Land Use

Soil pH – The Master Variable

The UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Lab tests for and analyzes multiple soil parameters; but none as critical, and as often overlooked, as pH. Soil pH plays a crucial role in the growth of vegetation planted, as well as ground water quality. Before we start talking about soil pH, I think it is a good idea to try to define what exactly pH is, and how it is determined.

When most of us think of pH, a pool probably comes to mind. I remember growing up, watching my mother apply different chemicals to our pool, and impatiently wondering why I had to wait to go swimming. She would tell me that she was adjusting the pH of the water to ensure it was safe to swim in. The basic understanding is that pH is tells us how acidic, neutral, or alkaline something is. To get a little more technical, pH is the measurement of the activity of Hydrogen Ions (H+) in an aqueous solution. The equation for determining and quantifying pH is:

pH = -log10 (aH+)

(aH+= Hydrogen Ion Activity in Moles/L)

We express pH on a logarithmic scale of 0-14, where 0-6 is considered “acidic”, 7 is “neutral”, and 8-14 is “basic”.

soil pH scale
Image from: http://www.edu.pe.ca/gulfshore/Archives/ACIDSBAS/scipage.htm

Mineral soil pH values generally range from 3.0 – 10.0. There are numerous factors that determine soil pH including climate, parent material, weathering, relief, and time. Texture and organic matter content also influence soil pH. Most Connecticut soils are naturally acidic. Nutrient availability is directly influenced by pH with most plants (with some exceptions) thriving at pH values between 6 and 7. A majority of nutrients are available within this range.

Our lab measures pH using an 1:1 soil-to-DI water ratio. The saturated soil paste is mixed, then is analyzed using a glass electrode and a pH meter. We calibrate our meter using 2 solutions with known pH values, 4 and 7. We use these values because we expect most Connecticut soils to fall within this range. Once the initial pH value is obtained, a buffering agent is added. In our lab we use the Modified Mehlich Buffer. A second pH reading is obtained, and from these two values plus crop information, we are able to make limestone and/or sulfur recommendations.

The Buffering Capacity of a soil is the resistance it has to change in pH. Soil buffering is controlled by its Cation-Exchange-Capacity, Aluminum content (in acidic soils), organic matter content, and texture. A soil with a lot of organic matter and clay will have a higher buffering capacity than one with little organic matter that is mostly sandy.

If the soil pH is lower than the target range for a particular plant, limestone would be recommended. Whether you use pelletized, ground or granular limestone, the application rate would be the same. Once the target pH is reached, a maintenance application of 50 lbs/1000 sq ft would be applied every other year to maintain it.

If the soil pH is higher than desired, sulfur recommendations are made. Typically only powdered sulfur is available locally but granular sulfur could be mail ordered. Aluminum sulfate can be substituted for sulfur and used at a higher rate. Check out this listof preferred pH ranges for many common plants.

Monitoring your soil pH is essential to ensure that it is falling within the range best suited for the vegetation you are growing. The Standard Nutrient Analysis performed at our lab gives you a pH value, a buffer pH value, a lime/sulfur recommendation, available micro & macro nutrient levels, and a fertilizer recommendation. For more information on pH, you can contact Dawn or myself (Joe) at the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Lab (www.soiltest.uconn.edu). Test, don’t guess!

By Joe C.

CT’s First Stormwater Utility

Earlier this summer, New London became the first municipality in Connecticut to establish a stormwater utility which goes into effect January 1, 2019.  This means they will begin charging all property owners a fee for their contribution to the city’s stormwater runoff.  Previously, New London relied on property taxes to fund maintenance of their stormwater infrastructure which includes all the storm drains and underground pipes that carry runoff from buildings, streets, and parking lots into nearby waterbodies.  This model has left much of the city’s stormwater management efforts significantly underfunded.  By charging stormwater fees, New London, a small city with many tax-exempt properties, is securing a dedicated funding source to pay for maintaining their stormwater infrastructure and complying with other management efforts, like public outreach, removing illegal discharges from the stormwater system and sampling stormwater discharge for pollutants.

