Category Archives: Wetlands

Spring? In Vermont, Think Again.

It’s still winter in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and with three feet of snow on the ground, the only way to get around the Nulhegan Basin division of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge is on snowmobile.

In the basin, winter temperatures sometimes fall to -30 degrees, but for dedicated refuge biologists it’s just another chilly day at work.

This past February, two interns (myself included) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Regional Office in Hadley, Massachusetts, bundled up and headed north to brave the weather and experience the remote refuge life for a week.

From the rear passenger seat of the zooming snowmobile, half enthralled, half terrified (I was, at least), we saw the expanses of the refuge, covering many miles in a single day.

Stretching over 26,000 acres, the refuge is open for the public to explore during all seasons, either on foot or via a network of groomed snowmobile trails that act as a backwoods highway of sorts.

Through stunning spruce-fir forests we caught glimpses of red squirrels, ruffed grouse, moose and even a lone bobcat as it bounded across the trail in front of our snowmobiles.

At the very southern periphery of the boreal forest, the Nulhegan basin is home to species found nowhere else in Vermont except within these dense northern forests that stretch to meet Canada.

Species like the boreal chickadee, spruce grouse, and even the elusive Canada lynx are sustained by the thick conifers and pristine wetlands that define the boreal forest.

Only one lynx has been confirmed in Vermont since 2014, though the nation’s largest population of lynx resides in the state of Maine. That lone Vermont lynx made its home in the Nulhegan basin.

One of the best ways to identify Canada lynx, especially when compared to similar looking species like the bobcat, is by taking a look at its hind legs and paws. Canada lynx have distinctly long back legs.

Interestingly enough, lynx’s hind legs nearly match the hind legs of their primary prey, the snowshoe hare.

In the frigid north, these long back legs and wide feet allow both species to navigate through deep snow and hunt (or run away) more efficiently.

Here on the refuge, we followed UMass Amherst PhD student Alexej Siren as he tracked snowshoe hare using radio telemetry and camera traps that take photos when they are triggered by movement.

Earlier in the year, Alexej and his team fitted snowshoe hares with radio collars so that they could track the signal that the collars emit, detecting the location of the animal and gauging how the population is doing.

Not only did we get to see the incredible work being done by Service biologists and state and university partners every day on the refuge, we got to learn a thing or two about how to identify different wildlife tracks.

And at the end of a long winter’s day, who wouldn’t want this view from their office?

Bog turtles – a One Health Ambassador

A healthy bog turtle from a New York population. Credit: Sandy Doran, USFWS

A healthy bog turtle from a New York population. Credit: Sandy Doran, USFWS

The One Health Initiative promotes the idea that human, animal, and environmental health are all linked, so by changing one aspect of the triad you inevitably affect the rest.

This initiative encourages collaboration across a variety of scientific disciplines to create synergist approaches to large scale health issues. Recent mortality events in populations of the country’s smallest turtle have provided an opportunity for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do just this—to bring together partners across a variety of disciplines to explore an issue that could be affecting more than the bog turtle.

Bog turtles, the smallest turtle in North America, are federally listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Although these turtles are small they are mighty!

They have a lifespan of 30+ years and remain almost exclusively in the same wetlands where they hatched. They have become threatened primarily as a result of degradation, fragmentation and/or destruction of habitat, due to human activities.

In 2011, bog turtle populations in New York and Massachusetts had unexplained mortality events and individuals were showing clinical changes in their skin that included discoloration and ulceration.

State Line Fen WRP Project S. Doran with BT (3) 6.20.13

Biologist Sandy Doran holds a health bog turtle. Now you can really appreciate their small size! Credit: Sandy Doran, USFWS

This puzzled many biologists and prompted a response to figure out what was causing the mortality.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided to fund a project involving Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) veterinarians, pathologists and technicians, and state biologists to conduct health assessments on bog turtles at 4 sites in these two states.

Previous research on other turtle species suggested that infectious diseases, such as Mycoplasma (an upper respiratory tract disease), could be an important contributor to mortality.

WCS was unable to determine the actual cause of death, but the research did confirm the presence of Mycoplasma. Tests for ranavirus and herpesvirus came back negative.

Unfortunately, additional research efforts have had mixed results.

  • Additional assessments in Dutchess County, New York, were negative for ranavirus as well as Mycoplasma, but were positive for herpesvirus.
  • Data from New Jersey suggests that there is a high prevalence of herpesvirus in bog turtle populations in that state.
  • Recent results from a 2017 study in Oswego County, New York, indicated that all the sampled bog turtles were healthy.

