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WIldlife Research

Science is the foundation of modern wildlife conservation and is central to everything the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department does.

In practice, wildlife science takes many forms. Staff monitor hibernation locations of bats and rattlesnakes and measure the nesting success of species from Canada geese to threatened spiny softshell turtles. We set game cameras deep in the Green Mountains to detect American marten and Canada lynx and boat to remote Champlain islands to tally endangered common terns. This is the glamorous stuff. We also count beechnuts and acorns, examine carcasses, and run complex statistical models. Even taking your buck to the local check station is science used to track trends in deer population health.

Most of the above represents everyday science for long-term projects. However, we also work on innovative wildlife research, including:

Moose and Winter Ticks

Research confirmed that winter ticks are behind the decline in the Northeast Kingdom moose population and continue to suppress the herd. From 2017 to 2019, we partnered with the University of Vermont to track 126 moose in WMUs E1 and E2 using GPS collars. Nearly half (49%) of the collared calves died in their first year, primarily from winter tick infestations. Most collared cows survived but were in poor condition with low birth rates.

This research helped inform a decision to reinstitute Vermont’s moose hunting season to lower moose densities, decrease winter tick effects and consequentially improve the long-term health of moose in the Northeast Kingdom.

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West Nile Virus in Ruffed Grouse

West Nile virus (WNV) might seem like old news, but the virus is increasingly linked to regional declines in ruffed grouse populations and, as a result, we are partnering with hunters on a multi-year surveillance study. Using blood samples from hunter-killed grouse, researchers are estimating regional WNV infection and exposure rates and evaluating its impact on Vermont grouse. Preliminary results from the study’s first year detected WNV in Vermont grouse, but it’s too early to know what that means.

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Deerfield Wind Black Bear Study

Since 2011, we have been looking at the impacts of a wind energy project on black bears. The Deerfield Wind Energy Project was built in some of the largest concentrations of mature beech trees remaining in southern Vermont, and beechnuts are a critical food source for bears.

This study should help us determine how the Deerfield Wind Energy Project affects bear use of this critical food source. To date, forty-six bears have been fitted with GPS collars to track their movements. Wildlife trail cameras have also been deployed to monitor bear activity near the facility. This information will document changes in bear habitat use that result from the wind project.

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Woodcock Migration

We are working with the University of Maine and other partners from the U.S. and Canada to study American woodcock migration. Woodcock have declined steadily range-wide, over the last five decades. After years of focusing on breeding habitat, researchers are now looking at the impact of migration. Woodcock must contend with development, tall buildings and other threats on their way back and forth from their wintering grounds in the Southeast. Biologists fitted 18 birds with GPS transmitters as part of 100 that were tagged for the study in 2020. Over three hundred GPS transmitters have been deployed in the region since 2017.