Tom Rogers began his lecture Thursday, June 14 by explaining the sobering facts of global climate change and its negative impacts on wildlife.
“Even if we get our act together and dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, based on what’s already happened, they’re projecting that our climate by 2090 will look more like northern West Virginia,” he explained. “Under the high emissions scenario, they’re predicting it to be more like the Smokey Mountain Range.”
Rogers’ lecture, titled “Vermont’s Wildlife in a Changing Climate,” was part of an outreach program for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department to promote habitat protection to landowners.
Rogers, an outreach specialist for the department, said “global warming” is better described as “climate weirding” and is already affecting Vermont’s wildlife. Warmer temperatures, shorter winters and increased precipitation events mean wildlife have to adapt to very quickly – and not always successfully.
In Vermont, winters end earlier than usual, melting snow that some species depend on for survival. Snow provides camouflage for animals like the snowshoe hare, insulation for hibernating animals and kills off pests like the winter tick, responsible for decimating the moose population, Rogers explained.
As the climate warms, animals travel more frequently outside their normal ranges to find resources to survive, said Jens Hawkins-Hilke, a conservation planner for Vermont Fish & Wildlife.
The lynx can usually thrive because of its snowshoe-like paws that allow it to run across snow with ease, he explained. But when snow melts earlier, bobcats can outcompete the lynx, which must travel elsewhere for food.
Hawkins-Hilke was part of a team of state scientists who created the Vermont Conservation Design Project, a mapping tool that aims to mitigate the imminent threat of climate change and habitat fragmentation.
Created in 2015, the project mapped the state’s forest blocks, riparian areas and wetlands with important habitat and overlaid them with priority areas for conservation.
“We’re trying to keep certain ecological functions going into the future even as the landscape changes,” Hawkins-Hike said.
Although large tracts of interior forest are important for ecological function, smaller, overlapping blocks of habitat also help provide corridors for animals to travel as their ranges become longer, he explained.
Because over 80 percent of Vermont land is privately owned, individuals own many of these small tracts of habitat and can get involved in habitat conservation. Upon request, state biologists and foresters will survey a landowner’s property and provide suggestions on how to improve wildlife habitat.
Dave Adams is a habitat specialist who assesses private lands through the Natural Resource Conservation Service. He explained one program called EQIP, or the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, can even provide federal funding for landowners wanting to participate in active habitat management.
“Because time and dollars are very much a limiting factor for most landowners, the funding opportunities allow us to implement the work that many of us have wanted to do but don’t have the time to do it,” Adams said.
EQIP funding comes from the Farm Bill and in most states goes toward helping farmers in the agriculture sector. Adams says Vermont is unique because it uses around 30 percent of those federal dollars toward wildlife and forestry.
Although larger properties are generally more likely to get EQIP funding, owners of smaller parcels can still get recommendations from biologists on how to improve their land, said Andrea Shortsleeve, a habitat biologist with VT F&W.
“We really try to find a way that people can do [active habitat] management that doesn’t break the bank,” Shortsleeve said. “We talk about different mowing techniques, how to create pollinator habitat and how to create wildlife-friendly transitions from a forested piece of property into an open field.”
Shortsleeve said the agency regularly discusses habitat connectivity with landowners as properties and forests shrink.
“It’s really important in terms of wildlife movement to keep these forests in tact and keep the connections in tact as well,” she said.
The Vermont Conservation Design Plan’s aim, however, isn’t to take land out of private ownership or to conserve it completely. Rather, it’s to maintain the state’s existing habitat, making sure it will be useful for wildlife as climate change forces quicker adaptation.
“Generally speaking, [Vermont has] a network of connected habitat in place,” Hawkins-Hilke said. “We are the envy of the Northeast.”
Rogers agreed, noting his confidence in Vermont’s plan.
“It is something that I think the other 49 states are going to be following,” he said.