Protecting wildlife habitat in the Black River Valley

Photograph from Shutterstock

hen Maureen Clark
 and her husband, Paul Madden, volunteered to have trail cameras installed on their Forestport property for wildlife monitoring, they weren’t sure what to expect. The images later revealed a variety of species—black bear, deer, fox and porcupine—traveling across the southern Black River Valley.

The couple’s property falls within a critical location for preserving wildlife habitat, said Alissa Fadden, Wildlife Connectivity Project Manager for the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, in Keene Valley.

The six-million-acre Adirondack Park is on the eastern side of the valley and the 1.2-million-acre Tug Hill region lies along the western edge. This well-documented passageway, called the Black River Valley Wildlife Corridor, allows a large and diverse number of animals to travel long distances in search of food, water, shelter and potential mates, said Fadden.

After the trail camera project, Clark and Madden decided to donate a conservation easement on their property to prevent any future development. In the process, they are helping to safeguard one of several critical wildlife corridors that connect to the Adirondack Park.       

The 152-acre property was purchased by Clark’s uncle in 1953. At the time, the parcel was a combination of forest and farmlands. “The original owner asked that we keep the land in our family,” said Clark, a high school biology teacher from Fayetteville. “She also requested that it never be subdivided.”

Their property includes 4,000 feet of shoreline along Kayuta Lake, where Clark’s father built a cottage for the family to use during the summers. By moving forward with a conservation easement on 140 acres of their property, the couple is not only honoring Clark’s uncle’s land-stewardship pledge, but their own wishes as well. “We never wanted to see this land developed,” she said.

The Black River Valley Wildlife Corridor is considered the western anchor of a much larger 80-million-acre forested landscape known as the Northern Appalachian/Acadian Ecoregion, covering parts of the Northeast and Canada. One of the largest intact forests of its type in the world lies within this region, providing a network of fertile lands and water sources for wide-ranging mammals such as moose, black bear and bobcat.

More than 60 conservation organizations, land trusts and government agencies have been working together to preserve this network as part of an effort called the Staying Connected Initiative. By meeting the needs of larger animals, often referred to as umbrella species, the needs of smaller mammals are likely met as well, Fadden said.

Ten critical “linkage zones” have been identified between large forested lands within the Northern Appalachian/Acadian Ecoregion, and three of those connect to the Adirondack Park. In addition to the Black River Valley on the western side, another corridor has been identified east of Lake George, connecting the Adirondack Park to the Green Mountains in Vermont. A third linkage area connects the southern Adirondacks to the Catskills via the Mohawk Valley.

“If there are no habitat connections between core blocks of forest, the wildlife risk being isolated and their populations weakened,” Fadden said. “This issue is becoming even more critical because animals are being forced to move and adapt in response to climate change.” 

An initial grant of $40,900 awarded by the Land Trust Alliance’s NYS Conservation Partnership Program enabled nearly two-dozen landowners whose properties fell within the Black River Valley Wildlife Corridor to participate in land conservation initiatives, said Linda M. Garrett, executive director of the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust. “Several [landowners] installed trail cameras on their properties” to monitor wildlife movement and help manage their land for safe animal passage, she said.

The wildlife monitoring played a vital role in documenting animal traffic in the Black River Valley Wildlife Corridor, Garrett said. The images they captured, combined with other wildlife tracking methods, satellite imagery and computer models, helped to clearly define the importance of the corridor.    

The Wildlife Connectivity Project in the Black River Valley continues to expand. In 2019, a $537,000 grant was awarded to the Nature Conservancy to protect and restore land adjacent to drinking water sources, a benefit for the people who live in those communities and the wildlife passing through them, Fadden said.

The funding will allow for the purchase of conservation easements and the restoration of buffers along waterways, if needed. Separately, the Nature Conservancy is offering the installation of additional wildlife trail cameras and ecological property surveys for large landowners.

Past efforts by Black River Valley landowners have focused on maintaining and enhancing their forests, removing obsolete fencing to provide wildlife more freedom to travel, reducing the use of pesticides while finding natural alternatives, and adding or widening hedgerows, which mammals travel alongside for protection.

Natural vegetated areas for food and water sources have been added or maintained along streams and rivers, providing even more protection for wildlife. These areas, known as riparian buffers, also help preserve water quality and guard against erosion and flooding.

The conservation easement for the Clark/Madden property is being completed through the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust, established in 1991 to protect a variety of lands by accepting conservation easements from private landowners. These easements range from designating lands as “forever wild” to preserving lands for farming and forest management operations, Garrett said. Several conservation easements also al­low public recreational opportunities, including hiking, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.

The easement on the Forestport property, which falls just outside the Blue Line, will focus on preserving the land for the Black River Valley Wildlife Corridor. The need for this type of protection continues to grow, Garrett said. 

“We expect to see greater migration of species needing to adapt to climate change and find new food sources due to changing environmental conditions,” she said. “That’s why these types of large and relatively unbroken landscapes are becoming even more critical for wildlife survival.”

Recently, the state Department of Transportation worked with the Nature Conservancy to assist the wildlife crossing a busy portion of Route 12 in the Black River Valley, identified as “one of the most significant barriers to wildlife movement” and a safety hazard for both animals and drivers, Fadden said.    

To address this issue, a “wildlife shelf” made of steel mesh was installed under the road within a large existing culvert to provide a safe option for wildlife attempting to cross the highway by allowing them to travel beneath it. The wildlife shelf was a pilot installation and the first in the state, Fadden said.    

The Tug Hill Commission provided staff to work with individual towns in mapping out important areas for wildlife conservation in the Black River Valley. The staff also helped towns identify priority areas for water quality control, along with cultural, economic and recreational opportunities, said the Tug Hill Commission’s executive director, Katie Malinowski. As a result, several moved forward with revising and expanding their comprehensive plans and zoning laws to include specific language and mapping to enhance the wildlife connectivity effort.

When agencies form partnerships through programs such as the Wildlife Connectivity Project, said Garrett, “it gives us the ability to get more accomplished and reach more landowners, because we’re all working together toward the same goal.”    

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