By Gail Callahan
The Nature Conservancy recently received more than a quarter-million dollars for a multiyear project to improve habitat and facilitate wildlife movement in the Wolcott area. The main portion, $225,000, came from the Canaday Family Charitable Trust, with another $30,000 coming from a partnership with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
“This is a multipronged project,” said Eve Frankel, director of communications for the Montpelier-based Nature Conservancy. “This award is a recognition for the science we’ve been doing.”
The Nature Conservancy, the Fish and Wildlife Department, the Town of Wolcott, and the Vermont Agency of Transportation will work together to modify an existing Route 15 bridge to enable wildlife to travel safely between forested areas, remove an outdated bridge, restore a wetland, and plant trees in the West Branch floodplain. The goal is to restore an important link between significant forest blocks while improving water quality, flood retention, and road safety.
“This is the first project of its kind in the eastern United States to link together habitat restoration with improvements and modifications to traffic infrastructure for wildlife movement,” said Paul Marangelo, senior conservation ecologist with the Nature Conservancy. All of the money is to be used for the plan, he said. Marangelo said Wolcott was chosen for the work because it was the best location along the corridor between West Danville and Cambridge.
Vermont Agency of Transportation biologist James Brady believes the available funds will be enough to complete the ambitious workload. “Costs from similar projects were used to come up with a safe estimate for the project as a whole,” he explained. “This, along with the expertise of the partners involved, gives the team confidence that this project will have plenty of funding for completion.”
“This specific area is a pinch-point for wide-ranging terrestrial wild animals that are looking to expand their range to mate, raise young, forage or hunt, and to find cover,” Brady noted. “There are large habitat blocks north and south of this area, and the project site will be a major corridor between these blocks. In its current condition, this site does not effectively allow for all species to feel comfortable moving from one habitat block to another.”
Brady noted that the area is critical for north-south wildlife movement and is adjacent to Vermont 15, property that is already owned by the state’s Agency of Natural Resources, thereby avoiding the issue of land acquisition. “This land is also well-suited for improvement in forest cover through strategic tree planting,” he added.
Furthermore, the site also includes an existing bridge large enough to allow for wildlife to cross under Vermont 15. The cost to install a new structure for wildlife movement is prohibitively expensive, but the existing bridge only needs slight improvement to make it more effective at allowing wildlife to move beneath it.
As for the benefit to humans, Brady quickly pointed out that the project is primarily designed for terrestrial wildlife, and once completed, decreases the chance of humans hitting wildlife with a vehicle.
“The less animals need to navigate land managed for human use, the safer it is for people and wildlife,” he said. “Wildlife can move freely and increase genetic exchange, which improves the health and survival of their species.”
Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter emphasizes that the project also matters to people because Vermonters are known for their zealous concern and support for land and wildlife habitat.
“Most Vermonters, whether they are hunters or bird watchers or whether they just care about their landscape, are passionately invested in keeping wildlife and their habitats healthy, and improving the land,” Porter said. “It also matters economically. Natural resources, from wildlife to timber production, are an important part of our economy. We need to keep those resources vibrant and sustainable in order to keep that economy going.”
Porter also points out that wildlife and wild places are important for Vermonters’ physical and mental health, from the healthy wild food they get by hunting and fishing (and foraging) to the mental health benefit from spending time in the woods and on the water, “whether that is with a gun or a pair of binoculars.”