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Natural Heritage Elements - Community level


Wetlands

Definition

Wetlands are intermediate habitats between upland and aquatic ecosystems. Wetland communities include the vegetated, shallow-water margins of lakes and ponds, the seasonally flooded borders of rivers and streams, and an amazing diversity of topographic settings across the landscape, including basins, hillside seeps, and wet flats. 

                Although many definitions have been developed for the term and concept of 'wetland,' wetlands have three basic characteristics. First, all are inundated by or saturated with water for varying periods during the growing season. Second, they contain wet or hydric soils, which develop in saturated conditions. Finally, they are dominated by plant species that are adapted to life in saturated soils. Methodologies for identifying and delineating locations of wetland boundaries for regulatory purposes have been based on developing specific definitions for each of these three wetland characteristics, known technically as hydrology, hydric soils, and hydrophytic vegetation. 

                Wetlands are known by many common names, and in recent years these names have been applied more consistently to specific wetland types. Swamps are wetlands dominated by woody plants, either trees or shrubs. Marshes are wetlands dominated by herbaceous plants. Fens are peat-accumulating open wetlands that receive mineral-rich groundwater. Bogs, also peat-accumulating wetlands, are isolated from mineral-rich water sources by deep peat accumulation and therefore receive most of their water and nutrients from precipitation. Each of these wetland types supports a unique group of plants and animals, many of which require these wetland habitats to survive. 

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Importance  

                 Wetlands serve a wide range of functions and are beneficial to a variety of native plant and animal species, as well as to the health, safety, and welfare of the general public. Wetlands provide fish and wildlife habitat, flood and erosion protection, nutrient and pollution filtration, groundwater recharge, aesthetic diversity, and sites for educational and recreational activities. 

                It is estimated that less than 5% of Vermont is currently wetland and that nearly 50% of Vermont's historic wetland area has been lost or severely impaired due to draining, dredging, filling, or excavation activities associated with industrial, residential, and agricultural activities. Since 1995, the current rate of regulated wetland loss in Vermont is estimated at 20 acres per year. In addition, there is likely a similar amount of unregulated wetlands that are lost each year. The most effective way to ensure the continuation of wetlands is to provide stewardship of and/or protection for those that still exist. In Vermont , we have relatively strong wetland protection from the following state and federal laws: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Section 404 permits; Vermont 's Act 250; and the Vermont Wetland Rules. 

                Although the technology exists to create new wetlands, the process is expensive and often results in wetlands of low quality compared to natural wetlands. However, a growing interest in the restoration of abandoned agricultural lands to Valley Clayplain Forests and Riverine Floodplain Forests , may eventually lead to an increase in wetland acreage over time. 

                Wildlife functions associated with wetlands in Vermont are some of the most diverse and sensitive. Vermont 's wetlands support a myriad of waterfowl, wading birds, wetland-dependant furbearers, black bears, moose, amphibians, pitcher plants - the list goes on and on. These species all rely, in whole or in part, on wetland ecosystems for their survival. 

                Fish and wildlife that depend on wetlands for their survival tend to be easily disturbed or negatively affected by human activities. Residential develop- ment, for instance, close to a marsh that supports wading birds such as herons and bitterns is incompatible. Domestic activities normally associated with residential development can cause disturbance, temporary displacement, or complete abandonment of the wetland by a variety of sensitive wetland-dependent wildlife. 

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Conservation Goals

                 A town or other planning group might adopt goals for the conservation of wetlands like the following: 

1.        Protect or provide for long-term stewardship of wetlands that support significant functions and values for natural communities, rare species habitat, or wildlife habitat, and prevent additional loss of wetlands within the town. 

2.        Restore and/or enhance the functions and values of wetlands already affected by human disturbance.

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Obtaining and Interpreting Information

Information Sources

See Resources for information on how to contact or visit the websites of the agencies and organizations mentioned below.

         National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWF): This is the agency responsible for mapping wetlands throughout the United States . Each wetland is classified from aerial photographs based on existing vegetation, visible hydrology, and geography. NWI maps are available from the Vermont Wetlands Office (see below) and from town clerks. Information about the USFWS's classification system can be found on the National Wetlands Inventory, or in the book Classification of Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats of the United States (Cowardin et al., 1979). Digital data can be obtained from the website.

         Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Wetlands Section:  This program regulates wetlands in Vermont , maintains NWI maps for the state, and provides technical assistance on wetland identification, delineation, and protection through planning and other mechanisms. It also is a source of information on the functions, values, and locations of wetlands throughout the state. Contact this office for maps of wetlands throughout Vermont .

         Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department: The Department prepares significant habitat maps for each town. NWI wetlands are shown on these maps. Department staff can assist you in assessing the importance of a particular wetland as wildlife habitat, as a significant natural community, or as habitat for rare, threatened, or endangered species.

         Local and Regional Planning Commissions:  Commissions have significant habitat maps from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.

         Vermont Center for Geographic Information: The Center maintains a digital NWI data layer.   