New London may be the only stormwater utility in Connecticut but not in New England. According to a 2016 survey of U.S. stormwater utilities by Western Kentucky University, 3 New England states were home to established stormwater utilities: Maine (5), Vermont (3), and Massachusetts (7).  But outside our region, these utilities have become much more common.  Overall, the U.S. had nearly 1,600 stormwater utilities led by Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin each having more than 100 a piece.  Clearly, there are many states (including some with reputations of having less stringent regulatory environments than CT) that have already embraced stormwater utilities as a practical way to pay for strong municipal stormwater management programs.

stormwater utilities map
Number of Stormwater Utilities in every state. From Western Kentucky University Stormwater Utility Survey 2016.

By Amanda Ryan

 

A Marsh Migration Buffer Takes Shape

Dodge Paddock Beal Preserve is a small oasis in Stonington Borough and is owned by Avalonia Land Conservancy. With tidal wetlands, coastal grassland and a rocky intertidal area, the area has much to offer visitors. The preserve has been the focus of many efforts involving the land trust, CT Dept of Energy and Environmental Protection, Mystic Aquarium and Connecticut Sea Grant. Superstorm Sandy (2012) had significant impacts to the site with both physical (seawall damage) and ecological impacts. Work by Avalonia, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Mystic Aquarium have focused on restoration and management of the tidal wetland with extensive regrading, Phragmites australiscontrol work and planting of native marsh vegetation. Other significant site work includes grassland management to control invasive plants in upland areas.

Landward of the tidal wetland, numerous questions have arisen with the upland habitats. The Beal Family maintained several beautiful, large gardens as a condition of their land donation. Mrs. Beal recently passed away, so Avalonia needed to determine how to manage a large area of the property bordering the wetlands. Given the proximity of the formal gardens to the marsh, projections of sea level rise of approximately 20 inches by 2050, and observations indicating that the marsh is migrating landward in parts of the Preserve, the creation of a marsh migration buffer seems to be the most prudent approach. With a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Long Island Sound Futures Fund, we are moving forward with the creation of such a buffer.

Land Trust Steward, Beth Sullivan, led the clearing of the formal gardens by having local garden clubs, neighbors and friends come in and remove plants which included everything from fennel to canna lilies. More volunteers pulled roots and cleared as much as possible. Then we covered the gardens with black plastic, letting it “solarize” over the summer months. After much planning and determining what plants would work best, we planted the new buffer on Oct 19th. A hardy crew of volunteers rolled up the plastic, raked and leveled the gardens and then sowed seeds with a mix of native coastal grass species. We were also fortunate to obtain seeds for several native species that had been collected several years ago by the New England Wildflower Society as part of their Seeds of Successprogram. Seeds of native species that were collected locally include switch grass and little bluestem as well as herbaceous perennials such as tall goldenrod. Other donations included milkweed seeds and root balls of joe pye weed from local gardens.

people walking with plastic uncovering ground
Removal of the plastic sheeting that was used to solarize the area over the summer months. Photo by J. Benson Oct 19, 2018

spreading mulch over dirt and seed
Seeded area is covered with a thin layer of straw for the winter months. Photo by J. Benson Oct 19, 2018

 

So now we can wait out the winter months and hope for a fruitful spring. While marsh migration with sea level rise is very slow, we are hoping to develop a coastal grassland/meadow that will be an ecologically productive habitat.

By Juliana Barrett

Coastal Storm Preparedness Story Map for Connecticut

coastal house damaged from a storm in ConnecticutAs part of the Coastal Storm Awareness Program (CSAP) 10 social science research and related new technology projects were funded to improve public response to coastal storm hazard information. In one of these studies, Jennifer Marlon, of Yale University, and other collaborators in 2015 found that 70 percent of coastal Connecticut residents are either unsure or unaware if their home is in an evacuation zone as determined by flood maps developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Another 74 percent of coastal Connecticut residents have never seen an evacuation map for their community.

