spots like Burnt Mountain give us those picture-perfect views of conservation, with plenty of room to roam for bears and humans alike, there are seemingly insignificant sites serving a critical role, too, like the Wolcott wildlife crossing. Hundreds of people drive over this site every day, and many of them may not even know they’re passing an important point of connection between larger conserved habitat. But both sites are part of a framework that is working across landscapes to protect the right places.
“It’s all very tangible,” says Levine of the work of identifying resilient sites and the connections between them. It’s easy to see, she says, where the sites are and how they can be connected. And that gives her hope.
“The news can be so overwhelming and disheartening,” says Levine, “but this is a hopeful message.”