Climate change is considered by many conservationists to be the single biggest threat to global biodiversity. Three threats loom large in Vermont, and ANR is working with many communities, land trusts, local wildlife and watershed groups and other partners to address them.
- Changing Habitat. As climate changes, so will the habitats that Vermont’s animals depend upon for food, shelter and breeding areas. The natural areas that host various trees and plants will change too, sometimes rapidly.
- Diseases. Biologists are battling a growing number of wildlife disease outbreaks that are exacerbated by a warming and increasingly unpredictable climate.
- Invasives. As our winters become milder, invasive plants and forest pests such as Hemlock Woolly Adelgid are finding Vermont’s climate increasingly hospitable, threatening our native trees.
Scientists are working together to understand which native Vermont species and populations will be most vulnerable to a changing climate.
Timing is Everything
Adaptation usually works slowly on species, changing their features and behaviors over time, like water dripping against a rock. But when the conditions they depend upon change more rapidly, species may not evolve fast enough to keep thriving.
For example, consider the milder winters Vermont is experiencing. Wildlife biologists have spotted bears outside their dens during months that historically would have found them slumbering deeply. And animals that turn white in winter like snowshoe hare now glow brightly in a brown, snowless landscape, making them vulnerable to predators.
Biologists are also concerned that songbirds migrating back to Vermont in early spring will return to find that the insects they depend on have hatched and died. Some birds may nest too early during an unusually warm spring, only to be buried under a late season snowstorm.
All wild animals require space to forage or hide, and many seek different places throughout the year. Some may even require multiple countries, like the Bicknell’s thrush, a songbird that overwinters in the Caribbean and nests on cold, windy mountaintops in Vermont.
But Vermont’s mountaintops are warming up, which changes the plants that live there, shrinking the habitat available to Bicknell’s thrush. Stories like this are playing out all over the country and the world. Wildlife biologists and conservation organizations are studying the threats. They are also developing recommended land management strategies to support a landscape in which as many animals as possible can adapt to the changing conditions.
Disease Outbreaks: Winter ticks and the ‘ghost moose’
At the turn of the Twentieth Century, moose returned from the brink of obscurity in Vermont and began to thrive again. But just when these giant mammals were regaining their foothold, winter ticks knocked them back again.
Winter ticks flourish when the snow melts earlier in the spring, a crucial time in their reproductive cycle. They also flourish in areas where forests are patchy because of roads and other development. These parasites attach to moose, and then suck so much blood that they threaten the health of moose populations in Vermont. Affected moose can go mad with irritation, rubbing their bodies against trees to remove the ticks, while also rubbing off large amounts of the fur they rely on to make it through the winter.
Biologists are concerned that increasingly warm summers are causing additional stress for these beasts of the northern wilds.
As Vermont’s climate warms, certain pests that can harm Vermont’s forests are getting a stronger foothold in the state. Infestations of the insect Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, for example, have been detected in eight Vermont towns in Windham County. In warmer states to the south, the insect is more widespread and the damage is more severe. As winter temperatures rise here, this pest could spread farther north in Vermont causing the death of trees and harming forest health.
Learn about the effects of a changing climate on wild plants and animals.
The Northeast Wildlife Disease Cooperative has information about wildlife diseases, while the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation keeps tabs on forest pest outbreaks.
Vermont Invasives is a cooperative that provides information and assistance controlling invasive plants and animals.
Our wildlife and wild places are a big part of what makes Vermont so special, compelling us to act quickly to ensure that moose and maple trees remain in the Green Mountain State forever.