Environment
2:40 pm
Mon March 25, 2013

Keeping Connected: Preserving North Country Wildlife Corridors

Pete Steckler does GIS mapping for the Nature Conservancy. He has worked to create a computer model of how animals move through different landscapes, and he says that rivers like the North Branch of the Contoocook can be thoroughfares for several types of critters
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

The Northern Woods contain a lot of the animals that are symbolic of New Hampshire: bobcat, otter, black bear, fishers, and porcupines to name a few. Many of these animals are mostly found up north because they need a lot of space to move around. One project is trying to come up with a plan to make sure that movement can continue.

In the North Country, there are big swaths of conservation lands that are great habitat for many flagship New England species, but in between them are spaces owned by private landowners. And if development creeps north and eats up those private lands it will get harder for these animals to get around.

That’s where folks like Doug Bechtel – a self-dubbed “science guy” with the Nature Conservancy – step in. “This project is really addressing that need of wildlife to move around, and continue finding habitat and being able to spread across this landscape,” he explains.

Bechtel is part of an effort all across the Northern Appalachians of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine to preserve those connections between wide swaths of undeveloped land. It’s a partnership between more than 20 groups, including environmental outfits, and each state’s transportation department.

Steckler bends over a set of tracks, trying to ID them despite deep, fluffy snow. We couldn't come to a consensus on this track, but saw traces of otter, coyote, and porcupine on the day.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

Why Did the Deer Cross the Road?

To help get an idea of why animals cross roads where they do, and what structures keep wildlife from moving, let’s start with a comparison of two bridges. They aren’t in the area being studied, but they serve to prove the point.

The first is on Ironworks Road in Concord, and it’s almost not even a bridge but just a culvert directing a little stream under the road.

“What we’re seeing here is that if you were a black bear, you wouldn’t be able to walk through this culvert. It’s completely flooded,” says Pete Steckler of the first bridge. Steckler works doing mapping and computer modeling for the Nature Conservancy.

“So the alternative is to walk around and over the road, which puts the bear at risk of getting hit by cars, and also puts drivers at risk of hitting the bear or avoiding the bear and driving off the road.”

Steckler and Doug Bechtel scour the freshly fallen spring snow for signs of animal tracks to demonstrate the point. Today there aren’t any. And so they hop back in the car.

But about half-an-hour down the road there’s a very different bridge, over the North Branch of the Contoocook River in Antrim. Steckler walks gingerly over several layers of older and newer snow that sneaks out over the water at certain points. He tests each step before transferring his full weight hoping not to get his boots wet.

Here the river is a lot faster, the bridge is bigger, and there are tracks.

Eyeing the paw prints and outlines of where a short animal’s body plowed through the snow Steckler says, “yeah it’s definitely larger than a mink so this would be an otter.”

The otter’s tracks pop in and out of the river and head under the bridge, along a shoulder of dry land next to the bridge abutment.  Steckler points out that, sure otters can swim, but lots of other animals like to walk along rivers.

So a bridge like this is much better than the first one from an animal’s perspective.

“It can walk with its feet out of the water if that’s its preference. Those are the types of conditions that we want to encourage,” he notes.

Steckler, Bechtel and I were hunting for tracks at Loverns Mill Cedar Swamp in Antrim, but the area that is being studied for this project is entirely in the North Country, from Lancaster, North.

A Balancing Act

So far this project has involved creating computer models to guess where and how animals are moving, and then hiring trackers to look for prints along the roads to test if the model’s predictions are right. After three years of work, they’ve identified the wildlife thoroughfares in the North Country, and the next step, is to try to make sure they stay that way.

“We’re not going to be able to do it everywhere, we don’t even want to do it everywhere,” Doug Bechtel explains, “We know that there’s some places where we might not be able to focus on wildlife because of other factors, like human safety or development.”

The conflict between safety and animal crossing is one that could be tough.

For example, Bechtel and Steckler say that their data show that animals are most comfortable crossing in spots where trees come right up to both sides of the road.

That’s something that makes safety-minded folks at the DOT nervous.  

Case in point, in 2008 and 2009 Maine’s DOT cut the trees along Interstate 89 way back, to make deer and moose more visible to motorists.

Here in New Hampshire, Bechtel and Steckler say ultimately each animal crossing will have to be addressed in its own way-- compromising between land owners, driver safety, and wildlife needs.

Going forward this project will be all about finding that balance.

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