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Paved Roads Can Disrupt Region’s Delicate Wildlife Corridors

  • Catherine Greenleaf feeds an orphaned baby squirrel in her Lyme, N.H., home Thursday, May 17, 2018. The squirrel's mother was hit by a car in Woodsville, N.H., and brought to Greenleaf's St. Francis Wild Bird Center to be nursed back to health and later released into the wild. The six-week-old squirrel was dehydrated and emaciated when brought to Greenleaf, who feeds it a special squirrel formula every two hours. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Catherine Greenleaf carries a red squirrel in a have-a-heart trap to her animal rehabilitation center at her home in Lyme, N.H., Friday, May 18, 2018. The squirrel was one of four found in a Bath, N.H., garage with an absent mother that the homeowners think may have been hit by a car. They were brought to Greenleaf so she could feed and care for them until they are ready to live independently. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Catherine Greenleaf, a licensed certified wildlife rehabilitator, checks the wing of a barred owl for fractures at her St. Francis Wild Bird Center in Lyme, N.H., Friday, May 18, 2018. The owl was found injured in the middle of a Lisbon, N.H., road earlier that day. Greenleaf assumed from the bird's emaciated state that it had trouble hunting through the long winter. "It's sad that he survived all that and then got clocked by a car," she said. "I'll know after the third day whether he's going to turn the corner or not." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/20/2018 12:06:24 AM
Modified: 5/20/2018 12:06:41 AM

Orford — A fish running up against stream-clogging riprap at a road project. A newly orphaned baby squirrel clinging to her mother’s corpse. The near extinction of a freshwater mussel species.

What’s the common link?

They’re all problems that arise when roads — the network of asphalt that slices the Upper Valley into thousands of discrete chunks of land — intersect with wildlife corridors, the less visible roads used by the animals eking out an existence in woods and streams.

A new report being drafted in response to a directive of the New Hampshire Legislature seeks to protect the state’s critical wildlife corridors, in part by recruiting the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, which spends $664 million maintaining more than 4,600 miles of roads, more deeply into the field of environmental protection.

Members of the state transportation, environmental services, and fish and game departments are gathering public comment as they draft the report, which supporters hope will help protect the state’s wildlife corridors.

Ron Rhodes, a river steward who manages dam removal and culvert replacement projects for the Connecticut River Conservancy, says Vermont’s Agency of Transportation took a quantum leap forward in environmental stewardship after Tropical Storm Irene left large parts of the state’s road infrastructure in tatters in 2011.

“We had everybody and their brother in the streams post-Irene fixing the roads, and as a result the streams took a hit,” Rhodes said. “Not just from flooding and Irene, but the big yellow machines that were in the river getting the gravel to repair the roads.”

But there was a silver lining.

“There was a lot of outcry from us, and Trout Unlimited and Vermont Fish and Wildlife,” he said. “After the roads were opened, the state made a big effort to put VTrans and Vermont Fish and Wildlife in the same room, and they came up with new standards and new ways to do business.”

Rhodes and other environmentalists say there are now promising signs that New Hampshire, which escaped the brunt of Irene’s damage, will expand on its own existing efforts at environmental stewardship, as recommended in the 28-page report.

The report’s authors recommend that more be done to identify wildlife corridors and to formally communicate wildlife crossing priorities that overlap transportation infrastructure to NHDOT, as well as to local and regional planners.

The report also says wildlife corridors should be given more weight when ranking state and federal grants that help to tempt planners into tackling more road and bridge projects that include conservation benefits.

Road Project

Tom Thomson, owner of Thomson Family Tree Farm in Orford, said that when he brought his heavy equipment to Route 25A to help sort out the aftermath of last year’s July 1 storm, he was more concerned with the lives of the children who had been stranded at a couple of summer camps in the area, than the lives of the fish in the waters of Jacobs Brook, which runs alongside the state road.

“What you want in a community is, you want everyone to turn out and help people in need in a time of disaster,” he said. “The environmental laws and other things, you’ve got to set those aside for the moment.”

Orford suffered $4 million in damages during the natural disaster, and Route 25A was the road that suffered the most damage — NHDOT officials used nearly 350 dump truck loads of stone and gravel to fill yawning holes that reached depths of 20 feet.

Thomson said that, during the reconstruction, a state contractor created a berm alongside Route 25A to help keep future floodwaters at bay. Members of the Orford Conservation Commission complained that the project restricted the ability of fish to travel through Jacobs Brook.

