Vermont is rich with wildlife, largely because we have an abundance and diversity of habitat that supports the needs of many species. These habitats include extensive areas of interconnected forests of many types, swamps and lakeside marshes, fens and bogs, cliffs and caves, seeps and vernal pools, fields and grasslands, and streams, rivers, and ponds. An important conservation goal is to maintain this diverse array of habitats to continue to support Vermont’s wildlife resources and all the values they provide.
Wildlife is very important to the people of Vermont. This love of wildlife is more than anecdotal. The 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented that 62 percent of Vermonters went fishing, hunting, or wildlife watching. Vermont ranked second, only two points behind Alaska in participation (U.S. Dept of Interior 2011). When it comes to wildlife watching, however, Vermont was first in the nation with an impressive 53 percent of residents enjoying this activity. This same survey estimates more than $704 million was spent on fish-and wildlife-based recreation in Vermont.
Fifty-eight species of mammals are found in Vermont. While a handful of Vermont’s mammals are important to our hunting and trapping tradition, (more than 150,000 deer with 48 days of hunting opportunity, annually and more than 40,000 turkey and both fall and spring hunting opportunities) most are small, nocturnal animals we may go a lifetime without seeing. Three are non-native species – house mouse, brown rat, and Eastern cottontail. Thirty five are small mammals – weighing less than 1.1 lbs. There are 17 species that are believed to be rare or uncommon and are tracked in the Natural Heritage Database. Five hibernating bat species are state-listed as endangered following a recent frightening decline due to White-nose Syndrome. Two are very rare, recently-returned carnivore species – Canadian lynx and American marten. Other rare species include the Long-tailed Shrew, Rock Vole, and Southern Bog Lemming.
Every 10-years, Vermont’s Fish & Wildlife Department updates the Wildlife Action Plan to help guide the Fish & Wildlife Department, partners, stakeholders and others in the conservation of our Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) and efforts to keep common species common. Notable, in the most recent 2015 revision, is the growing specters of climate change and diseases, the role pollinators play in the environment, and the reminder that habitat loss and degradation remain the primary threats to most wildlife. The problems most frequently identified have not changed much from the first plan. They include:
- Loss of habitat (from conversion, degradation, fragmentation)
- Impacts of roads and transportation systems
- Pollution and sedimentation
- Invasive species
- Information needs and data gaps critical to conservation success
- Climate change
Amphibians: The threats identified most frequently for Vermont's reptile and amphibian populations are all closely related to habitat degradation: trampling and direct impacts, road and transportation system impacts, habitat fragmentation, habitat alteration, and habitat conversion.
Birds: Vermont serves as host to 268 bird species for some, if not all, of their annual life cycle. Perhaps the single most significant emerging issue impacting birds in Vermont during the last 10 years has been the conversion of forest and grassland habitat to utility-scale wind and solar energy generation. Although descriptors such as ‘renewable’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘environmentally friendly’ create an image of energy development that is less harmful than fossil fuel, wind and solar energy development still involve habitat loss and impairment.
Fish: The 80 native fishes face many conservation challenges. The threats of habitat alteration, loss, and fragmentation are pervasive in Vermont’s rapidly changing landscape. The introduction of nonindigenous fishes, including associated aquatic pathogens and parasites, also pose risks to aquatic ecosystem health and native species conservation. Just within the past 20 years, seven non-native fishes have shown up in state and interstate waters.
Invertebrates: Of the thousands of species that occur in Vermont, several are rare or threatened enough to be at risk of disappearing from the state in the future. The causes that lead to their predicament vary among species. One of the greatest obstacles to acting to help conserve these “at risk” invertebrates has been the scarcity of information that exists on their distribution, abundance, habitat requirements, life history characteristics, population trends, and threats.
Mammals: In total, sixty-one mammal species presently exist in Vermont or were here just prior to European settlement. Vermont is at a crossroad. Due primarily to conscious choices made by her citizens in the last 100 years (restoration of white-tailed deer, beaver, wild turkey, fisher populations, enactment of Act 250 legislation, and wetland regulations, etc.), as well as economic forces that essentially allowed the state to bypass the Industrial Revolution, Vermont has remained predominantly rural throughout the 20th century. Many mammal species, therefore, are at population levels that are likely higher than they were prior to European settlement (fisher, red fox, white-tailed deer, raccoon, bobcat). Today, however, with Vermont's population growing, development pressures, and increased roads and traffic, the potential for significant habitat destruction in the next ten years is high. In addition, global climate change is already influencing the potential residency of some native mammal populations in Vermont.
Plants: Vermont is home to approximately 2,000 species of native plants. This includes 1,200 native vascular plants (seed and flowering plants, ferns and fern allies) and 800 non-vascular plants also known as bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, and hornworts). Many species are quite common (sugar maple, jewelweed) while others are exceedingly rare (green mountain quillwort is found only in Vermont). Vermont’s plant diversity is driven, in part, by the different biomes that inhabit the state. While most of the state is dominated by Northern Hardwood Forest, there are also extensive areas of boreal forest in the higher elevations and the northern part of the state, and oak-hickory forests in the Champlain and Connecticut River Valleys. There are even remnant alpine tundra and coastal beach species.
Plant distribution and diversity is also determined by the following factors: type of the bedrock; surficial deposits (gravels, sands, silts, and clays) that were laid down during and after the last glaciation; soil chemistry; climate, elevation, topography; and past land use history. Vermont has extensive areas of calcareous (limy) bedrock that is conducive to high plant diversity. While acidic soils or bedrock areas have distinctly less plant species diversity, they still contribute to the overall diversity in the state in that certain species are adapted to these conditions.
The most significant near-term threats to plant SGCN across the state is conversion, alteration, and fragmentation of natural habitats, and invasive plants and animals. Other less obvious threats include pollinator declines; plant diseases; suppression of natural processes; an overabundance of certain animals; air pollution, including acid deposition; and how natural and anthropogenic plant habitats are managed.
Long-term threats are from increasing human population and footprint; and the many issues related to climate change. We can expect that there will be dramatic shifts in plant communities and diversity in the coming decades and centuries from a warming climate. This inevitability is one that we should start planning for, as there is no turning back from much of the carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere.