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Berkshire Wildlife Linkage for habitat connectivity

Laura Marx
Forest Ecologist
Organization information: 

The Massachusetts chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT), and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, as well as many other organizations are part of the Green Mountains to Hudson Highlands linkage (the Berkshire Wildlife Linkage), which is part of the Staying Connected Initiative.

• Laura Marx, Forest Ecologist
The Nature Conservancy
lmarx@tnc.org

• Elia del Molino, Program Manager and GIS Analyst
Berkshire Environmental Action Team
elia@thebeatnews.org

• Tim Dexter, Environmental Analyst
Massachusetts Department of Transportation
Timothy.dexter@state.ma.us

Summary / Overview: 

Several partners are working in the Berkshire Wildlife Linkage in western Massachusetts to maintain connectivity between core forest habitat patches. This will allow wildlife to safely migrate as climate change shifts temperature zones. To achieve this goal, the partners developed and applied computer-based models and ground-truthed model results using animal tracking, motion-triggered wildlife cameras, and roadkill surveys to identify priority parcels for land protection and priority road segments for the safe passage of wildlife between patches of core habitat. They also launched a public education and outreach effort to encourage land stewardship that allows for wildlife movement.

Background: 

Partners of the Staying Connected Initiative, a program of the binational conservation organization Two Countries One Forest, work to conserve, restore, and enhance landscape connectivity across the 80 million-acre Northern Appalachian/Acadian ecoregion of the U.S. and Canada for the benefit of nature and people. Their efforts to sustain connectivity will safeguard native wildlife and plants from the impacts of fragmentation and climate change, while also supporting human activities tied to the forested landscape. Partners include conservation organizations, universities, and transportation and natural resource agencies.

The Berkshire Wildlife Linkage in western Massachusetts, which connects the Green Mountains in Vermont to the Hudson Highlands in New York, is one of nine priority linkage areas of the Staying Connected Initiative. A landscape-level analysis found that this region is the part of the most intact temperate broadleaf forest in the world, but that it risks becoming a set of ecological islands unless action is taken to connect it.

The forests, wetlands, streams, and open shrublands and grasslands of the Berkshire Wildlife Linkage contain critical winter and summer core habitat for wildlife. However, roads and residential or commercial developments fragment this habitat, which limits the ability of wildlife to safely travel through the region in search of food, mates, and favorable living conditions.

Implementation: 

Berkshire Wildlife Linkage partners collaborated to identify patches of core habitat as well as the potential barriers to wildlife movement among them.  The Nature Conservancy drew on its regional flow analysis and the UMass Critical Linkages II model to identify habitat nodes, connectivity areas, and priority road segments. Nodes, the foundation of the analysis, are large, high quality forest cores, wetland cores, aquatic habitats, and highly intact protected lands. These nodes play a critical role in “preserving the stage,” as they include a variety of different habitats. As the largest, most intact examples of forest/wetland/aquatic systems in this landscape, nodes are expected to retain their importance as climate changes, although different climate change scenarios may make the habitats available within them drier, wetter, or hotter. Maintaining connections between these nodes is an essential climate adaptation strategy, as it will promote the resilience of the nodes as well as allow for species range shifts. Critical Linkages II “Link Importance” and “Linkage Importance” scores were used to identify the connectivity areas and road segments where maintaining habitat and alleviating road barriers would have the greatest contributions to overall landscape connectivity across all nodes. The science team used the regional flow model to identify other connectivity areas essential for providing a north – south corridor stretching beyond state borders.

Berkshire Environmental Action Team’s (BEAT) on-the-ground work identified wildlife movement patterns within three pilot areas.  BEAT’s volunteers tracked wildlife at potential road crossing sites and identified roadkill. This data, paired with cameras that captured images of animals using critical habitat, helped to identify exactly where animals are moving in the corridors, and where it might be useful to conserve or improve lands for connectivity. 

After completing a preliminary analysis, The Nature Conservancy convened a kick-off meeting with Massachusetts land trusts, land commissions, and environmental groups to present the overall approach and results and seek feedback. Meeting participants responded enthusiastically, with many agreeing to complete outreach with landowners in priority areas. Groups received common supporting materials such as an interactive map, video about the importance of linkages, and information about funding resources, to help make a coordinated case for the initiative. The partners continue to meet twice per year to discuss progress.

The project team has encountered some challenges and is working to overcome them. For example, funding for road infrastructure projects to enable wildlife passage is scarce. One tactic is to combine efforts and complete culvert replacements that enhance human safety in addition to wildlife passage. Another challenge is that the vast amount of data and guidance available can overwhelm some organizations and increase the amount of time required to learn and apply new tools.

Outcomes: 

Many groups and organizations have used the data and analysis from the project to help guide their own work. For example, the New England Forestry Foundation, which previously had been using different criteria for land protection, used some of the Berkshire Wildlife Linkage data to reprioritize parcels for land protection. They also held outreach events with specific landowners to discuss the importance of their land for connectivity and describe management options that ensure forestry resources while fostering habitat connectivity. The data from the partnership is also used in Mass DOT’s decision-making process and examined when road projects are proposed.

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