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Connecticut’s wildlife resources focus of day-long conference

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - May 15, 2006

From coyotes and black bears to wood frogs and spotted salamanders, the state of the state’s wildlife was the focus of a day-long conference at UConn on May 2.

The conference, the first in what is expected to become an annual series, was attended by more than 250 University faculty and students, high school teachers and students, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) staff, and representatives of various environmental organizations.

Environmental issues affect everybody, said Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation for the Connecticut Audubon Society, who spoke about water birds.

“Everywhere you look in Connecticut is bird habitat,” he said. “Mountains, meadows, wetlands, Long Island Sound – they’re all bird habitats. We can measure the quality of life by key indicators such as how birds are doing.”

Half of the 87 species of water bird found in Connecticut are listed in the conservation strategy as being in some need of conservation, Bull said.

“Can you imagine a walk along the seashore without gulls, terns, and wading birds?” he asked.

A species is particularly vulnerable to loss of habitat when it feeds on only one variety of food or lives and breeds in only one small place, Bull said: “Plovers and terns nest on the same tiny ribbon of sand where everyone wants to put their blanket.”

He suggested that Connecticut follow some other states in using fill to build offshore islands as alternative habitats for the birds. Environmental organizations should do more to involve the public in conservation of bird species through “citizen science,” he maintained.

“There’s no other scientific field that relies on citizens to go out and collect data,” he said.

“We need to corral that. The more people know about our resources, the more they will be interested in protecting and conserving them.”

The challenges are different for large mammals, according to Paul Rego, a DEP wildlife biologist.

The group includes only 23 species, but they are ubiquitous.

These species have broad habitat requirements and some – like the coyote and the black bear – are proving more adaptable than previously thought to landscapes altered by humans.

“Because these species frequently cause conflict with humans,” he said, “people don’t think so much about threats to these species, they think more about threats from these species.

“Part of conservation is to recognize these conflicts and manage them,” he said, “so the species are not looked upon as a liability but as an asset.”

He said beavers and deer have made a comeback.

Almost wiped out in Connecticut by the late 1800s, they now abound and are the cause of frequent complaints.

The muskrat, on the other hand, is in decline because its wetland habitat has been taken over by invasive plant species such as purple loosestrife and phragmites.

John Barclay, associate professor of wildlife ecology and director of the University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Center, one of the conference organizers, said the event was conceived as a step in developing a forum for wildlife conservation in Connecticut.

There has been a longstanding need for a conference such as this, said Morty Ortega, associate professor of natural resources management and engineering who was one of the conference organizers.

“Everybody was saying this needed to be done. We need to get to know each other, do more networking.”

UConn offers a bachelor’s degree, a master’s, and a Ph.D. in natural resources management and engineering, including wildlife management.

A new minor in wildlife management will be offered to non-majors for the first time in the fall.

The conference came on the heels of a DEP report, “The Connecticut Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy,” approved by the federal government in January, that outlines the status of Connecticut’s wildlife, problems for conservation, strategies for action, and methods of evaluating those strategies.

Jenny Dickson, a supervising wildlife biologist with the DEP, said there is an urgent need for more information about many of the state’s small mammals.

Gathering data can be time-consuming, she noted, adding that there’s a trade-off between collecting information quickly enough for the state to take management action before it’s too late and compiling data that are rigorous enough for scientific study.

Hank Gruner, vice president of programs and exhibits for the Science Center of Connecticut and a specialist in amphibians and reptiles, said species that rely on both wetlands and uplands – such as wood frogs and spotted salamanders – are especially vulnerable to fragmentation of their habitat.

“It’s not the number of people that’s key,” he said, “but how we develop.”

When designing a road, he said, the number of curves, the catch basins, and even the design of the curbs can have a significant impact on local species.

Toads, for example, which walk slowly and can’t hop, have a hard time if they must cross a road to reach another part of their habitat.

The planning structure of the state adds to the complexities of conservation, he added.

“There are 169 towns, each with their own planning and zoning,” Gruner said. “That’s where decisions are made. There need to be a lot of conversations with municipalities.”

Wildlife Conservation Research Center director Barclay said that in listening to the day’s presentations, he was “personally startled at the seriousness of the status of wildlife populations in Connecticut.

“Many are in serious decline and facing problems with regard to habitat that is being lost or fragmented in the face of urban development,” he added. “This is a problem not only for ecosystems but also for human quality of life and other aspects of the human role in the natural world.”

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