Study to eye impact of exurban development

Scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society have found that a single house can change the comp

In the Adirondacks, a little development can go a long way.

Scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society have found that a single house can change the composition of the wildlife in the area, driving out species that prefer to live far away from humans and attracting those that can co-exist with people.

“It might just be one house, but the house really changes what’s happening,” said Heidi Kretser, the society’s North America program livelihoods and conservation coordinator. “It changes what species live there and can survive there. It can potentially have long-term, large, cumulative impacts.”

Kretser and another society scientist, Michale Glennon, have been awarded a four-year, $350,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the impact of exurban development on wildlife in the Adirondack Park, as well as the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in southwestern Montana, which includes Yellowstone National Park.

The project will build upon the results of four studies of the impact of exurban development that have already been completed by the Wildlife Conservation Society. One of the project’s goals is to gain a better sense of how to minimize the negative effects of exurban development.

Typically, an exurb is located beyond a suburb; Kretser defined exurb as “low-density, residential development,” and said the study will largely focus on subdivisions that are “spread over the landscape” and comprise 10 to 20 homes. First coined in the 1950s, the term exurban describes “city people who move to the country because they can get a bigger lot and bigger space,” Kretser said. Exurban developments are generally located on lots of five acres or more, on previously undeveloped lands.

According to the WCS, exurban development is a relatively new and rapidly growing form of sprawl, one that consumes more land and causes more changes to wildlife habitat than other forms of development.

One of the impacts of exurban development is a decline in species diversity.

Previous WCS field studies in the Adirondacks and Yellowstone have found that the construction of a single house affects 17 to 25 acres around the house, changing the makeup of the animals and birds. The new project will focus on how exurban development affects the reproductive success of native birds.

Kretser said that bird species with “specialized habitat requirements,” such as warblers, tend to be found less frequently if a house is built on their habitat, while more common species such as robins and blue jays can adapt to living near houses. The scientists hope to determine whether these changes in the bird community result from structural changes to the habitat or from the activities of people.

talk to locals

One of the things the scientists plan to do is interview landowners and survey local residents, which will allow them to assess people’s individual activities around their homes and their attitudes toward their land and the wildlife that live on it.

“What are people doing?” Kretser said. “Are they maintaining a lawn? Are they having campfires? Are they doing things at night that disturb wildlife? The impact might be different if it’s a permanent residence, versus a seasonal residence. … There’s a concern that over time, as urbanization continues, there will be habitat loss and less species diversity.”

Kretser and Glennon, both based at the society’s office in Saranac Lake, will spend the summer selecting eight to 10 sites on which to conduct their research. The sites will be in the northern Adirondack counties of Franklin and Essex, on private land, and the research will take place over the course of three seasons, spanning from 2012 to 2014.

For every site that’s a subdivision, there will be a control site on public land.

John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council, said he’s “very excited” about the study.

“The folks doing the study have been working in the Adirondacks for quite a long time,” Sheehan said. “They’ve developed a good method for judging the impact of development on wildlife.”

A decade ago, there was little sense of how to gauge the impact development in the Adirondacks would have on wildlife, he said.

“We didn’t have a good sense of what road construction was doing, how the building of extremely long driveways was impacting things,” he said. “We didn’t know how other features of development were impacting the Adirondacks.”

Sheehan said development in the Adirondacks has slowed during the economic downturn, but it’s beginning to pick back up.

Kretser said exurban development is becoming much more common in areas that were once fairly unpopulated. In addition to Yellowstone and the Adirondacks, the area around Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado has also experienced such growth in recent years, she said.

“People now are not encumbered by having to live close to where they work,” Kretser said. “Our ability to live far away from where we work is spurring this kind of development.”

Founded in the late 1880s, the Wildlife Conservation Society is based in New York City. The organization’s Adirondack Program was created in 1994; one of the program’s projects is the annual loon census, which counts the number of loons on lakes in and near the Adirondacks.

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