Whether deep in the heart of an upland hardwood forest, down in the swampy meadows alongside the Connecticut River, or in your own backyard, the Putney landscape is awash in a colorful assortment of habitats and lively critters. Like with plants, most animals are associated with distinct habitat features that arise from unique interactions among the various landscape components. Often one particular landscape facet will dominate over the others. In the flat, grassy meadows, for example, there are an abundance of small rodents scurrying about, such as groundhogs, voles, moles, and mice. Wetland areas interspersed with woods, streams and brooks serve as important sources of food and drinking water for a diversity of fish, frogs, turtles, and snakes. Water fowl like Canada geese and wood ducks migrate to the shores of Putney’s ponds and forested wetlands during the breeding season and enjoy the tender shoots of young aquatic plants. And bowls of water that collect in low lying basins or between bedrock ridges are magical places in which to explore vernal pool habitat and search for the eggs of relatively uncommon amphibians like the Jefferson salamander. Of course we cannot forget the hawks; the north-south ridge of Putney Mountain creates unique thermal conditions that provide excellent wind currents for migrating raptors.
While some animals’ habitats are localized, other are ubiquitous throughout town, notably the white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, red squirrels, and chipmunks. Even so, the human boundaries we erect on the landscape do have an impact on the well-being of wildlife populations. Cultural and land use patterns frequently fragment the countryside into a patchwork of forests, fields, and human dwellings, leaving suitable habitat scattered about as islands. Just as we travel between places using an extensive network of roadways, animals – particularly larger mammals – require pathways called corridors to criss-cross the land from one patch of habitat to the next. Like our roads, corridors range in dimension and type, but they all enable the fauna to move across the landscape and encounter the environments they need for feeding, migrating, mating, and resting. These movements also affect the distribution of seeds and therefore vegetation patterns. An aerial look of southeastern Vermont displays that many woodland corridors stretch between human properties, along forested hilltops, and along riparian borders that hug the edges of rivers and streams.
Statewide data can be useful in determining the locations of core wildlife habitats and where some of the potential corridors between habitat areas might be. In Putney, the developed areas where humans frequently dwell and fragment the landscape, like along Route 5 and Westminster West Road, provide poor wildlife habitat. In contrast, along the Rocky Ridge, Bear Hill, and Putney Mountain ridgelines are relatively intact blocks of un-fragmented land that can better serve the expansive territorial needs of medium-to-large terrestrial mammals such as the bobcat, fisher, black bear, and moose. Some of the most important corridors connecting these habitat patches appear to be along the northern and western reaches of town, where human development has been relatively limited.
Wildlife populations in Putney – and throughout New England – have not always been static, however. Species abundance and distribution have changed in the past and continue to change today, in tandem with dynamic human settlement patterns. Prior to European colonization, the thick interior of the northern wilderness was populated with large mammals such as the wolf, elk, caribou, black bear, wolverine, and mountain lion, which ranged over the landscape and were hunted by ancient native peoples for food and clothing. After Europeans arrived and Vermont’s population grew, vast tracts of forest habitat were cleared and the numbers of several animal species declined dramatically, while grassland bird species populations’ soared. In more recent times, as Vermont’s economy has diversified beyond an agricultural base and state laws have been enacted to moderate hunting practices, the forests have returned and many of the mammal species that had been severely over-hunted were successfully reintroduced. The fisher is a great example of a come-back species, which was reintroduced in the 1960s to control a burgeoning porcupine population, and have since become well established.
Yet it is important to remember that wide-ranging animals would not be able to sustain themselves without habitat linkages; due to landscape fragmentation, only in combination do several small forest chunks provide enough resources to meet the needs of larger wildlife. This point illustrates the importance of connected forest habitat, and serves as a reminder that if we do not carefully plan our future development, we run the risk of losing creatures like the fisher, black bear, and moose from Putney’s landscape altogether. Accordingly, it is valuable for citizens to get out on the land, learn to recognize animals and their signs, and help track local wildlife patterns. In addition to being a great way to feel connected to the life of the surrounding landscape, monitoring the health of our native animal species can provide excellent indicators as to the success or failure of our landscape management decisions both at present and in the years to come.