by Tom Rogers
Vermont is often on the cutting edge of progress, and our state’s endangered species law is a prime example. Vermont lawmakers passed legislation more than a year before the federal Endangered Species Act. That legislation has protected Vermont’s endangered species for nearly half a century. Happily, three species have since recovered enough to be removed from the list: the peregrine falcon, the osprey, and the loon. But there is still plenty of work to be done. Here are eight species that remain protected under Vermont’s endangered species law and how they affect your daily life, from cleaning your water, pollinating your food, and keeping insects and rodents in check to inspiring awe and connecting children with nature.
Let’s start with the good news. Bald eagles, which declined nationwide in the mid 20th century because of a loss of habitat and the effects of the pesticide DDT, have largely recovered thanks in part to a national DDT ban in 1972. Although bald eagle recovery in Vermont has lagged behind other states, several strong nesting seasons have conservationists hopeful that they are on the path toward being removed from the state’s endangered species list. Bald eagles are America’s national symbol and invoke a sense of wonder in the natural world. Their recovery represents what’s possible when people care deeply about wildlife and actively work together to protect it.
Little Brown Bat
The disease scientists named “white-nose syndrome” hit Vermont’s bats hard starting in 2008, causing several species populations to go into free fall, including little brown bats—once the state’s most common bat species. Caves that previously housed tens of thousands of little brown bats were reduced to only a couple hundred within a few short years. Recently, welcome signs have appeared that the rate of decline may be slowing down. People need bats more than bats need people. These tiny mammals generate an estimated $3.7 billion a year in benefits to North American agriculture through insect pest control and crop pollination, according to the journal Science.
Once found throughout the Champlain Valley, timber rattlesnakes are now located in only two isolated populations in western Rutland County. Their fate is uncertain. The loss of critical habitat, collection for the black-market pet trade, and indiscriminate killing have depressed populations to state-endangered status. The newly discovered “snake fungal disease” may worsen these problems. Despite the rattlesnake’s fearsome reputation, the woods are actually safer with timber rattlers and other snakes present. Timber rattlesnakes and other predators help control rodent populations, which spread disease and cause crop damage when their numbers aren’t checked by predators.
Like eating food? Thank a pollinator. Bees, butterflies, and moths aid in the reproduction of everything from apples to broccoli florets to oaks and other forest trees. These pollinators are essential to our farms, meadows, and orchards. But Vermont’s bumble bee species, including the rusty-patched bumblebee, which was recently listed as endangered in Vermont, are on the decline because of a parasite infestation, as well as the widespread use of insecticides referred to as “neonicotinoids.” Avoiding the use of these pesticides on lawns and gardens and planting native flowering plants can help these species thrive.
If we have pollinators to thank for our food, maybe we should raise a glass of clean water in gratitude for filter feeders. Clams, oysters, and mussels are an important resource in removing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that contribute to toxic algal blooms. Freshwater mussels in particular have been cited for their ability to clean up inland waterways. But several of Vermont’s 18 species of mussels, including the state and federally endangered dwarf wedgemussel, are in decline because of human-induced alterations in their habitat, such as dams and sedimentation.
Vermont has never had a large or stable lynx population. Records of lynx sightings were extremely rare even during the time of the earliest colonists, and sightings have remained infrequent. So when evidence emerged that lynx started reappearing in Vermont roughly ten years ago, conservationists cautiously theorized that lynx might have established a resident population. As animals of the north, lynx require large tracts of connected forests in which to roam and deep snows that allow them to out-compete their close relative, the bobcat. As the climate continues to warm, these furry creatures may act as a bellwether for Vermont. And if Vermont’s forests become increasingly fragmented, lynx may choose to pack up and head north.
Spiny Softshell Turtle
Everyone loves turtles. From a tiny painted turtle in a backyard pond, to the teenage mutant ninja variety on the big screen, turtles connect kids to wildlife in a way few other animals can. Here in Vermont, threatened spiny softshell turtles give young Vermonters a connection to nature every fall. On a Saturday in October, scores of wildlife enthusiasts show up with their trowels and rakes to help clean three beaches along Lake Champlain in preparation for the turtles’ spring nesting season. They help the turtles out, but perhaps more importantly for many of the kids, they get an up-close experience with wildlife that can translate into a lifelong love of wildlife and support for conservation.
Lake Champlain has real-life “dinosaurs” swimming beneath its surface. Not the mythical lake monster “Champ,” but ancient Triassic-era fish known as lake sturgeon, live in Lake Champlain. Armored with bony plates on their bodies and whisker-like barbels next to their pointy snouts, sturgeon can live 150 years and weigh 300 pounds. Once historically common in Lake Champlain, sturgeon populations declined rapidly in the 20th century as a result of overfishing, the loss of spawning and nursery habitat caused by the construction of dams, and sea lamprey predation. As fish biologists study and find more of these unique fish, they are researching whether lake sturgeon may be slowly recovering thanks to their protected status and concerted conservation efforts.
Tom Rogers is a biologist who works in outreach for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.