Moose: The flagship species

Tom Rogers of Vermont Fish & Wildlife calls moose “the flagship species for climate change in Vermont.”

Route 100 is the primary byway between Waterbury and Stowe, but there’s another major thoroughfare that is all but impassable to humans and their vehicles and largely invisible to them, says Stowe naturalist Tom Rogers.

Naturalists know all about it, though.

“When we do maps of the state, to show where to place our attention, it glows red. It’s an important spot,” Rogers said about the Shutesville Hill Wildlife Corridor, a mile-wide swath of land bordered roughly by the fittingly named Black Bear Run on the north and Ruby Raymond Road on the south, with Route 100 splitting it right down the middle.

Rogers will talk about that animal avenue — its official designation is the North Hill Forest Block — next Thursday at the Green Mountain Club’s headquarters. It’s on Route 100 in Waterbury, smack in the middle of that corridor,

Rogers’ presentation, “Vermont’s Wildlife in a Changing Climate,” is, at its heart, a talk about adaptation. Not just animal, but human, too.

“There’s a real question of whether wildlife species will be able to change their behavior,” Rogers said. “Adaptation moves at the pace of evolution.”

Adapting to change

Rogers said there have been numerous mass extinctions throughout history, most notably millions of years ago when a comet hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. He said scientists call our current era the “sixth great extinction,” and it’s already underway.

The major difference with this one is the human touch.

“Plants and animals didn’t have humans to contend with when things got back to normal” following previous extinctions, Rogers said. “Before, the world corrected itself.”

Humans bring development, and the Shutesville Hill corridor is no exception, with Route 100 and numerous side roads bisecting and crisscrossing it, with land being subdivided and cleared and houses being built on it.

And now, with climate change, the animals in the area are starting to permanently migrate elsewhere. Not like geese, who fly south and come back each year, but more like settlers, moving a mile or two a year.

Rogers said animals that are used to the Vermont climate of yesteryear are migrating north at about the rate of 11 miles every decade, while moving up about 30 feet in elevation.

To accommodate that movement, state wildlife and conservation officials and organizations like the Stowe Land Trust hope to maintain a connected corridor — call it a Route 100 for the animals.

Property owners can help by dedicating some of their property to conservation. Rogers said state biologists and foresters can help with land practices, and land trusts can help put land in conservation easements.

“To me, maintaining these healthy habitats is the most important thing,” he said. “As long as things are connected, so wildlife corridors don’t exist in isolation.”

Invasion of the species snatchers

Rogers said Shutesville Hill offers a glimpse into how certain species of fauna and flora diminish, even as other species flourish.

Invasive plants are pushing out certain native plants. Rogers said purple loosestrife, for example, has begun blooming alongside roads like Route 100 earlier and earlier each spring, thanks to climate change. That early blooming leads to a hardier plant, which crowds out things like milkweed, which in turn affect monarch butterflies, which don’t eat anything else.

In some places in the wildlife corridor, Japanese knotweed, that broad-leafed pest choking off waterways, is doing battle with another invasive species, phragmites. The latter is a common reed introduced from Europe via coastal ports on the East Coast, which has now found its way to Vermont.

“It’s like a Godzilla versus Megalon battle with these two monster invasive plants,” Rogers said.

In addition, invasive animal pests like the emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorned beetle are affecting the local ecosystem. And the culprit? Climate change, says Rogers.

Another pest on the rise because of climate change is the lowly, potentially deadly tick.

Moose strife

Although the Shutesville Hill Wildlife Corridor is used by bears, deer, foxes and countless smaller animals like rodents and birds, Rogers is likely to talk quite a bit about Vermont’s moose population.

“They’re really the flagship species for climate change in Vermont,” he said.

There are two reasons, he says.

For one, moose are a “cold-adapted species” that get hot in anything warmer than 57 degrees. Rogers said they start panting at 63 degrees, which means that during the summer, when they ought to be bulking up for the winter, they spend their time seeking shelter from the heat instead of eating.

Second, Vermont’s moose population is being decimated by ticks, particularly winter ticks. As the name suggests, winter ticks are around during cold weather, and typically they drop off and die when there’s snow on the ground.

But if they drop and land on bare ground, they continue to live, and then they breed and their population explodes. And moose carry a lot of ticks.

Rogers said he once saw wildlife experts count 58,000 ticks on one moose calf. And he saw another calf in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom that had gotten so emaciated from the blood-sucking pests that its bone marrow was “like Jell-O,” and when it lay down, it left a bloody moose outline. It was still alive when coyotes set in, but too weak to move.

“Under most natural conditions, that’s not how animals will die in the wild,” he said.

Updated to correct the monarch butterfly's staple food source.

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