Director of Science and Stewardship
Director of Conservation Programs
How will climate change affect Vermont's landscape over time?
Adaptation is increasingly on the mind of scientists and land managers. How do we help Vermont's native species in a time of rapid climate change? Rose Paul, Director of Science and Stewardship for the Vermont Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and Phil Huffman, Director of Conservation Programs in Vermont, respond.
Rose Paul: Everyone in the conservation community is talking about how to prepare for climate change but the specific recommendations can seem a bit theoretical. Two phrases come up repeatedly: reduce stresses on and increase the resiliency of ecosystems and species.
No one expects that over the next century our ecosystems will remain the same. The predicted magnitude of climate change in a geologically short time frame, just one hundred years, is too great. The hope is that the changes will be buffered and less drastic in ecosystems that largely retain the intricate web of ecological relationships that shaped them over eons of evolution and adaptation. Here’s my quick list of the land management practices that we conduct year-in, year-out to help our ecosystems be resilient:
• Control invasive species, such as buckthorn, that outcompete native plant and animal species.
• Reduce deforestation to prevent release of forest carbon into the atmosphere.
• Leave large diameter dead wood in the forest, both downed logs and standing snags, to provide habitat and replenish nutrients in the soil.
• Plant trees along streams and rivers; leave existing forested buffers uncut so that streams are shaded and waters stay cool.
• Leave trees and limbs in the streams to catch sediment and create habitat for fish.
• Pay attention to the natural processes that shape the land, and allow these processes to happen. Examples include: overbank flooding along floodplains; allow streams to meander; remove barriers to fish passage in streams; after a windstorm or ice storm, leave some of the downed wood and standing snags; in a managed forest, allow larger tree diameters and longer rotations between harvests.
We also need to ensure that the corridors for movement are maintained in a natural condition. For terrestrial species such as black bear, this can mean ensuring that large unfragmented blocks of forested habitat are interconnected by corridors of land in natural cover, such as woodland or wetland, that other animals and even plants can migrate through. As the climate heats up, we need to ensure that successive generations of species can adjust by shifting their ranges.
Mark Anderson, Senior Conservation Scientist for the Conservancy’s eastern region, has additionally proposed that we protect a greater range of physical diversity. This could mean a greater elevation range, or both the north side and the south side of a slope, or including both a stream and some upland in a protected area. This physical diversity offers ecological niches for species that might need to move to cooler, moister, or shadier locations as the climate warms. If we’ve protected the right diversity of physical habitats, suitable species will migrate into them in the future.
Phil Huffman: We are actively involved in a number of efforts to advance the conservation of key corridors in Vermont and the broader Northern Appalachians. The most substantive work is with partners on the linkage between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks in the southern Champlain Valley. We’re also part of a coalition of partners that is working to conserve the corridor between the northern Green Mountains and the Sutton Mountains in Quebec. These linkages have been identified by the binational group, 2 Countries 1 Forest, as two of the five most significant corridors in the entire Northern Appalachians.
Enhancing aquatic connectivity is also an important strategy for adapting to climate change. By reducing habitat fragmentation and other stresses on aquatic organisms we can increase resilience and enhance their ability to move to more suitable habitat (cold water refuges, for example) as things warm up. The best example of this in Vermont is a cooperative agreement with the US Fish & Wildlife Service to identify and remove/improve barriers to the movement of aquatic organisms in key tributaries to Lake Champlain.
We have also been involved in other efforts that we hope will advance our understanding and elevate awareness, including the report by the Vermont and Adirondack Chapters of the Conservancy, published in May 2010, "Climate Change in the Champlain Basin: What natural resource managers can expect and do."February 17, 2011