Wildlife Habitat and Natural Areas

IN BRIEF

Wildlife and natural lands are an essential part of what makes Vermont a special place. Whether they're hunting deer, climbing mountains, or appreciating wildflowers, Vermonters value natural places. What’s more, natural areas help keep our air and water clean, attract tourist dollars and new residents to Vermont, and support a range of natural resource-based businesses. But development poses a major threat to wildlife and natural areas. While agencies and organizations at the regional, state and national levels can bring resources and expertise to habitat conservation, towns are on the front lines of protecting Vermont’s wildlife. Towns can create and manage town forests, adopt wildlife overlay districts, develop long-range open space plans, and take other local actions that help ensure that wildlife remains an integral part of the life and landscape of future Vermonters.

Have you ever gone for a walk in the woods?  Watched a sunset over a forested peak?  Caught a trout or bagged a deer?  It would be just about impossible to live in Vermont and not enjoy a connection to the amazing diversity of wildlife and natural areas in our state.  Vermont has everything from spruce-capped peaks to river bottoms teeming with ducks, and no place in Vermont is more than a few minutes from a natural area.

HOW IMPORTANT IS WILDLIFE IN VERMONT?Vermonters love wildlife-related recreation, as do out-of-state visitors to Vermont.  In a 2006 survey, the US Fish and Wildlife Service found that:

  • 280,000 Vermont residents – about 45% of the state’s population – took part in wildlife watching activities
  • 150,000 Vermont residents engaged in hunting or fishing
  • Resident and non-resident participants in wildlife-associated recreation spent $383 million

Until about the 1970s, Vermonters took this heritage largely for granted, as the vast majority of the state was in farm and forest land.  But development pressures over the last few decades have begun to eat away at Vermont’s natural areas and wildlife habitat.  Today, Vermont loses over 1,500 acres every year of what the Agency of Natural Resources calls “significant wildlife habitat” – deer wintering grounds, important wetlands, habitat for rare or endangered species, and black bear habitat – which is probably only a fraction of the total acreage of natural areas lost.  This is a serious concern statewide:  according to the 2008 Vermonter Poll, preservation of Vermont’s working landscapes is a priority for over 97% of Vermonters.

Most of this habitat loss is a result of scattered rural residential development.  The most obvious losses are from development that eliminates habitat entirely.  But direct conversion of habitat to houses is only one part of the impact, as development can reduce the quality of habitat well beyond actual developed areas.  For example, development can speed the spread of invasive species that outcompete native species, break up large blocks of habitat that wide-ranging species depend on, or bisect wildlife corridors that some animals  need to reach food or to migrate.

Since every new house has a “ripple effect” on the quality of natural areas around it, low-density development on large lots degrades far more habitat than does compact development in and around existing villages and traditional centers or in other designated growth areas.  One of the most important things communities can do for wildlife and natural areas is to adopt policies that concentrate and cluster new development in areas with the least ecological value so as to leave as much high-quality habitat as possible in large, undisturbed blocks.

Unfortunately, data on wildlife habitat and natural areas that is currently available from state and federal agencies is often too general to serve as a useful guide for decisions about where and how to cluster development.  For example, state wildlife maps might allow a town to assert that there is black bear habitat in the high-elevation areas of town, but state data may not give a town enough information to say that a given landowner’s property is in fact critical bear habitat.  Therefore, a town may wish to gather additional information – for example, by hiring a consultant to conduct a wildlife habitat assessment – in order to be in a position to develop plans and policies that are grounded in solid data.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING SPECIFICA recent Vermont Supreme Court decision (Appeal of JAM Golf, LLC, 2008 VT 110) underscored the importance of specific standards for wildlife habitat protection in town plans and bylaws.  The court struck down portions of a South Burlington zoning ordinance requiring  “protection” of wildlife habitat and scenic views, ruling them unenforceable because they lacked standards for what such protection would consist of and under what conditions such protection would apply.  The take-home lesson of the JAM Golf decision is that, if standards for protecting habitat and natural areas are to be legally defensible, they have to be clear, specific, and consistent.

However, towns are by no means required to have exhaustive data on wildlife and natural areas before they can take any steps to protect them.  Creating a detailed town-wide conservation and open space plan and map that lay out up front what kinds of protection must occur in what areas is the safest route, but it is just as valid to draw up a series of clear and detailed criteria that require developers to conduct open space and habitat assessments on a project-by-project basis.  The trade-off is in how much detail and certainty a town wants to provide for residents and developers versus how much time and dollars the town is able to invest up front.

In either case, the foundation of a town’s efforts to protect wildlife and important natural communities is the town plan.  Vermont planning law requires that municipal plans address preservation of rare and irreplaceable natural areas and include objectives, policies and programs to protect the environment.  Town plans can be supplemented by open space, natural resource, or conservation plans as well as by specific action plans, such as a management plan for town-owned forests and other public natural areas.

Targeted zoning tools can be used to create wildlife-oriented areas such as conservation districts and special overlay districts.  Zoning can also specify when and where wildlife-friendly development strategies – such as clustering and buffers – must be used.  In addition, it can be used to set high minimum lot sizes or restrict the types of development that are allowed in certain areas (for example, allowing only seasonal camps).

Finally, there are a variety of non-regulatory tools for protecting wildlife and natural areas.  These include working with land trusts to acquire conservation easements, educating landowners about the new options available to them under the Current Use program, and others.

If a community approaches the protection of open space and wildlife habitat thoughtfully and systematically, it can ensure that future generations are able to benefit from natural areas and at the same time respect the right of current property owners to enjoy their land.  With a good plan and some well-designed tools, striking the right balance is not as hard as one might think.

The Tools

From a well-written open space plan to zoning districts with a conservation focus, there are a range of tools available on the Community Planning Toolbox:

Related Tools

Related Case Studies

Resources

Conserving Vermont’s Natural Heritage is an in-depth resource published by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.  It provides excellent information about the status of and strategies for protecting wildlife and natural areas in Vermont.  (NOTE:  this is a 4.6 MB file, which may be difficult to download on a dial-up connection.)