Earth Matters: Biodiversity crisis in our backyard: The science behind saving habitat for wildlife

A bobcat crouches in April moss and twigs in Belchertown. Our region’s forests and wetlands provide habitat for a wide range of animals from moose, river otters, bats and flying squirrels.

A bobcat crouches in April moss and twigs in Belchertown. Our region’s forests and wetlands provide habitat for a wide range of animals from moose, river otters, bats and flying squirrels. PHOTO BY SCOTT SURNER

Two baby black bears frolic together in front of a trail camera set up at Kestrel Land Trust’s Whately Center Woods Nature Retreat.

Two baby black bears frolic together in front of a trail camera set up at Kestrel Land Trust’s Whately Center Woods Nature Retreat. COURTESY OF KESTREL LAND TRUST

By KARI BLOOD

For the Recorder

Published: 05-24-2024 11:23 AM

One of the reasons many of us love living in the Valley is being able to see wildlife around us. But those sightings will become increasingly rare if humans don’t take bold steps to slow the loss of species around the world. Scientists are sounding the alarm not only about the climate crisis but also about the inextricably linked biodiversity crisis.

Our region’s forests and wetlands provide habitat for a wide range of animals from moose and bear, to porcupines and river otters, to bats and flying squirrels. Wetlands and rivers are home to rare and important reptiles and amphibians, like bog and wood turtles and yellow-spotted salamanders. Forests provide habitat for resident and migratory songbirds including black-throated blue warblers and wood thrush.

However, birds, insects, fish, mammals, and even plants are losing ground in terms of their populations — and they’re literally losing ground as habitats are developed, polluted, fragmented and destroyed. One of the best ways to support this biodiversity is by conserving the lands and waters that provide the shelter, food sources, breeding grounds, and conditions species need to thrive. Fortunately, habitat conservation is also a natural solution to climate change, which itself is a grave threat to biodiversity.

There are more than 430 species listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act today, and that number could easily grow. In late 2023, Governor Maura Healey announced an executive order intended to spur state-wide action on this challenge. It directs the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game to review existing conservation efforts and elevate goals that will sustain a full array of plants, animals, and their habitats over the next three decades and beyond.

Regional land trusts play a critical role in assisting the Commonwealth with wildlife conservation efforts, and they do so using current scientific tools to identify the most important lands for wildlife and threatened species. One of these tools is called BioMap.

BioMap is the primary guide for strategic protection and stewardship of lands and waters that support biological diversity in Massachusetts. Produced by MassWildlife and The Nature Conservancy, BioMap uses innovative mapping capabilities and on-the-ground scientific data about species locations to deliver an interactive map that identifies areas with the most important habitat for conservation efforts.

BioMap sorts lands according to two primary categories: core habitat and critical natural landscape. Core habitats are areas that are vital to sustain rare species, exemplary natural communities, and climate-resilient ecosystems. Critical natural landscapes are large landscape blocks that are minimally impacted by development, as well as lands that provide a buffer around core habitats. These lands safeguard connections between core habitat areas and improve resilience: the ability for the land to withstand disturbances while sustaining the health of its plant and animal communities.

When Kestrel Land Trust, based in Amherst, works with landowners to assess their lands for conservation, our team relies on BioMap to find out whether the land is likely to provide habitat for threatened or endangered species or provides a buffer around those areas. We also look for undeveloped land connections between these higher priority habitats, which can provide critical corridors for wildlife to move across the landscape as climate changes modify their usual range.

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One of our 2024 conservation efforts, the Mountain Waters Project in Southampton, is one example. This landscape-scale initiative aims to permanently protect 1,000 acres of wild and working lands primarily in Southampton. The project is named for Pomeroy Mountain and the waters that flow through its surrounding forests, feeding the Manhan and Connecticut Rivers and providing clean drinking water for the Tighe-Carmody Reservoir and Barnes Aquifer.

Two-thirds of the parcels to be conserved through this project provide core habitat and nearly all are designated as critical natural landscape according to BioMap. They generally have high climate resilience and provide valuable landscape connectivity as well as many intact forest blocks.

Bigger is better for biodiversity

“Bigger is better” isn’t always true in life, but in the case of conserving land for biodiversity, it’s a fact. Western Massachusetts forests are nested within the Northern Appalachian bioregion, which is among the largest remaining areas of intact ecologically significant forest in the world. These lands provide vital pathways for wildlife to migrate and adapt to a changing climate. Kestrel is part of two regional conservation partnerships working to protect these lands: The Berkshire Wildlife Linkages “Staying Connected Initiative” and The Quabbin to Cardigan Partnership.

Berkshire Wildlife Linkages focuses on lands within a 1.58-million-acre forested landscape from the Green Mountains in Vermont to the Hudson Highlands in New York. Kestrel and our partners protected 487 acres of forest in Northampton, Westhampton, and Southampton in this area in 2023. This includes 178 acres of forest in the Brewer Brook Forest area. The Mountain Waters Project falls within this area as well.

Quabbin to Cardigan focuses on the 2-million acres of lands in the Monadnock Highlands of north-central Massachusetts and western New Hampshire, including the Quabbin Reservoir. Kestrel and our partners recently protected 197 acres in Sunderland, Leverett and Belchertown, including a 90-acre forest with three certified vernal pools as well as habitat for several rare or threatened species.

While there may be many benefits to conserving a parcel of land, such as providing recreation opportunities, protecting water quality, or sequestering carbon, safeguarding wildlife habitat is often at the top of the benefits list. By supporting your local land trust, you’ll help sustain efforts that protect the vital biodiversity of our region.

Learn more about where the biodiversity hot spots are in your community by exploring the BioMap tool online at https://biomap-mass-eoeea.hub.arcgis.com/.

Kari Blood (she/her) is community engagement director with Kestrel Land Trust and lives in Hadley. She has worked for and volunteered with land trusts in upstate New York and the Connecticut River Valley for almost 20 years, inspired by her love of wildlife and birds.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 15 years. HCE’s mission is to educate and to inspire action for a healthy planet. Our Living Building and trails are open to all at 845 West St. in Amherst. To learn more, visit hitchcockcenter.org.