Wildlife Watch: Efforts to improve Vermont's floodplain forests

Published: Jun. 23, 2020 at 3:57 PM EDT
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State and federal wildlife officials in Vermont are working on new ways to promote tree growth in an effort to improve forest ecosystems and clean water.

Along Route 116 in Hinesburg, crews can be seen working in a checkerboard field. "We are trying to restore flood plain forest," said Peter Emerson, a biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife.

"The checkerboard that you are seeing is our different treatment methods for site preparation. When they grow up, we will see which responds best," said Annalise Carington, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife conservation specialist.

The crews from both agencies are working on a new project to hydroseed the area near the LaPlatte River to help propagate new tree growth.

"We are trying to reset the stage here, open up the ground and give these floodplain tree and shrub species a chance to come in and reestablish the plain forest that would historically be here," Carington said.

"The idea here is to literally create an instant forest where we will have tens of thousands of trees per acre, all growing at the same rate and hopefully outcompeting some of the critters," Emerson said.

To do that, Emerson says the crews plowed the field in the fall. They have several test plots to see how the land responds. "We wait a few weeks to let things regenerate, anything that's going to survive. Then, we apply herbicide to it -- which is the most extreme measure -- but also the most effective measure at creating bare earth, which is our objective here. The only method is plow only, and one that is herbicide only. We have three different tests and a control that we are doing -- none of the above. And our next test is to see which one of these fields support hydroseeding seed that we collect from trees locally," Emerson said.

Carington says seeds are then planted by hand or hydro seeding. "This will be a much more cost-effective method if we can hone the techniques for direct seeding," she said. "This is a big experiment, although I would say we are just trying to replicate nature."

And with that experiment, the goal is to help bring the forest back into the floodplain and that will have a larger impact on wildlife.

"On a large scale, we feel this is necessary to reclaim a large area of former agricultural land where we have an invasive exotic grass that has been inhibiting tree regeneration. Some of these fields have been in this grass land for literally 100 years," Emerson said.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: So the goal is to go back to this Green Mountain Forest we are looking at here?

Peter Emerson: Well, along the streams we are not trying to take over every farm, that's not our goal. It's just to protect the water quality. This leads back to Lake Champlain, clean and clear water, and it leads back to nutrient management and ultimately for us as fish biologists, it means improved fisheries.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Why in 2020 steer away from the planting of individual trees.

Peter Emerson: The planting of individual trees works very well in many different settings, but what we have discovered is when you plant it in this invasive exotic grass -- which is a really good forage for cows -- but it doesn't work well for birds and wildlife. It's called weed canary grass. When we try to reseed or replant into reed canary grass, it just doesn't have a chance.

The goal is to move the successful planting method statewide and officials hope to see progress next year.