Wildlife Watch: Habitat management 101

Published: Jul. 5, 2022 at 5:09 PM EDT
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WESTFORD, Vt. (WCAX) - To ensure the conservation of wildlife in the state, a key job of the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife is to work with private landowners and other stakeholders on habitat management. One of those projects includes a new nature trail in Chittenden County.

Just outside the Westford Elementary School, local students and state officials are hard at work on a habitat management project.

“Habitat management is really just actively being involved in the forest and cutting trees, taking care of invasive plants, creating structure and diversity so that it can be a home to many different species,” said Andrea Shortsleeve, a habitat biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife.

This work was done within the last year by Chittenden County Forester Ethan Tapper and students from the forestry program at the Vermont Technical Center.

“Students have come out and have selected trees, help Ethan to add more sunlight to the forest floor, get some more regeneration growing, add some more structure. You can see how messy it is behind me. That is part of our goal. We really like having messy forests for all the different critters to be crawling through and eating bugs off of,” Shortsleeve said. “As we can see right now, we have opened up the canopy, so we’re getting a lot more sunlight now on the forest floor so everything can grow. Later in the winter when the snow falls, it’s going to fall differently over all these different piles of logs and branches, creating pockets for weasels, mice, and all of those things to be finding a place in the snow.”

Just a short walk down the same trail, visitors can already see the impact of work completed just a few years ago.

“What we’re looking at is a patch cut that was 90% clear. About four years ago, we came in with a Brontosaurus, ground this entire site down -- which is a machine that grinds these trees down and creates a mulch layer. A lot of the brush that we saw earlier was here. And then over time, as the trees regenerate and grow up, the ferns start to grow in, and that brush kind of builds back into the soil, and we’re left with this really beautiful piece of young forest habitat,” said Dave Adams, a habitat biologist with Vermont Fish & Wildlife. “The seed bank is out here, it just needs sunlight. And that’s what the goal of these large cuts are.”

Shortsleeve and Adams say most of the wildlife in Vermont prefer a habitat that’s 0 to 25 years old. They say it starts with pollinator habitat. “We talk a lot about our birds and our bats and our deer and our turkeys but the insects and the pollinators are truly the backbones of the habitat. Without insects, without the caterpillars that these insects come from, we don’t have the bird life, we don’t have that biomass that is incredibly important,” Adams said.

“We offer a free program, technical assistance. They can call us and have a biologist come out and walk around and start talking about different habitat ideas. Then, depending on the work that you choose to do, it can be very cheap -- whether you’re just cutting firewood -- and we can go up from there depending on the activities.”

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