By BRIAN NEARING, Staff writer
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First published: Sunday, December 20, 2009
The decrepit and soon-to-be-demolished Champlain Bridge is many miles away to the north. But this portion of the border between New York and Vermont, where the states are separated only by a narrow strip of Lake Champlain, may represent another kind of bridge that endures unnoticed.
Running through more than 30 miles of mostly undeveloped forest country in the Lake Champlain Valley is a sort of natural span that experts believe has allowed solitary, wide-ranging predators such as bears, bobcats and fishers to migrate between the Adirondacks in New York and the Green Mountains in Vermont.
Now, a quarter-million-dollar, federally supported study of about 1,700 square miles between Whitehall and Rutland will seek ways to protect this "wild" bridge between the two ranges, and lessen the dangers presented by roads -- especially north/south roads like Route 4 above Fort Ann and Route 7 above Rutland. The study will also examine how to keep key sections of up to 5,000 acres of forest in this corridor intact, either by purchase or through conservation easements.
"This area is a pinch-point between the Adirondacks and the Greens," said Michelle Brown, a conservation scientist with the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which is coordinating the five-year study with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society and The Conservation Fund.
Brown and DEC wildlife biologist Joe Racette recently visited Dresden in northern Washington County to look over a Nature Conservancy purchase in the heart of the wildlife corridor, near the Chubbs Dock area. This land was purchased recently to help protect waterfowl habitat.
"It is helpful to think of large animals like this as electricity, in that they will follow the path of least resistance to avoid humans," said Racette. "What we are looking at here is trying to maintain a connection instead of restoring one."
Large carnivores like bears can range up to 10 miles in a single day, and up to 40 miles over the course of a season, he said. Even a smaller predator like a fisher, a member of the weasel family that can reach four feet long and weigh 10 pounds, can cover three or four miles a day.
Keeping the forest link open between the mountains allows for continued genetic mixing between animals, Racette said. When animal populations become isolated, genetic variability declines, making animals more susceptible to disease outbreaks.
Since roads can be deadly to wildlife...
"We will be looking at low-cost things to help make roads more permeable for animals crossing, like reconfiguring some culverts to make sure they are big enough for larger animals to pass through," said Brown, who noted that even changing where guardrails are placed can redirect where animals chose to cross a road.
Building roads with wildlife pass-throughs has been regular practice for years out west, where large animals like elk and caribou migrate in large herds. Such measures are being added slowly in New York, said Deb Nelson, an assistant operations director at the state Department of Transportation. One of the first roadway wildlife mitigation measures in the state, she said, was on Meadowdale Road in Altamont, where culverts were added to facilitate the passage of salamanders.
The state has also added wildlife-accessible culverts at Stewart International Airport in Newburgh and in the Utica area, and is using motion-activated game cameras to measure how many animals pass through, Nelson said.
DOT expects the Champlain Valley study will "help us make sound investment decisions based on sound science. We don't want to put something in and find that it's not working," said Nelson. "There are a million culverts under the roads in the state. Those culverts can serve as passageways for wildlife, or as barriers. We want to minimize those barriers."
For the Champlain Valley study, "our interest right now is making sure that we identify the most important landscapes for all the specific species that could benefit from it," Austin said.
The Champlain study is part of a larger, four-state project including New Hampshire and Maine that seeks to protect connections in the forests of the northeast.
Brian Nearing can be reached at 454-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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