In order to provide information on evacuation zones, local evacuation routes and customized municipal preparedness, Extension faculty at Connecticut Sea Grant and UConn Center for Land Use Education and Research and a UConn student developed a Coastal Storm Story Map. A story map is a tool developed by the software company, Esri, that allows authoritative maps to be combined with text, images and videos to tell a story. This story map provides information on evacuation zones and local evacuation routes, as well as links to sign up for town emergency alerts. Piloted with four coastal towns, the project’s goal is to have information for all coastal and riverine communities throughout the state. Any town interested in providing evacuation route and shelter information for the story map, please contact Juliana Barrett at juliana.barrett@uconn.edu.

CT Trail Census Update

CT Trail Census logo

Greetings, trail folks! As seasons change and everyone debates which one is the best, we here at the CT Trail Census (CTTC) realized that thanks to last year’s CTTC volunteer participants, we actually do have data with which to rank the seasons with!

Trail use data, of course!

So here it goes: According to last year’s data, the average total daily uses across all trails during the summer was 336 versus 221 in the fall. This may surprise people since fall is such a beautiful time to use the trails for walking, running, horseback riding, and almost any activity besides skiing! We should probably compare these numbers to next year’s data before we make any hefty conclusions about which season is the best.

Show us know how you enjoy the trails in the fall! Tag Connecticut Trail Census on Facebook with your fall trail photos!

Fall Data Update
While volunteer teams continue to hit their local trails and greenways counting and intercepting the autumn trail users, CTTC staff are busy travelling the state, enjoying the views of the foliage while checking on the IR counters and downloading the IR counter trail use data from the summer.  To date, we have received over 700 surveys! Considering it is only October not all sites have sent surveys yet, we are well on our way to exceeding last year’s total of 1,003 surveys!
As a reminder, please send us any completed surveys once you have around 100 and don’t forget to include a Data Summary & Refusal Form with each group of surveys. 
Any & all surveys should be completed and sent in the mail by the end of the month.
Behind the Scenes
If you catch us not on the road, you will most likely find us hard at work behind computers crunching numbers and compiling resources for our application to continue the program using funds from the Connecticut Recreational Trails Plan Program. This process has lead us to think a lot about the future and we are excited about what we have come up with. Our goals involve program expansions and alterations that we hope will only improve the Trail Census. We will keep you posted!

Climate Corps Course Shapes Career Choice for UConn Student

The UConn Climate Corps is an undergraduate classroom and service learning opportunity. The program consists of a 3 credit course (Fall semester) on the local impacts of climate change, followed by a 3 credit independent study (Spring semester) during which students work with Extension faculty to assist Connecticut communities in adapting to climate change.  In Spring of 2018 the Corps worked with the municipalities of Hartford, Westbrook, and Old Lyme. 

The Climate Corps is a collaboration of the Environmental Studies, Environmental Sciences, and Environmental Engineeringprograms, the Connecticut Sea Grant Program, and the UConn Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR)

A student in the 2017-18 class and shared her thoughts with Extension Educators Bruce Hyde and Juliana Barrett.

Bruce and students
Student teams led by Bruce Hyde and other CLEAR faculty will work with Connecticut towns as part of the UConn Climate Corps.

Also I just wanted to say thank you for all the hard work you two put in to make this class/independent study possible. I had an amazing experience with it and met a lot of great people. I actually just accepted a really great post-graduation job offer from Homesite Insurance in Boston as a Catastrophe Risk Analyst, and half of my interview was spent talking about this independent study. I’ll be doing natural hazard risk modeling and identifying at-risk areas for certain natural disasters as a result of weather patterns, geographic locations, and climate change, which is something this independent study really prepared me for/got me interested in. This wouldn’t have been possible without you two and the Climate Corps class, so thank you so much!! Climate Corps had a huge influence on me, and for a while I wasn’t super excited about the sorts of jobs I’d be qualified to do with a Geoscience degree (consulting and cleaning up hazardous waste spills somehow didn’t appeal to me), but having this experience opened so many doors for me and exposed me to so many different things I could do. I’m really excited to start my new job because I’ve been able to combine a career with something I find super interesting, and I really have you two to thank for that.

