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Slide Brook beech stand important wildlife habitat

08/23/2007

By Shayne Jaquith

This was sent to the members of the Fayston Development Review Board.

As I had scheduled a vacation for the week of August 26 some time ago I am regretfully unable to attend the public hearing for the review of Mr. Crean's proposal. I am writing to express my sentiment on the proposal. As you all know I served on the Fayston Planning Commission when it reviewed Mr. Crean's first proposal for subdividing this parcel. The evidence presented to the commission during the process of reviewing that proposal convinced me that Mr. Crean's proposal would have significantly impacted black bear populations in the region and that approving the proposal would be contradictory to the Fayston Town Plan and Land Use Regulations.

After reviewing Mr. Crean's current proposal I have become convinced that this proposal too would have serious ramifications for the black bear populations to which the Slide Brook beech stand serves as a critical food source. I ask you to carefully consider this project proposal in the context of the goals of the Fayston Town Plan, the intent of the Fayston Land Use Regulations, what is known of bear biology and behavior and what is know of the Slide Brook Basin.

During the review of Mr. Crean's first proposal the Planning Commission was presented with a great body of evidence supporting the fact that the Slide Brook beech stand is a significant source of hard mast for black bears of the region. The evidence came from state wildlife biologist John Austin and records from the Act 250 review of Summit Venture's 1995 application to construct a chairlift through the Slide Brook Basin. During that Act 250 review Summit Venture's own expert witness agreed that the Slide Brook area is a "necessary wildlife habitat."

According to the leader of the state of Vermont black bear management team, "The bear habitat in the Slide Brook area is concentrated, identifiable and crucial to the survival of black bears. The tree use is phenomenal and the frequency of use is exceptional." There is no denying that the Slide Brook beech mast stand is one of the most significant black bear food resources in the region and the entire state of Vermont.

Evidence also explained how beech nuts are not just an option for black bears in Vermont but are absolutely necessary for bear reproduction. The evidence explained that pregnant female bears must consume a certain amount of fat before going into fall hibernation or their bodies will terminate the pregnancy. In Vermont, female black bears rely almost exclusively on beech nuts as a source of fat rich foods prior to fall hibernation. Without beech stands black bear reproduction would cease in most of Vermont.

Black bears are reclusive animals preferring to avoid contact with humans. They are especially sensitive to human presence while feeding in trees where they are vulnerable, without means to escape potential threats.  During review of Mr. Crean's first proposal state wildlife biologist John Austin explained that for these reasons the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife consistently recommends a one-quarter-mile buffer zone between areas of development and concentrated areas of bear-scarred beech trees and that without a one-quarter-mile buffer around the Slide Brook beech stand its value to black bears is greatly diminished. The proposed development is entirely within one-quarter miles of the Slide Brook beech stand and would therefore greatly diminish its value as a bear feeding resource.

Travel corridors were another important element of black bear habitat highlighted during review of Mr. Crean's first proposal. The Planning Commission was presented with evidence explaining that bears are wide-ranging animals that must move great distances across the landscape to access different food sources at different times of the growing season and also access mating and denning areas. Bears move down to wetlands in the spring where the first herbaceous vegetation is sprouting and then to areas of dense berry and apple production and in the fall to beech stands. To make these journeys bears must have travel corridors that provide concealment cover and security.  

In order to determine whether an area is a travel corridor with 100 percent certainty requires overtime study of radio-collared animals.  Such studies have shown that travel corridors have common characteristics with respect to topography, human presence, origination and destination.  Black bear biologists use these characteristics to determine the location's likely corridors. 

During the 1995 Summit Ventures Act 250 review, the applicant's expert stated that "the occurrence of a corridor between the Slide Brook area and habitat to the east is very likely." This conclusion is supported by models used by the Vermont Agency of Transportation to predict likely animal corridors and presented to the planning commission by John Austin in 2007.   

Mr. Crean's parcel and the proposed access to it are located within the corridor area. This corridor connects the Slide Brook beech stand feeding area to important wetlands to the east and the Northfield Ridge beyond; it is critical for black bear movement across the central Vermont landscape and approval of Mr. Crean's proposal would greatly reduce black bear movement along it.    

The facts I've presented here and many more can be found in the 2006 Notice of Decision on Mr. Crean's first proposal. I urge each of you to read through that notice very carefully for I believe if you do you will find that within the context of the Fayston Town Plan and Land Use Regulations Mr. Crean's current proposal cannot be approved.  

What cannot be found in the 2006 Notice of Decision is data that was collected by Arrowwood Environmental during a 2007 Natural Heritage Inventory conducted for the towns of Fayston and Waitsfield. As part of that inventory Arrowwood Environmental identified and mapped mast stands in the two towns. Arrowwood's report states, "When beech stands are remote, use by black bear is generally higher than stands near human activities."  

Attached please find a map of the natural heritage elements mapped as part of the 2007 Natural Heritage Inventory within the vicinity of Mr. Crean's proposal. It shows that the one-quarter buffer around the mapped mast encompasses Mr. Crean's lot in its entirety. You will also notice that the parcel is within a contiguous habitat unit and contains whitetail deer overwintering area.

Mr. Crean has made significant concessions in this, his second proposal for developing his parcel in the Slide Brook Basin. Unfortunately, no matter how one might configure the individual lots, site the septic systems, design the access road for multiple use and limit cutting of vegetation on the parcel, it is impossible to prevent the significant impact that increased human inhabitation within this area will have on the value of the Slide Brook beech stand as a bear feeding resource.  

As such, it is impossible to craft a subdivision on this parcel that is consistent with the Fayston Town Plan and Land Use Regulations.  

The Slide Brook beech stand is a very important wildlife habitat not only for Fayston but for The Valley, the region and the entire state of Vermont. Please protect this habitat for black bears and the larger ecosystem that supports human life.


Shayne Jaquith lives in Fayston and is a member of the town planning commission.
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