Rhodes said emergency construction underscores a natural tension between competing needs, said Rhodes.

“The road is open and safe and secure, but the stream is obliterated,” Rhodes said. “There (was) no way for fish to move through because of the amount of rock that was put in.”

DOT spokesman Bill Boynton said that the problematic rock was not associated with the primary reconstruction project, though he did not have immediate knowledge of the berm.

“The emergency repairs efforts along NH 25A did not add stone to Jacobs Brook,” he said. “All of the stone was naturally deposited by extreme weather events.”

Thomson said the contractor removed the berm a week ago, resolving the problem.

Throughout the region, Rhodes said, a lack of knowledge, inadequate financial resources and the sense of urgency to repair a road can conspire to shape a road project in a way that could impair the ability of fish to escape to cooler waters in the summer. There are state and federal grants dedicated to helping wildlife corridors, but cobbling together funding is a long, slow process that typically stretches a project’s timeline out to three years, Rhodes said.

New Hampshire’s transportation department does incorporate an environmental ethos into its work, said Rebecca Martin, senior environmental manager for DOT’s Bureau of Environment, one of the report’s authors. In Springfield, for example, the DOT is weighing fish-friendly designs to replace a pair of corrugated pipes that carry Otter Brook under Georges Mills Road.

“The stream is a predicted cold-water fishery habitat with wild eastern brook trout — so, regardless of which alternative is developed, the replacement of the twin pipes will be an improvement,” Martin said.

Just last year, DOT partnered with the Department of Environmental Services to protect wildlife corridors by promoting awareness, increasing collaboration, sharing best management practices and prioritizing locations that would save the most animal lives, with a special focus paid to those that make the list of “greatest conservation need.” The two departments are also developing a stream passage improvement program, which would identify stream crossings for the wiser allocation of aquatic resource mitigation grants.

Despite the existing efforts, Martin said having a list of ranked crossings, as recommended in the report, could help shape DOT’s plans.

“There are circumstances when knowing that there is a priority for wildlife crossing improvement could influence the DOT,” Martin said. “When a crossing has both a structural issue and is a barrier to wildlife passage, other funding sources may allow an improvement that would otherwise be out of scope and budget.”

But some say the DOT could do more to help wildlife corridors.

Catherine Greenleaf, the wildlife rehabilitator at the St. Francis Wild Bird Hospital in Lyme, said she’s spent years trying to help animals near the Centerra business park in Lebanon, which every year becomes a killing gallery, as turtles brave Route 120 to get to the vernal pools on the other side.

“In season, I hang out there a lot to help snapping turtles cross the road,” Greenleaf said. “I’ve had repeated problems with DOT.”

Greenleaf said the DOT has declined to put signs up at the wildlife crossing hotspot, and also has withheld permission for herself, or the city of Lebanon, to erect signs. At other locations, Greenleaf said, she’s seen state road crews disturb nesting sites by digging in the immediate area (which she said can kill turtles in their eggs), and even pave nests over.

Boynton said the department doesn’t support wildlife crossing signs in general, and cited a 2009 study from the State University of New York at Potsdam to show why.

“There is extensive research that supports why we do not provide warning signs for turtles, and probably should not provide signs for deer or moose crossings,” Boynton said. “They just are not effective.”

Baby Squirrel

Fish and turtles aren’t the only animals that need safe passage across the asphalt.

On Monday, Greenleaf said, she got a call from a Woodsville couple who had come across what looked like a double squirrel roadkill.

As they took a closer look, they saw that it was actually a dead adult squirrel with a distressed, but living, 6-week-old baby clinging to the body. There was no sign of the rest of what was likely a six- or seven-member litter.

“The baby’s curiosity got the better of her,” Greenleaf said. “She literally followed them down the street.”

Greenleaf said most people fail to consider that for every dead animal on the side of the road, there is likely to be collateral damage. When birds are killed during nesting season, it often means a death sentence for that bird’s young, because the bird’s mate typically can’t handle the twin burdens of nest protection and food gathering.

Biologist Scott Schwenk represents the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department on Connect the Connecticut, a conservation group that works to protect the river’s watershed, including corridors. Large mammals, like bobcat, lynx, bear and moose can cross a road with much more ease than a turtle, but they also have to cross roads more frequently because they tend to have such large ranges, he said.