I recommended Climate Corps to a bunch of people and I think one of my friends is signed up for it next year, so please keep doing this, it’s a great experience for us students (and I’m sure also for the towns we work with)! Thank you again!

The Slow Storm: Tree Mortality in CT from Invasive Insect Pests

By Thomas E. Worthley, UConn Associate Extension Professor, Forestry

During the early summer of 2018 it became apparent that numerous trees throughout eastern and southern Connecticut did not produce leaves this spring, having died sometime during the winter. While it is not unusual to lose a tree or two to natural causes here and there at any time of year, the massive scale and extent of oak tree (Quercus spp.)mortality during the winter of 2017 to 2018 due to the combination of recent gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) infestations and associated drought conditions is notable and concerning. Combined with the anticipated loss of ash trees (Fraxinus spp.)in many areas due to the invasive emerald ash borer (Agrillus planipennis), which has been moving across Connecticut from where it was initially found in northern New Haven County, the sheer numbers of LARGE standing dead trees throughout the state presents what might best be described as a slow-moving environmental disaster.

Emerald ash borer first appeared in the Connecticut landscape in 2012 after a slow but relentless spread across the country and has been gradually decimating the ash population in Connecticut since that time. A long period of detection sampling and information dissemination has raised the awareness about this pest with professionals, elected officials and members of the public. We’ve known it was coming and in many ways arborists, foresters, town staffs, CT-DOT and utilities have been preparing for it.

The sheer degree and extent of oak tree mortality in southeastern Connecticut, on the other hand, was unexpected and has overwhelmed many homeowners, Tree Wardens, foresters and others.

Many adult citizens recall severe gypsy moth defoliations during the early 1980s. At that time the forest took on a winter-like appearance across a large portion of the state for a couple summers in a row as the population of gypsy moth caterpillars exploded into our vast oak forest canopy. The caterpillar population then crashed as quickly as it grew (due to caterpillar disease factors) and since that time fungal and viral diseases, among an assortment of other caterpillar predators, has kept the population in check. Those of us that take note would see only spot infestations in various locations since that time. During the 1980s, as expected, trees produced a second set of leaves each of those summers, and while there was some mortality, the severity was not as intense or as wide-spread.

Also, in some places an additional secondary mortality event is evident. Early and mid-season browning of leaves on individual trees that leafed-out and seemed fine this spring indicates that other pests or diseases are continuing to affect previously stressed trees. Among the factors that might be responsible are two-lined chestnut borer, a native pest, and armillaria fungus, also known as “shoestring” fungus.

The current problem is two-fold:

First, very large dead trees with wide spreading crowns are very numerous along some roadways in eastern Connecticut. These conditions seem quite variable. One can drive several miles along a local road and not see any dead trees and then pass a stretch that has as many as 30 or 40 dead trees per mile. Implications for public safety are apparent.

Second, there are forest stands throughout the affected area experiencing severe mortality rates. This author has been in stands ranging from a few more dead oaks than usual to as much as 80-90% canopy loss. And these are not necessarily the poor-growing, stressed and uncompetitive trees, but are often tall magnificent trees with large crowns that seemed most robust and healthy. Assessment efforts are underway to ascertain the degree and special extent of mortality in forest stands.

From a timber value standpoint the potential for severe economic loss for woodland owners is potentially staggering. The total volume of commercially valuable timber, standing dead, that might be salvaged is beyond the capacity of the timber industry to address it. From a public safety point of view, the numbers of dead trees that have the potential to ultimately impact roadways and power lines is well beyond the capacity of property owners, town budgets, CT-DOT and/or utilities to address.

Initial data from a random sampling of ninety miles of local roads in several towns from Sprague to Haddam has indicated an average of 18 dead roadside trees per mile, half of which can be categorized as high potential risk. This roadside tree mortality survey is continuing on more local roads in more towns. Additional survey data is being collected by a team from UConn.

