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Maine's Wildlife Legacy
What is a Habitat?
Habitat is the place where a plant or animal lives, including everything it needs to survive and reproduce. Wildlife and plant habitats are part of a rich, complex web of natural cycles. Natural processes such as pollination, seed dispersal, and cycling of nutrients in the soil, air, and water all depend on the successful interaction of various species and their habitats.
How does land use affect habitat?
Every land use decision in some way alters available habitat opportunities. When a forest is felled or field abandoned, habitat functions change – some species lose opportunities; others gain them. When natural areas are converted to permanent land uses like roads and houses, habitat functions disappear.
It is simplistic to say that development of land is the cause of habitat loss and the decline of species. More accurately, the pattern of poorly planned development is causing these problems. We are spreading farther and farther out, consuming and fragmenting natural habitats as we scatter homes around the rural countryside. (Fragmentation of habitat occurs when roads, utility corridors, buildings, and parking lots break the natural landscape into smaller and smaller blocks.)
Historically, Maine's development pattern was based on the town center with homes nearby so that it was practical to walk to the town hall, store, and post office. Farms were thinly scattered on rural roads. Forests for hunting and wood gathering, and lakes and streams for fishing, were not far from the town centers. Small areas of the landscape were converted for residential and commercial purposes and large contiguous areas were left untouched by development.
Today's development, sprawled across the landscape rather than concentrated in and around town centers, is contributing to the loss of habitat, neighborhoods and meaningful outdoor experiences.
Habitat loss may be swift, as in the case of a large subdivision, or it may be incremental through development of individual lots. Either way, the cumulative effects are altering Maine’s outdoor legacy.
What’s at stake?
- A sense of place
When natural habitat is lost or degraded, we lose biological diversity and a landscape that connects us with the natural world and provides enrichment, recreation, and wonder.
Maine, without its rich landscape of plant and animal life, is just not Maine. Living in Maine allows us to duck hunt before breakfast, bird watch at lunch, collect fiddleheads after school, bike through forest paths, and maybe spot a moose before dinner.
- Local appeal
Maine’s natural areas are the backbone of our economy. Economists are now able to prove that the preserv]ation of community character (especially architectural and landscape conservation) is a strong indicator of the long-term, economic health of a community. In Maine, the most desired community amenities, after good schools, are open spaces, greenways, and trail systems.
- Human health
Animal and plant communities are indicators of environmental quality and health. Healthy, biodiverse habitats enhance air and water quality. And like the canaries that warned of deadly gas in the coalmines, degraded habitats are harbingers of threats that may affect our own health.
- Water quality
Conserved fish, wildlife, and plant habitat provide storm water management and flood control features. And protective buffers and vegetation can enhance the value of properties near or abutting shorelines by guaranteeing clear, clean water.
- Maine’s wildlife recreation industry
In 2006, the economic impact of wildlife recreation in Maine totaled over $1.5 billion. Hunting, trapping, fishing, and wildlife watching combined have dwarfed Maine's other recreation industries. Wildlife recreation has a larger economic impact than all skiing, whitewater rafting, snowmobiling, windjammer cruises, or other recreational attractions... combined! Wildlife-generated revenues even surpass the economic value of Maine's commercial fishing industry.
- Climate resiliency
Maine’s climate is changing, with warmer winters, drier summers, and more unpredictable storm events. As the climate changes, so do the habitats where fish and wildlife live. Conserving and connecting large blocks of forests, rivers, and grasslands is one of the most effective steps we can now take to help plants and animals shift to new habitats in the future.
- Natural resource based economies
What If We Do Nothing?
Unabated sprawl will fragment the remaining natural habitat left on the landscape, isolating and degrading the value of smaller patches that remain. Beyond the direct loss of habitat to buildings and parking lots, fragmentation of habitat may isolate some populations of plants and animals, preventing them from traveling, feeding, or reproducing in the short-term and from being able to move to more desirable habitats in the future. Eventually, it will lead to the elimination of many local populations of plants and animals. Larger populations of many common native species will decline, especially species that need cool conditions and need to shift northward with a changing climate.
Fragmentation also creates an edge effect where the disturbed areas between developed land and natural habitat are more easily colonized by non-native plants. Some of the state's most rare plant communities have already been lost or altered by development in southern Maine. As fragmentation continues, rare species will be pushed to the brink of extinction.
Because Maine residents and visitors also use these habitat areas for outdoor enjoyment, they will see fewer opportunities for recreation. Large blocks of relatively unfragmented habitat necessary to maintain populations of larger animals will become scarce. Fishing, hunting, walking in the woods or along the beach, wildlife watching, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and other outdoor activities will continue to be squeezed into smaller, less accessible areas. In some communities, these opportunities will disappear altogether. Roads, back yards, fences, power lines, parking lots, and "no trespassing" signs will constantly remind us of what we have lost.
Until recently, abundant habitat and open space were a fortunate accident of Maine's development patterns. These areas were not parks or public spaces; they were large blocks of privately owned land supported by a generous Maine tradition of public access. In other words, our outdoor Maine way of life, in most cases, has been supported by the state's private landowners.
With development pressures and tax burdens, many landowners have decided to sell or subdivide their properties. The fortunate accident of having private land available for habitat and recreation is ending. While state and federal laws provide protections for our most endangered animal species, there is no guaranteed protection for much of the habitat and open space within most of our communities.
How can municipalities and land trusts help?
Through comprehensive planning, municipalities and land trusts can choose where to concentrate growth areas; and just as importantly, where to focus their conservation efforts. Development can be strategically concentrated in areas that minimize future habitat fragmentation and can be served by existing infrastructure.
Towns can also work with willing landowners to protect the open spaces that provide fish, wildlife, and plant habitat as well as farming, forestry, and outdoor recreation opportunities.
Most could also preserve their unique character by conserving the coastal, forest, farm, and waterway habitats that defined and complemented their traditional settlements.
How can landowners and concerned citizens help?
The first step toward protecting your local habitat is knowledge. When you know what’s outside your back door – either on land you own, or land in your community – you can take steps to preserve it.
Where are the populations of rare wild garlic or northern blazing star? Where are the deer wintering areas? Where are the wood ducks and cottontails breeding and feeding? Where are the vernal pools so necessary for frogs and salamanders? Where is the highest value habitat for rare and declining species of migratory birds? What large blocks of quality habitat remain in each town and how could they connect wildlife and trail corridors to other large blocks in neighboring towns? What plants and animals depend on undeveloped shoreline habitat and is the community's shoreland zoning ordinance adequate and well enforced?
Beginning with Habitat is here to help you answer those questions.