Wetlands in Jericho

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Interpreting the Information  

                 Although the most comprehensive source of information on wetlands is the NWI, this information should be used with caution. The maps were prepared using aerial photography rather than field inventory, so wetlands that are hard to see on aerial photos are not mapped. Many forested wetlands, for example, are not on NWI maps. Understanding the functions and values of each wetland requires field inventory and assessment by a natural resource professional. (The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation's Wetland Program and the VFWD can help in some cases.) This is important because wetland conservation measures must be assessed on a case-by-case basis in the field. For instance, wetlands that provide habitat for breeding and nesting waterfowl or for wading birds may require a wide undeveloped buffer (e.g., 300 feet) to adequately ensure that the habitat functions will be maintained.   

Gathering New Field Data on Wetlands

 Although the National Wetlands Inventory is available for all areas of Vermont , the maps are incomplete because they were made using aerial photographs at a very small scale, without any on-the-ground inventory. A more detailed assessment will likely reveal more wetland areas and more accurate wetland boundaries than were identified by NWI. One Vermont town, for example, commissioned a local study of wetlands and identified nearly double the wetland acreage that had been previously identified by NWI. The quality of this new information has allowed the town to plan confidently for the stewardship and/or protection of its wetland resources. The methodology for identifying new wetlands is the same as for mapping natural communities and can be done along with that work.

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Conservation Strategies

Once information has been gathered on wetlands, you can develop specific Conservation Strategies to help achieve your goals. Examples of strategies for each goal are presented below. 

1. Goal: Provide for long-term stewardship of or protect wetlands that have significant functions and values for rare species habitat, wildlife habitat, or natural communities and prevent additional loss of wetlands within the town.  

Strategies: 

        a. Include specific language in the town plan supporting the long-term stewardship or protection of wetlands. Sample Language: Wetlands will be protected from encroaching development, including roads and driveways, and disturbances harmful to wetland-dependent wildlife by restricting development and specific activities in wetlands and by maintaining and/or establishing undisturbed, naturally vegetated buffers around their edges. See the 1997 Agency of Natural Resources' publication Local Planning and Zoning Options for Wetland Protection for more examples of language protecting wetlands in the town plans and other planning and zoning strategies for wetlands.  

        b. Conduct an inventory of wetlands in town to verify NWI wetlands and document other wetlands not on the NWI maps. 

        c. The Vermont Wetland Rules allow for wetlands that do not appear on the NWI maps to be reclassified to Class II or I. This process allows for people to petition the Vermont Water Resources Board to reclassify wetlands not on the NWI maps to Class II (significant) designation so that they are regulated under the Vermont Wetland Rules. For wetlands that have outstanding statewide values, petition the Water Resources Board to reclassify them to Class I. More information on wetlands reclassification is available by contacting the Vermont Wetlands Office (Department of Environmental Conservation) or the Water Resources Board. (See Resources  for contact information.) 

        d. Locate existing wetlands that provide high quality wildlife habitat throughout the town or area of interest using GIS, paper maps, and other wildlife-use data. Trained professionals can also help you evaluate the wildlife habitat functions of a particular wetland. Target these high quality wetlands in open space planning and land acquisition programs. Give higher priority to those wetlands that contain other natural heritage elements such as significant natural communities or rare species. 

        e. Create a wetlands overlay district, including all wetlands and their buffers of a designated width, as part of town zoning regulations. A minimum buffer of 50 feet from the wetland edge will protect some wetland habitat functions in many situations. The larger the buffer the more wildlife habitat functions will be provided. A buffer of 100 feet or more will increase protection of wildlife movement areas. 

        f. Allow for PUDs in the town zoning and/or subdivision regulations as an alternative to conventional subdivisions, and require, or provide incentives (e.g., density bonuses) for, PUD designs that cluster development away from wetlands and their buffers.  

        g. Plan to locate new roads (both public and private) and driveways such that naturally vegetated buffers are maintained between roads and wetlands. Incorporate into subdivision and zoning regulations minimum setbacks from wetlands of 100 feet or greater for new roads and driveways. Do not allow roads to cross wetlands where other access options are available. If roads must cross wetlands, require the developer to submit a professional hydrological study and road design that will maintain wetland hydrology and minimize effects on wildlife and their habitats. For example, roads across wetlands should contain adequate culverts and/or bridges to maintain wetland hydrology and allow for safe passage of wetland-dependent wildlife, such as amphibians and muskrats, under the road rather than over it. The Vermont Wetlands Office and the VFWD assist with interpreting wetland hydrology and wildlife use evaluations.

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2. Goal: Restore and/or enhance the functions and values of wetlands already altered by human disturbance.  

Strategies: 

        a. Develop land management plans for town-owned lands designed to restore and enhance wetland functions. Carefully consider the balance of public use and wildlife habitat needs. Direct public use away from wildlife-sensitive areas and educate the public about wildlife use of town lands. 

        b. Adopt town road management standards designed to protect wetlands. Roads should be managed to maintain natural vegetated buffers around wetlands and to limit road runoff from directly entering wetlands. Existing roads that cross wetlands should be retrofitted with culverts and/or bridges to restore wetland hydrology and minimize impacts to wildlife and their habitat. 

        c. Develop a landowner stewardship program to encourage restoration of wetlands and their buffers. Inform landowners about federal cost-sharing habitat restoration programs, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Wildlife program.

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