Ultimately the disease prevalence is highly variable and additional testing is required to understand the disease distribution within a variety of bog turtle populations. The 2017 study, funded by USFWS, allowed WCS and the State University of New York College at Oswego (SUNY Oswego) to assess turtles at a site that is far removed from other parts of the bog turtle range where positive disease detections have been made; it was of particular interest to better understand if bog turtles at this site carried the same diseases.

While there were some old injuries observed, and very occasional unexplained minor discoloration of skin, the sampled turtles were in very good condition.

Continuing to study this species is important because by better understanding these unexplained mortality events we can support a more robust wetland habitat system and ideally eventually recover this species (hooray!).

There are a lot of unknowns in this project like how climate change may play a role in bog turtle populations and whether a changing climate will trigger more disease impacts.  The continuation of research efforts will allow more knowledge to be gained to help protect this species long term.

This collaborative effort remains on-going to protect this tiny turtle and to better understand the impacts to habitat and disease. The more we can encourage and work together toward common conservation goals the better we can promote and protect the biodiversity of our world, one tiny turtle at a time.

A Conservation and Family Tradition

Judy Sefchick Edwards, Wildlife Biologist, shares the conservation and family traditions at Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge. 

Ducks in the air and leaves on the ground mark both the end of summer, and the beginning of a long-held tradition.  The refuge boat launch is bustling with young, smiling faces, animated chatter, and enthusiastic adults taking photos, to preserve great future memories.  It’s the start of Vermont’s duck hunting season, with the Youth Waterfowl Hunting Weekend at Missisquoi NWR!

Surrounded by the genuine fervor and excitement, I can’t help but smile.  Not only did this crew have a successful refuge hunt, but they also had a memorable family day outdoors.  Again, I’m reminded that the conservation tradition of waterfowl hunting, and the purchase of Federal Duck Stamps, has made it possible for us all to experience and enjoy our National Wildlife Refuge System.

“Missisquoi NWR has one of the northeast’s largest, natural, freshwater wetland complexes, and is one of the last truly wild places in Vermont,” says native Vermonter, Chris Smith, an avid first-generation duck hunter, and father as well as mentor, to junior duck hunters, Zach and Caleb.  Not only are the Missisquoi Delta and Bay Wetlands important stopover sites for migratory waterfowl in the Atlantic Flyway, but they’re RAMSAR designated “Wetlands of International Importance” too.

What’s more, this refuge is living proof that duck stamps do more than provide a license to hunt.  With ninety-eight cents of every dollar going towards National Wildlife Refuge System lands, it’s no surprise that 87.5% of Missisquoi NWR was bought with duck stamp dollars.  Chris is proud to buy them and says, “Without duck stamps, the number of waterfowl, water birds, and other wetland-dependent species would decline, as would the opportunities to recreate in these special places.”

Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp. Click image for more information about Duck Stamps.

This weekend, the Smiths arrived at the refuge with great anticipation and preparation.  Chris says, “I enjoy seeing all the ‘firsts’ for young hunters:  wearing waders, getting stuck in mud, or shooting certain ducks.”  A month earlier, the family attended the refuge’s annual Junior Waterfowl Hunter Training, to improve skills and discuss safe, ethical hunting, and wildlife conservation.  Completion of the training, and a subsequent lottery draw, gave these juniors a chance to hunt in sought-after refuge blinds.

As a mentor, Chris won’t hunt, but says, “It’s rewarding to pass along knowledge and experience, and have an opportunity for real quality time with my sons.”  He’s proud to have passed this tradition down to them.  Chris remembers when both boys shot their first banded ducks at the refuge.  “I’ll never forget their excitement and pride,” he said, then added, “Without the refuge, my hunting experiences would be greatly diminished, but the loss of wildlife would be even more devastating.”

Caleb and Zach Smith at the end of a hunt on Missisquoi NWR

Missisquoi NWR means different things to different people, but the age-old tradition of waterfowl hunting is the reason this refuge exists.  For some, like Caleb, the refuge represents a chance to observe and hunt near the greatest concentration of waterfowl in Vermont. “Seeing lots of ducks and having many opportunities to shoot, sets the refuge apart,” he said.  To others, like Zach, “It’s a place where I can get out of the house and do stuff I love—whether it’s hunting, fishing, or banding ducks with Judy.  It’s a great place.”