Schwenk said roads can be disruptive to wildlife populations, not only by killing animals, but by frightening them, so that they are hemmed into habitat that may not allow them to thrive.

“If there are a lot of roads, it may be hard for them to survive,” he said.

In high-priority areas, officials can build overpasses, underpasses, animal crosswalks, or simply slow down traffic to give wildlife a better chance to cross a road safely.

Connect the Connecticut has an interactive map at www.databasin.org that identifies the region’s most valuable wildlife habitat, and also the most critical corridors to allow animals to move from one habitat stronghold to another.

For example, the area where Shaker Mountain straddles Lebanon and Enfield is a “terrestrial tier 1 core,” meaning the best habitat. But it’s an island, well-separated from the nearest other strongholds: the intersection of Lovejoy Brook and Moose Mountain Road in Hanover to the north; Shaker Hill to the northeast; Morgan Hill on the Lebanon-Plainfield border to the southwest; and an area roughly bounded by Butternut Brook and Little Brook in the southern part of the Enfield Wildlife Management Area in Enfield and Grantham to the southeast.

The five distinct habitat strongholds are connected by a relatively narrow network of wildlife corridors, which appear on the map as meandering green rivers that flow across the landscape.

Schwenk said he’s been heartened to see state officials in both New Hampshire and Vermont focusing on wildlife corridors, and he cheered the draft report.

“It’s fantastic that New Hampshire is making the effort,” he said. “As a wildlife biologist, I do feel that thinking about connectivity is a high priority.”

Endangered Mussels

When people think about helping aquatic life travel upriver, large fish like trout often come to mind.

But a more critical critter, from an environmental perspective, is the dwarf wedgemussel, which is on the federal endangered species list and lives only in the Connecticut River.

The three largest populations in the world are in New Hampshire, including a stretch from Haverhill to northern Orford, and another from Plainfield to Charlestown.

In the mollusk world, dwarf wedgemussels aren’t poised to dominate their surroundings — the unassuming animals live a relatively paltry 12 years, can barely move under their own power, and are slow breeders.

Pretty much the only way for a wedgemussel to spread to new habitat is by hitching a ride on a fish — usually the tessellated darter, the Johnny darter, the slimy sculpin or the mottled sculpin.

“They attach themselves to a minnow, and if that minnow swims upstream, then those young mussels can spread that way,” Rhodes said, which means “a mussel can’t get over or around a dam.”

It also means they, and their host fish, can be stymied by an indifferently designed culvert.

Rhodes knows that “road foremen know roads.” But, he said, he’s much less certain that they know the waterways beneath.

“They don’t know rivers necessarily,” he said. “They get it once it’s explained to them: ‘Why do we need to upsize that culvert? Or take out a culvert and put a bridge in?”

Culverts can act like the nozzle on a firehose, directing high-pressure, high-speed water in a current that can be difficult to swim against. And if the culvert isn’t lined with rocks to mimic the natural stream bottom, fish have nowhere to pause between energetic bursts of upstream effort.

In the worst-case scenarios, the culvert is perched — situated so that the downstream edge hangs above the water line — which pinches off upstream traffic altogether.

But identifying worst-case scenarios can leverage the funds needed to make improvements. For example, the Connecticut River Conservancy and its partner agencies identified some perched culverts in Haverhill, where Jo Lacaillade, town administrator in Haverhill, found that three perched culverts — two on Page Road and one on Stonecrest Drive — were on the town’s to-do list for replacement.

The town was able to tap state and federal funds available to support wildlife corridors, which helped the town move the perched culverts to the top of the to-do list.

In 2016, the pair of culverts on Page Road, which choked off passage along the north branch of Oliverian Brook, were replaced by a 40-foot span bridge, at a cost of $243,000. The project opened up 20 miles of stream on the North Branch, Titus Brook and Oliverian Brook — giving native trout and dwarf wedgemussels more opportunities to thrive.

“It was great partnering with them,” Lacaillade said. “It allowed us to do them sooner.”

Other recommendations in the state report include incorporating wildlife corridor information into local and regional planning initiatives, overhauling the New Hampshire Wildlife Action Plan to include the most recent wildlife corridor-related science, and doing more to incorporate wildlife corridors into the ranking systems for grant awards from conservation funds such as MoosePlate, the Aquatic Resource Mitigation Fund, and those given under the federal Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.




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