Brooklyn road with dead trees Higganum road with dead trees

High-potential-risk trees photographed in Higganum and Brooklyn, CT in mid-June, 2018. Photos: Tom Worthley

During roadside tree mortality surveys, a tree will have been characterized as high potential risk if it is a large tree, with slight to severe lean toward the road and/or with most of its limbs and branches over the road, such that if not removed, half or more of the mass of the tree will, over time, eventually drop in the road. A sampling of roads in East Haddam, for example, where mortality from both gypsy moth and emerald ash borer is occurring, indicated 134 such high-potential-risk trees on 21 miles of road (smaller, less-potentially risky trees are not included, but are much more numerous) for an average of about 6 problem trees per mile. At a cost of somewhere between $500.00 and $1000.00 per tree, just those 134 trees will cost upwards of $67,000, perhaps over $100,000 for removal. State data for local road mileage estimates 118 miles of local roadway in East Haddam, the problem dwarfs the $25,000 annual budget the town allocates for tree issues. One or two or a half-dozen dead trees along roads in town might be “acceptable” risk, but if the sampling data is accurate and we estimate over 700 potentially problematic trees in town, it will (if not addressed) become downright risky to drive or walk in the community over the next few years.

Key are the phrases “potentially problematic” and “over the next few years”. Unlike ash trees, dead oak trees do not decay and disintegrate in a short period of time. The first heavy, wet snow will bring down small twigs and branches this winter, next summer, larger limbs and branches will decay and drop, a few at a time. Larger limbs and trunks of oak trees might retain some structural integrity for another 3 to 5 years, but eventually the root system will rot and, gravity being the law, the entire remainder of tree will topple in whichever direction it leans. The more severe the lean, the sooner it will happen. Liability for possible damage or injury, even a few years from now when gypsy moth is old news, is likely to rest with whoever owns or is responsible for the tree in question.

In July of 2018 two ad-hoc meetings were held by concerned stakeholders to exchange information and discuss roadside tree mortality. Attendees at these meetings included representatives from CT-DEEP, CT-DOT, Eversource, UConn, some town elected officials, CIRMA, Tree Wardens and members of the forestry and arboricultural communities. The discussion was wide-ranging and thorough. Major points of agreement amongst attendees included the following:

  • Roadside tree mortality presents a serious potential public safety hazard.
  • The scale and scope of the problem is beyond the capacity of CT-DOT, Eversource and many towns to address the issue.
  • Time is of the essence. Dead trees are unpredictable and dangerous for tree workers and timber operators, and become more dangerous the longer they stand.
  • Additional assessment data is essential, plans to continue that effort should be encouraged.
  • Emergency funding and logistical support should be sought. Is FEMA an alternative?

Recommendations for homeowners and landowners with dead trees near boundary lines or roadways are to obtain the help of an arborist or qualified tree service as soon as possible. Dead trees are hazardous trees and the owners of hazardous trees can be liable for damage or injury they might cause. The sheer number of trees that need attention has made it difficult to contract with arborists, so be persistent, but also be careful about engaging inexperienced or unlicensed contractors. Check references. A listing of licensed arborists can be found at the web site of the Connecticut Tree Protective Association, www.CTPA.org.

Woodland owners are advised to consult with a Connecticut Certified Forester about the condition of trees on their properties. Recommendations for management actions will vary depending on morality severity and size of that affected area. A listing of Foresters can be found at the CT-DEEP Forestry Division web page. Look for the “Certified Forest Practitioners” listing. Text within the document explains the roles and authorizations for different levels of certification, and is important to note. Landowners should be aware, however, that trees can lose some commercial value once they have died, and that stands with numerous dead trees to harvest are likely to be extremely dangerous to work, again potentially affecting value. Please do not attempt to remove or harvest dead trees on your own without proper personal protective equipment (hardhat, eye and ear protection, chaps) and some chain saw safety training.

Woodland owners with specific questions can contact me at thomas.worthley@uconn.edu.

