wildlife

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

Citizen Science & the CT Woodland Owner

Written by Nancy Marek

bobcat
Bobcat. Photo: Shutterstock

Scott Matties was checking his mailbox one late winter afternoon when he saw three shadowy figures cut across Ridge Road heading for his property. The shadows did not move like dogs. Domestic cats are not that big, he thought. He dashed to the back of his house and froze: three young bobcats trotted across his snow-covered pond, moving west. Scott stood quietly and smiled.

He always felt close to nature and enjoyed watching wildlife. Scott and his wife, Anne Sicilian, bought a small piece of land in Chaplin furnished with a wildlife lover’s wish list: one pond, one vernal pool, a small aspen grove, mixed woods and a meadow. Through a local land trust, he heard about a new University of Connecticut pilot program asking woodland owners to monitor signs of wildlife activity on their land. Scott and his wife were eager to help and take on the task of becoming citizen scientists: nonprofessionals who assist researchers in developing new information – in this case, about ecological biodiversity on private lands.

Become an Important Player in Ecological Research

Not much is known about wildlife activity on private lands. State wildlife biologist Brian Hess describes private lands as “black boxes that may be high value but are inaccessible.” The University of Connecticut’s Extension Forestry program invites private woodland owners to bridge this gap. These citizen scientists record what they see and hear on their own land for one year. Considering that private landowners own most of the forests in the state, participants in this pilot program are leading the way in creating a dynamic source of research-quality information about forest health, species diversity, and invasive species that they can collect, explore, and share with researchers and other woodland owners across a broad geographic range.

Walk your property, Take notes, Make a difference

Participants are asked to record observations every two weeks, or twice a month, for a year, including taking pictures of unfamiliar signs, tracks and scat. There is no cost to join. Observations can be recorded on a wildlife activity log (provided to all participants) or on iNaturalist.org, an online data collection platform. A link to the project can be found here: http://bit.ly/1XJSxTQ.

woodlands siteAfter one year the program will be evaluated to determine its effectiveness, with the goal of creating a long-term study to monitor and track wildlife on private lands in Connecticut.

Doing Good for Wildlife and the Community

In the last month, Scott Matties and Anne Sicilian have made 78 observations simply by walking their land on weekends, like watching a great blue heron land on their pond or noticing fish egg nests along the edges. They’re excited that their property can support a bobcat family and that they have the opportunity to be citizen scientists! If you are interested in learning how you can contribute as a citizen scientist, please contact: Nancy Marek, doctoral candidate, College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, nancy.marek@uconn.edu, 203.745.9771. Thank you for your interest.

My Connecticut Woods

woodsMiddlesex County Extension Center Announces a Year-long Series of Twelve Workshops for Woodland Owners and Nature Lovers called My Connecticut Woods.

Workshop #1: Field Trip to a Local Vernal Pool

Come join us as the UConn Extension Forestry Team and guest lecturers explore a variety of topics about Connecticut’s natural resources.

Each class will begin at the Middlesex County Extension Center in Haddam, CT, but may end at a nearby location. The series begin on Sunday afternoon, May 3rd. Register for one class or a few at a time. Other topics to follow include a chainsaw safety course for women only, attracting more wildlife to your property, and how to make your own wooden spoon.

Register for one class or a few at a time. Please visit our calendar. Workshops from July to December will be posted early this summer.

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands and home to many animals whose lifecycle depends upon this threatened ecosystem. The workshop begins in class with an overview of a vernal pool ecosystem followed by a field trip to a vernal pool in Haddam.

The program will be held Sunday, May 3, from 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm at the Middlesex County Extension Center, 1066 Saybrook Road, Haddam, CT. Tom Worthley, an Extension Forester with UConn Extension, will present the workshop.

PREREGISTRATION IS REQUIRED. Further program information may be found on the Extension calendar:  http://www.extension.uconn.edu​. Registration fees are $35.00 or $30 for Coverts Cooperators.  Contact Nancy Marek at nancy.marek@uconn.edu or 860-345-5231 for more information.