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Scientist explains global warming’s effect on Vt. wildlife

RIPTON — Few images from Tom Rogers’ wildlife presentation in Ripton last Thursday captured the scale of climate change better than a map of the eastern United States.
Highlighted with warm colors, Vermont has been plucked from its place on this map and moved southwest to suggest what weather might be like here in the coming decades.
In the more hopeful scenario, late-21st-century summers in Addison County might feel like they do now in Huntington, West Virginia.
If nothing is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions, however, our summers by the end of the century might feel more like they do today in Huntsville, Alabama.
For Rogers, a biologist with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, this rapid change will create great stress and pose many dangers for the state’s wild places and the creatures that live in them.
In fact, the climate and our understanding of it are changing so rapidly that Rogers must constantly update his presentation.
“This is a slide that I literally just added this morning,” Rogers told a sparse audience at the Ripton Community House.
Examining the journals of Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who recorded leaf-out and other natural processes around Walden Pond in eastern Massachusetts, and comparing them with the same processes today, a study found that tree leaves are emerging on average two weeks earlier than they used to, Rogers said.
“But another thing they’re finding is that spring wildflowers are not keeping up nearly as quickly. They’re popping out about one week earlier,” which means that the forest canopy has cut in half their time under the sun.
In Vermont, too, he said, “global weirding,” has spread chaos much faster than rates of adaptation.
The “flagship species” in this regard is moose, Rogers said.
As their population density has increased, so have their chances of contracting diseases and parasites.
Rogers played a video of a moose spinning in circles, shaking its head, lurching sideways along a dirt path. It had likely contracted brain worms from deer, he said.
Later, a series of gruesome photos illustrated how moose are affected by winter ticks, whose numbers have exploded as the state has warmed:
•tracks in the snow spotted with the blood drawn by those ticks.
•snow virtually sprayed with red, where the moose had lain, trying to rub the bloodsuckers off its hide.
•the moose lying dead in the snow, ticks packed as densely across its body as corn kernels.
It wasn’t ticks that killed the moose, however, but coyotes, which researchers concluded had fed upon the creature while it was still alive.
“This is a terrible way to die,” Rogers said.
As unpopular as the idea may be, issuing more hunting permits may be the most efficient (and humane) way to restore moose population density to sustainable levels and mitigate their vulnerability to climate change, he suggested.
Elsewhere, habitat loss has begun to exert great pressure on wildlife.
•Bears now wander around in winter because snowmelt and freak winter rainstorms fill their dens with water.
•Inch by inch, stands of fir trees are migrating to higher elevations, seeking cooler climates, but our ancient Green Mountains only go so high.
•Many species simply fail to cross the road, Rogers said, and slicked with enough dead frogs and salamanders, those roads can actually pose as much danger to drivers as ice.
•“Massive precipitation events” (like 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene) destroy stream habitats and hasten the spread of invasive plants.
And yet, Rogers said, there are reasons to celebrate.
For one example he returned to Irene.
“Otter Creek jumped its banks in Rutland and caused massive damage there, but it didn’t damage downtown Middlebury,” which was shielded by “a lot of the wetland complexes in between,” he said. “Many of those wetland complexes were actually created and restored by conservationists. They weren’t even there before people came in and dug them out and dug ditches. There’s been a lot of effort, particularly along the banks of Otter Creek to restore wetlands. That was really kind of an incredible success story about what conservation can do, not just for wildlife species but for people, as well.”
Other conservation victories over nearly a century of wildlife management in Vermont include the recovery of peregrine falcon and of loon populations.
According to the Vermont Loon Conservation Project, there are now more than 90 breeding pairs of loons in the state, up from just seven 30 years ago.
Rogers asked Ripton residents, who live in a “highly ecologically important area,” to promote wildlife habitat on their land.
“We can do this,” he said. “We know we can, because we’ve done it before.”
Even if conservation work only manages to preserve the status quo, he suggested, it’s still worth the effort.
For, as Thoreau said, “In wildness is there preservation of the world.”
Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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