Beaver Brook State Park in Chaplin with dead trees 

Severe canopy loss/oak mortality at Beaver Brook State Park in Chaplin – mid June 2018

Telling Stories With Maps

story map image
Story map images show housing density
that bears live in from 6-50 houses/km2

Cary Chadwick, UConn CLEAR, used the research results on black bears in Connecticut to create a companion “story map,” an application created by GIS industry leader Esri that enables the seamless combination of online maps with other types of information such as images, videos, graphs and graphics. Story maps are designed to communicate complicated information, data, and analysis to the public in a user-friendly, interactive story-telling experience.

The Bears are Back story map includes information about the research project, including:

• Recolonization of historic black bear range in northwestern CT

• Sow (female) & cub sightings by town

• Reported incidents and conflict frequency maps

• Locations where conflict can be predicted based on incidents and landscape characteristics

• Research methods and location of field sites

• Wildlife camera trap photographs of corral visitors

• Bear counts and estimated “center of activity” per individual

• Extent of “exurban” areas in CT where ideal development patterns may lead to higher concentrations of bears

• Estimated distribution map of current estimated bear density across northwestern CT

• Links to more information about how individuals can become “bear smart” and co-exist peacefully with CT’s black bears

• Link to research published in Landscape and Urban Planning

• Additional information from UConn’s Wildlife and Fisheries Conservation Center and CT DEEP.

Visit the Bears Story Map: https://s.uconn.edu/bears.

Quantifying Water Use

Angie Harris“New York City is surrounded by water,” Angie Harris says, “I realized it was a great source of beauty, transportation, and recreation. But it was also contaminated and deeply problematic.” Angie grew up in Queens, New York. She realized water was a crucial resource of concern while an undergraduate at New York University studying environmental sciences.

The interdependent relationship of farming, water and land was also intriguing to Angie. Precipitation and ecology are critical to success in farming. She earned her masters’ degree in environmental science at the University of Rhode Island and worked as a research fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency in the Global Change Research Program. Angie joined UConn Extension two years ago as the Program Coordinator for the Agriculture Water Security Project.

The Agriculture Water Security Project is part of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)’s Regional Conservation Partnerships Program and promotes conservation assistance to agricultural producers. The program facilitates Extension’s work in ensuring farmers are thinking about and preparing for drought.

“I serve as a resource for farmers, gardeners, and homeowners to guide and advise them on water conservation and drought preparedness and management. I also serve as a network builder and connect them to other existing resources and organizations,” Angie says. She uses a combination of her education, and personal experience as a full-time farmer for three years in her role on the project. “My mission is to increase the adoption of conservation practices and activities throughout the state.”

Extension is assessing how much water farmers use, and completed a statewide water use survey on irrigation practices and water availability concerns. Next, a pilot metering project at 12 farms tracked their weekly water use for two years. The farms included vegetable, dairy, and nursery and greenhouse operations.

“The farmers kept diligent records and it was inspiring to see how they became scientists and water managers. A curiosity emerged around water use and they demonstrated that they really wanted to know how much water they were using and when,” Angie says.

A key turning point in the water project came at the end of 2016, a serious drought year for Connecticut. UConn Extension hosted a drought listening session for farmers at the Capitol and documented their concerns and ideas in a clear way that was communicated with the state Department of Agriculture and NRCS.

Connecticut developed a state water plan over the last few years. Mike O’Neill, associate dean for outreach and associate director of UConn Extension, served on the planning committee and represented agriculture in the plan’s development.

The next step for the Agriculture Water Security Project was helping farmers prepare drought plans and connecting them to financial assistance from NRCS. A total of 10 projects were provided financial assistance related to developing more robust and secure irrigation infrastructure. Projects included new wells and buried irrigation pipeline.

“We helped a couple of farms access funding to install wells, and it continues to be rewarding to see how pleased the farmers are to have the new resources,” Angie mentions. The Extension project continues to offer irrigation and drought planning resources for farmers.

