According to Chittenden County forester Ethan Tapper, our ecosystems are difficult to quantify. While those who study them, by nature, deal in hard science, evaluating and quantifying the environment is not so exact.
Take the southeast quadrant in South Burlington, one of the last rural spaces in the city, characterized by grasslands, the Great Swamp, wildlife and few houses.
The area was at the heart of a 2020 study by environmental consulting firm, Arrowwood Environmental, which was contracted by the city to analyze forestland for use in the planning commission’s work overhauling local land development regulations. The firm’s analysis extended to evaluating habitat beyond forested areas and the creation and ranking of “habitat blocks,” now a major point in the city’s new environmental protection standards.
“Habitat Blocks, as defined and delineated by (Arrowwood Environmental) in this study, are large enough areas to provide habitat, either permanently, or seasonally for wider ranging species of wildlife such as bobcat, red and grey fox, white-tailed deer, river otter and fisher,” the report found, having identified the blocks via aerial imagery and geospatial data in a windshield survey.
However, as public hearings began on the city’s new environmental protections and the city council battled over whether to pass the regulations, many community members questioned the existence and value of habitat in the southeast quadrant.
“They hired a consultant that’s never walked our land. To call something critical habitat without ever stepping foot on it is impossible,” Jeff Nick, a part landowner of the Hill Farm area in South Burlington, told The Other Paper in March after he and co-owner, Jeff Davis, sued the city and three city councilors over the new land development regulations.
In a separate analysis, Peter Spear, a wildlife biologist with Natural Resource Consulting Service who Nick and Davis hired to evaluate their property, came to almost opposite conclusions than Arrowwood.
“I have never seen a deer, a red or grey fox, river otter, fisher, or bobcat on the site. I have seen deer tracks/sign but no sign from the other possible species cited by Arrowwood. And, I have assiduously looked for them, in mud and on snow,” Spear wrote, concluding that “the land is not critical habitat.”
Spear’s assessment was concentrated in one area, as opposed to Arrowwood’s broader scope, but how can two evaluations of the same habitat come to such opposing conclusions?
This isn’t an easy question to answer, nor does it seem like many scientists want to touch it with a 10-foot pole.
Spear did not return multiple requests for comment, consultants at Arrowwood Environmental declined to comment as did officials at the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. Multiple state wetland delineators and two University of Vermont professors also did not return requests for comment.
For Tapper, who spoke in a general sense and not to a specific case, he thinks one reason folks might be reticent to address discrepancies in scientific analyses is that governance issues can “get really messy.”
“We want to be apolitical. We obviously want to be advocating for smart practices that protect ecosystems, but there’s a fine line between doing that and then getting engaged in this whole messy governance process,” Tapper said.
But he doesn’t think the environment should be political.
“I believe that the protection of ecosystems is not a political issue. I think it collides with political issues, but it fundamentally supports our communities, our economies, the joy of our lives living in a beautiful state, and then also our physical existence,” he said.
Declan Mccabe, a South Burlington resident who teaches biology at Saint Michael’s College, is not reticentto speak out. He was so flabbergasted after reading Spear’s report that he set up his own game cameras with some of his students, eventually capturing footage of various animals using the land.
He thinks one reason there is a perception that South Burlington is too urban for wildlife is because mammals tend to keep out of sight.
“There are lots of bird-watchers,” he said. “But you can walk in the woods for four months and never see a fox and then out of the blue, unpredictably, there’s a fox. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve seen one gray fox in my entire lifetime in the flesh. I’ve never seen a bobcat in the flesh. My 15-year-old daughter has. I’m very jealous, but I can tell you, if I put the cameras out, I will find them.”
Tapper also verified the presence of wildlife in the area, noting that species present in South Burlington include bobcat, red fox, deer, and perhaps coyotes — species more resilient to living in smaller habitat blocks.
“The physical presence of a species is not necessarily the most important thing because populations of different species are cyclical,” Tapper added. “They might not be using a given area for habitat all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t in the future. Furthermore, we don’t really even have the ability to recognize all of the different species that are utilizing a different habitat.”
Without speaking specifically to either study, Paul Conner, the city’s director of planning and zoning, wondered if this question, of how opinions can differ in science, might be “challenging” because “it may not be a disagreement in science, it may be a different approach to a subject area.”
Either way, Tapper hopes to continue to protect critical habitat and forests, even in more urban areas like Chittenden County, because trying to make sense of our ecosystems is a never-ending story.
“The fact is that, with our ecosystems or with our wildlife, the simple and easy truth is rarely the right one,” he said. “These are incredibly complex, dynamic systems, and they’re messy and they’re irregular and they don’t follow the rules.”