Habitat and Wildlife

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Healthy wildlife populations are a direct result of healthy wildlife habitat, including game species that hunters and trappers enjoy. But Vermont’s habitat has not always been healthy enough to support many of the species of wildlife that are common today. And without continued efforts to conserve habitat by Vermont’s landowners—both public and private—wildlife may once again face threats to their continued survival.

The early days: Habitat destruction and extinction

The 1800s saw a massive boom in the human population in Vermont, fueled in large part by sheep farmers looking to cash in on a boom in the global wool market. These farmers cleared the landscape, reducing Vermont’s forest cover from over 90 percent to around 25 percent. Hillsides eroded, choking the streams with silt and dams plugged up rivers, nearly wiping out many species of fish. The lack of forested habitat, combined with unregulated hunting and trapping, resulted in the near total loss of many species we now consider common in Vermont, including deer, turkeys, moose, bear, Canada geese, and otters, as well as others that are still slowly recovering like muskies, bald eagles, and marten. Some of the species lost in that era have not returned to Vermont, such as mountain lions, wolves, or the now-extinct passenger pigeon.

From Farms to Forests

By the turn of the 20th Century, Vermont’s forests were starting to recover following the abandonment of hillside farms due to a period of emigration from Vermont and the onset of manufacturing. As fallow fields grew into young forests, habitat for those wildlife benefitting from young forests (deer, ruffed grouse, rabbits) improved dramatically. In 1878, 17 white-tailed deer were brought to Vermont from New York and stocked in Bennington and Rutland Counties. By the mid-1900s, Vermont’s landscape was at its peak in quality for these “early successional” species and their harvest rates was evidence of such. The newly formed Fish and Game Service—a precursor to the modern Fish & Wildlife Department—continued to reintroduce other species as the forests matured and expanded, including beavers, geese, fisher, and wild turkeys.

Vermont’s Habitat Today

Vermont’s forested habitat continues to recover until the past decade, when, for the first time in nearly 150 years, forest cover has again reached a peak and has started to decline in the state. The maturing forests now best serve a different set of wildlife species such as black bears, pine marten, and squirrels.

The return of the forests in Vermont does provide both opportunities and challenges. Managing forests for habitat diversity by providing a range of younger and older aged forests will serve a greater range of Vermont’s wildlife species’ needs. The challenges, however, include an expanding human population and infrastructure, climate change, and invasive species—all of which threaten the long-term health of Vermont’s forested habitats. These habitat challenges will take more than cutting trees to combat. Combined with state forests, state wildlife management areas, and Green Mountain National Forest, more than 15 percent of the land in Vermont is now permanently conserved. But that still leaves the vast majority of lands in Vermont in private hands. Private landowners will be crucial to maintaining healthy and connected forests and waters for fish and wildlife to continue to thrive, now and in the future.

Adapated from a 2017 article from the Burlington Free Press by Tom Rogers.