Vermont mammals

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(HOST)Reflecting on our recent days of inconsistent weather, commentator Ted Levin notes that nature is ever-changing, and that Vermont’s animal population has been adapting to climate changes ever since the last ice age.

(LEVIN) Mammal populations in Vermont have never been static. Abundance and variety change over time. Shifting climates, fur trade, over-hunting, human land use – all affect the diversity
of our wild mammals. Global warming may even play a role.

Approximately 12,000 years ago, life returned to the glaciated Northeast. Land not flooded by ancient meltwater lakes was colonized by Arctic and boreal plants, which in turn attracted Arctic and boreal mammals. American mastodons browsed black spruce, hemlock, and larch; while wooly mammoths and caribou grazed an assortment of tundra plants.

Then, nine thousand years ago, mastodons and mammoths vanished from Vermont, victims of post-glacial warming, a subsequent shifting in plant communities, and the depredations
of a newly arrived predator . . . Man.

During the seventeenth century, commercial trapping and hunting took a heavy toll on large and moderate-sized mammals. The Connecticut River was the highway north. Hides from deer to pine marten were shipped downstream to a trading post in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The importance of the fur trade dwindled by the Revolution, as Vermont became a region of farm and pasture. By 1853, the wolverine had become extinct in Vermont; twenty years later, the state imported deer from New York to bolster its diminished herd. On Thanksgiving day, 1881, the last known catamount in Vermont was shot in Barnard. Vermont’s last wolves were gone by 1902.

In the late 17th century, when pioneers first paddled the Upper Connecticut River red fox were absent. They were brought to the New World by British fox hunters.

Two species of mammals colonized the state in the 20th century: the opossum and the coyote. The opossum has been spreading steadily northward from the Middle Atlantic states since the 16th century – perhaps because of a natural warming trend more recently augmented by “global warming” – I saw my first roadkill opossum on Interstate 91 in Norwich in the mid-1980s. The coyote arrived from the West, and the first documented in Vermont in 1948.

After the Civil War, trees began to return to abandoned pastures and farms – and forest mammals also reclaimed lost ground. Today, the population of white-tailed deer is at an all time high; and the populations of both moose and black bear are growing exponentially.

One of Vermont’s mammals is a watershed specialist. River otter families travel up to fifty miles along river, stream, and lake shores, sometimes crossing miles over land to reach a particular pond or marsh. And since they are, in effect, the canaries of our aquatic “coal mine”, and reflect the health of our wetlands, it’s nice to know they’re thriving.

This is Ted Levin from Coyote Hollow in Thetford Ctr.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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