Herp Day!

One of the small delights of covering the Legislature is the occasional discovery of someone with an unusual profession, who’s really good at their job and really enthusiastic about it.

This time, Jim Andrews. He’s a herpetologist, and since 1994 he’s coordinated the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. I cannot tell you how delighted I am to discover that there is such a thing, and that the same guy has been in charge of it for 26 years.

Andrews was one of several experts who testified last Friday before the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife. (Written testimony here, video of the hearing here.) The general subject was the impact of climate change on Vermont’s fauna, which is appallingly considerable. If current trends continue, our wildlife is going to dramatically change.

I’ll get to that, but first I must go on a bit about the herps. The VRAA is essentially a volunteer enterprise, counting on Vermonters to photograph and report sightings of frogs, turtles, snakes, salamanders and suchlike. And they do, in considerable quantity. The atlas’ website has a roster of people who have turned in 100 reports or more.

There are more than 150 people on the list. That’s a lotta herps.

There are, in fact, several operations just like the herp atlas. Collectively they produce the Vermont Atlas of Life, which seeks to identify every living thing in Vermont as well as their range and habitats. The VAL has chronicled over 10,000 species, thanks almost entirely to volunteer observers. It’s ventures like the VAL that allow us to actually measure the impact of climate change on the animal world.

After the jump: the bad news.

Andrews said that Vermont’s reptiles and amphibians are under stress from climate change, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and toxins in the environment. All told, he said, “Forty-eight percent of Vermont’s species are medium or high priority species of conservation need.” (Herps are particularly vulnerable to habitat fragmentation because, Andrews noted, “most [species] require multiple habitats and travel between them over the course of a year.”)

Another witness, Kent McFarland of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, delivered the bad news about Vermont’s bird species. As temperatures rise, they are moving northward and/or upward in elevation. Sooner or later, they won’t have anywhere left to go in Vermont. The worst impact is among higher-elevation birds.

“Seven out of 10 mountain species we monitor have declined,” McFarland said. “Our state bird, the hermit thrush, has suffered the worst decline.”

McFarland also said that “aerial insectivores” — birds that snag insects while in flight — are suffering because of “a serious decline in the insect population.” Insects, he said, are “the breadbasket of songbirds.”

While volunteer labor goes a long way, Andrews made a plea for more state resources for all types of animal life. “Fish and Wildlife is supposed to oversee all species, but there is a bias toward game species,” he said. “[The department] has come a long way on paying attention to nongame species, but personnel, time and resources are skewed strongly toward game species.”

Sounds like somebody needs a fresh look at its mission.

Anyway, an interesting hearing. Informative, a little scary, and quite a bit of fun along the way. The serious takeaway: Climate change is driving out many of our native species. The fun takeaway: There are lots of people contributing to our knowledge every single day, and most are doing it for free.

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