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  • Jens Hilke

Shutesville Hill Wildlife Corridor – A Special Place

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

The list of special places in Vermont is long, from the summits of the Green Mountains, to our fast-moving rivers and tranquil lakes, to an ordinary stand of maple forest that serves as a quiet, secluded oases for contemplation. Such a list no doubt would include scenic visas and historical hotspots, quirky general stores, and vibrant community gathering places.

As a conservation biologist with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, I have worked in towns around the entire state from Halifax to Highgate and seen many of these special places for myself. I have also heard the many communities I work with tell me about the lesser-known places that are special to them and are the key to their town’s character and uniqueness.

One of the things that makes a place special is the context in which it is found; the contrast with its surroundings. The quiet park in the bustling downtown center. The local watering hole that connects people together in a village of otherwise isolated farms and forests.

The Shutesville Hill Wildlife Corridor on the town line between Stowe and Waterbury is one of those places that is special because of its context. To the west is the main ridge of the Green Mountains, a large block of 72,000 forested acres that includes Mt Mansfield State Forest and other public and private lands. To the east is a 45,000 acre block of forest along the Worcester Range, including CC Putnam State Forest. Between these is a narrow corridor of intact forest -the center of the hourglass- that connects these large blocks of habitat. This is the corridor that wildlife must travel to move between these two blocks, crossing busy Route 100 along the way.

On a statewide scale, Vermont’s forests generally form a connected network, which is incredibly important to allow wildlife to move from one area to another to find the resources they need and to breed with each other. When wildlife populations are separated by unpassable obstacles, they are only able to breed from within, causing them to become inbred and making them unhealthy and more susceptible to disease and other threats.

Connected forests are not only important as pathways to promote interbreeding between different populations, but they also allow gradual movement of entire species in the face of climate change. A changing climate is making the need for connected habitats even more important. As a result of a warming climate, many species are adjusting their ranges to the north on average of about 11 miles per decade -a little more than a mile per year. That’s an entire population adjusting its range in response to climate change! The Shutesville Hill Wildlife Corridor is one of the places that wildlife will depend on as climate change puts increasing pressures on their continued survival.

When we zoom out and look at forests regionally, it’s clear that unlike in southern New England, Vermont’s forests are more than just small islands of habit in a sea of development. The Green Mountains run north to south, which has generally protected forests from development along these north-south ridgelines. But the valleys between these ridgelines are often developed, making stretches of intact and healthy forests running from east to west much rarer. Unfortunately, the area of Quebec that borders Vermont has few stretches of intact forested habitat, making Vermont’s north-south connections ultimately fizzle out into nothing. Therefore, it’s important to connect Vermont’s forested habitats with similarly intact habitat in New Hampshire, Maine, and eastern Quebec. Our network of connected land can’t simply run north south along the Greens, but must also connect the Greens to the mountains to our east.

The list of special places in Vermont is long and includes many well-known and lesser-known spots. It is increasingly clear that the Shutesville Hill Wildlife Corridor is among Vermont’s special places. It serves as a critical connection that brings together the forests and waters of the entire Northern Appalachians. Let’s add this one to the list!

This article originally appeared in a spring 2018 edition of the Stowe Reporter and Waterbury Record. Jens Hilke is the conservation planning biologist for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, working with towns to conserve the natural resources they value. He lives in Burlington.

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