“I’m excited to see farmers living out their values around land stewardship and food production in thoughtful and creative ways. There is always something that people can do, or a small action they can take to be a mindful citizen,” Angie says. “There is always more to learn, for farmers and residents. For instance, knowing how much water it took to make your jeans or plastic food packaging – it’s important for all of us to continue our learning around the impacts of our actions and consumption.”

Angie led UConn Extension’s initiative around the 40-Gallon Challenge, a national call for residents and businesses to reduce water use on average by 40 gallons per person, per day. It quantifies impacts on the linkage between small actions and water use.

Citizens nationwide are encouraged to participate in the 40-Gallon Challenge by enrolling at http://www.40gallonchallenge.org/. Materials were developed and promoted by Angie and Casey Lambert, a student intern, that quantified water saved by various actions residents can take in their home and yard.

Connecticut is no longer in a drought. But the work of stewardship continues. Angie’s goal is to prepare farmers and residents before water resources become a crisis. By encouraging everyone to simplify, we hone in on the essential needs and ensure successful growing seasons in the years to come.

This project is sponsored by USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Award identification 68-1106-15-05.

Article by Stacey Stearns

No Place Like Home: Black Bears are Back

Tracy Rittenhouse and Mike Evans
Tracy Rittenhouse, assistant professor of natural resources and the environment, and Michael Evans, a Ph. D. student of natural resources at a barbed wire pen created to collect hair from bears on Sept. 18, 2013. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Connecticut is bear country. It may sound strange, but western Connecticut is home to a growing population of American black bears. While bears may at times look out of place in the fourth most densely populated state, black bears living around humans is becoming more and more common not only in Connecticut, but across North America. This new reality has instigated new research to understand how bears respond to development, and may require a shift in human perspective to coexist with bears.

Tracy Rittenhouse, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, focuses her research on how wildlife responds when habitat conditions change. Rittenhouse is interested in key questions about how wildlife interacts in their habitat and what happens as Connecticut becomes a more exurban landscape, defined as the area beyond urban and suburban development, but not rural.

Rittenhouse wants to see from a management perspective what species are overabundant and what are in decline in exurban landscapes. She is interested in looking at the elements of what is called “home” from the perspective of a given species.

In Connecticut, 70 percent of the forests are 60 to 100 years old. The wildlife species that live here are changing as the forest ages. Rittenhouse notes that mature forest is a perfect habitat for bears and other medium-sized mammals as well as small amphibians.

Black bears like this mature forest because they eat the acorns that drop from old oak trees. Forests are also a preferred environment for humans. Exurban landscapes that are a mixture of forest and city are becoming the fastest-growing type of development across the country. The mixture of the city on one hand and the natural environment on the other is positive for humans, but it is not yet clear if wild animals benefit from this mixture.

Exurban landscapes are ideal places for species that are omnivores and species that are able to avoid people by becoming more active at night. Species that shift their behavior to fit in with variations in their environment survive well in exurban locations.

Rittenhouse collaborates with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s (DEEP) Wildlife Division on real life wildlife issues. “Working with DEEP is my way of making sure I am asking research questions that are applicable to real world situations,” she said. “I often try to identify actions that wildlife management professionals or urban planners can take that will allow a species to live in an area. The action is often simple, often a slight change, but we hope that a small change may keep a species from declining or becoming overabundant.”

“We studied black bears by collecting hair samples. Collecting black bear hair is not as difficult as it sounds, as bears will use their nose to find a new scent even if they need to cross a strand of barbed wire that snags a few hairs. The hair contains DNA and therefore the information that we used to identify individuals. For two summers we gathered information on which bear visited each of the hair corrals every week. In total we collected 935 black bear hair samples,” Tracy says.

As Connecticut residents revel in the open spaces of exurban lifestyles, Tracy Rittenhouse and her students keep watchful, caring eyes on the effects of human behavior on wild animals that have no voice. Home may be where the heart is or where one hangs one’s hat, but for the wild critters of Connecticut, home may be a precarious place as they adapt to change.

Article by Nancy Weiss and Tracy Rittenhouse