BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - More people working from home appears to have benefited some wildlife in Vermont and other parts of New England. In Maine, the state’s department of transportation found a steep drop in the number of deer, turkeys, moose roadkill last spring. And another study during that same time period -- the height of the pandemic -- found half as many frogs were crushed on the roads compared to previous years.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, people packed up their offices and hunkered down at home. “People were driving less, and at some points as much as 40% percent less,” said Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont. He says the headlines talked about the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions as people hung up their car keys. But wildlife experts noticed something else.
“We saw a decline in amphibian mortality there,” said Jim Andrews with the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. He says the pandemic shutdown coincided with the annual migration of frogs to their spring swamps, and that with fewer cars on the road, more amphibians survived that real-life “frogger.” You could say that it went down from two-thirds to one-third mortality, so that’s pretty significant.”
That was just one example from a quarter-mile stretch of road in Monkton that volunteers surveyed several times from mid-March to mid-April 2020, but Andrews says it’s indicative of what was likely happening statewide. “If you expanded that out to the state, many, many thousands fewer amphibians would have been killed during that time period,” he said.
So what has happened since then? Andrews says this spring amphibian deaths were back up as more people were back out. And that goes for reptiles like snakes during their fall migration. Unlike bobcats, coyotes, or other animals that can cross a road in seconds, it takes several minutes to hop or slither to safety. Fewer cars mean less chance of becoming reptile roadkill. “It makes a huge difference, the amount of traffic makes a huge difference, Andrews said.
And he says studies out of New York state have shown that over time, populations of amphibians that live near roads gradually disappear as the number killed surpasses the number that reproduce. Andrews says wildlife underpasses -- which Vermont has dabbled in -- can help, but also conserving land that isn’t crisscrossed by traffic and where critters can migrate undisturbed.
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But Watts sees another opportunity to re-think how we work long-term. “Not everybody, but there is a certain group of people that does not have to drive every day, and that has all these other positive environmental impacts, " he said. “We did a study right when the pandemic hit asking people -- did they see themselves commuting more in the future. And they said ‘Yes, we think so.’ A year later, just a few months ago, we did the same study. Over three-quarters of those people who had been working at home said we want to do this more.”
Watts says it shows that there is an enormous opportunity in Vermont but that we lack an organizing entity to weave it all together. He says the state should consider creating an organization that would promote ways to make remote work easier and bring down the number of miles traveled on Vermont’s roads. He likens it to electric efficiency, where the state created a utility -- Efficiency Vermont -- to spearhead efforts to bring down electric usage.
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