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Natural Heritage Elements - Species Level

Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Species  


                 A rare species is one that has only a few populations in the state and that faces threats to its continued existence in Vermont . Rare species face threats from development of their habitat, harassment, collection, and suppression of natural processes, such as fire. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department uses a ranking scheme that describes the rarity of species in Vermont . The range is from S1 (very rare) to S5 (common and widespread). Species are assigned a rank based on the number of known examples, the population size, and the degree to which the populations are threatened. For example, creeping juniper and lake sturgeon are S1 species, whereas sugar maple and raccoons are S5 species. Using this system, VFWD biologists and other experts assign an S1 rank to a species when it may occur in five or fewer populations in the state and/or when the species is threatened with extinction. Rare species with six to 20 populations are given an S2 rank; threats are also considered. Species with 21 to 100 populations are assigned a S3 rank and are generally considered to be uncommon or a watch-list species. ( Contact Us for a complete listing of species and their respective ranks.) 

                Endangered and threatened species are defined by both state and federal law. State law defines endangered species as “a species listed on the state endangered species list under {10 V.S.A. Chap. 123 section 5401} or determined to be an 'endangered species' under the federal Endangered Species Act. The term generally refers to species whose continued existence as a viable component of the state's wild fauna or flora is in jeopardy.' Threatened species are defined in 10 V.S.A. Chap. 123 section 5402 as a species whose numbers are significantly declining because of loss of habitat or human disturbance, and unless protected will become an endangered species. As of July 2003, there were 195 species of plants and animals in Vermont that are protected by the Vermont Endangered Species Law (10 V.S.A. Chap. 123) and assigned a status of either threatened or endangered. Some of these species that occur in Vermont also have a federal status of threatened or endangered, and are protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act (P.L. 93-205). Any taking, which may include harassment or harm to a state threatened or endangered species, is a criminal offense unless permitted by the Agency of Natural Resources. (Contact the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, or see the Department's website, for a current listing of threatened and endangered species in Vermont .) 


                 Rare native species in Vermont , such as Indiana bat, common loon, spiny softshell turtle, goldenseal, and sweet coltsfoot, are an important part of Vermont 's natural heritage. Rare species can play crucial roles in ecosystems, with other species relying on them for their survival. Many of these species are admired and appreciated by people for their beauty, sounds, or mere presence on the landscape. Most of these species in Vermont are rare because they are on the edge of their range or they are separated from the main population by a large distance. For example, the spiny softshell turtle is found in Lake Champlain . The next nearest population is in the St. Lawrence River, but most of the population is found west of New York . 

                A number of our rare species occur in unique habitat types or rare natural communities, such as Lake Sand Beach or Calcareous Riverside Seep. More wide-ranging animal species, like osprey, are considered rare when their overall populations consist of small numbers of breeding pairs. 

                Because the planet in general, and possibly Vermont specifically, is experiencing the loss of species at a rate never before experienced in the history of the earth, those species most at risk of extinction, extirpation, and endangerment serve as barometers of the state of the environment (Defenders of Wildlife, 1998). These rare species represent important, arguably the most important, conservation challenges of our time and will serve as indicators of whether the environment that sustains our economies and us will persist or perish. Protecting and restoring rare, threatened, and endangered species represents one of the most difficult conservation challenges in Vermont . This is an issue that should be addressed in local, regional, and statewide planning. 

                Each town harbors its own set of rare and uncommon species that contributes to the overall diversity of the state. Even though Vermont is a small state, it has varied terrain, aquatic systems, elevations, wetlands, geology, and natural communities. All of these factors contribute to the unique assortment of rare species native to Vermont.   


Conservation Goals

                 A town or other planning group might adopt goals like these for the conservation of rare, threatened, and endangered species. 

1.        Increase populations of rare, threatened, and endangered species in the town or area of interest. 

2.        Maintain, restore, provide stewardship for, and conserve habitats and natural communities that support rare, threatened, and endangered species.   


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.

  • The Fish & Wildlife Department's Wildlife Diversity Program: This program maintains the state's information on rare species. The information management system used is continually updated as inventories are completed and new data becomes available. Detailed map and population information are available for a specific site(s) for planning purposes. Due to the sensitivity of certain species, however, requests for the locations of those listed as threatened and endangered may be considered to be 'location confidential,' an exception to the Public Records Law, which allows for normal public access to government information. Rare species locations are also available on the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department's significant habitat map, which is available free of charge.
  • Vermont Center for Geographic Information: The Center distributes digital data developed and maintained by the Department's Natural Heritage Information Project.
  • NatureServe: This is a national and international database of the network of natural heritage programs that has basic biological and distribution information on many rare species. The database can be found on the Internet at the NatureServe website; select 'explorer' on the website.
  • The Vermont biodiversity Project (VBP): The VBP has identified 'heritage hotspots' - areas where rare, threatened, and endangered species, as well as significant natural communities are concentrated. This data is best used in landscape conservation.   


Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Species

Interpreting the Information  

                The information sources listed provide two kinds of information on rare, threatened, and endangered species. First, the Wildlife Diversity Program and NatureServe both provide general data on each species and its habitat requirements. Second, NHIP, the Vermont Biodiversity Project, and the Vermont Center for Geographic Information offer site-based data on specific locations of rare, threatened, and endangered species.


Species Data - NatureServe, a national and international database, provides information about the distribution and habitat needs of all vertebrates and many other of Vermont 's rare, threatened, and endangered species. NHIP is developing guidelines for rare and uncommon species, such as common loon, peregrine falcon, wood turtle, and osprey. In addition, as the Department develops recovery plans for other rare species, planners may find the information and goals established in those plans useful. 


Site Data - Detailed information from the NHIP may provide the exact location of a species or an area that it is assumed to inhabit. Field data also may provide a summary of how much of an area around a rare species location was searched. This is especially important if there is appropriate habitat in the vicinity. However, some of the data locations are more general. Standard information in the NHIP manual files includes a detailed map, the population size and condition, habitat summary, and a summary of the quality of the occurrence. 

                Planners should be aware that GIS and significant habitat map point data symbolizing a rare species may represent a small or large population. For example, a mapped point may represent only a few square yards, a large wetland, a river stretch over a mile long, or an extensive ridge top. The specific data in the NHIP database may indicate the known range of a rare species as a polygon(s) or multiple points. Specific data also includes threats or management needs noted by the person conducting the field inventory, such as the presence of an invasive species that is affecting a rare species.


Conservation Strategies

        Once information has been gathered on rare, threatened, and endangered species, you can develop specific conservation strategies to help achieve your goals. Some examples of strategies for each goal follow. 


1. Goal: Maintain or increase populations of rare, threatened, and endangered species in the town or area of interest.  


        a. Threatened and endangered species are protected by Vermont 's Endangered Species Law (10 V.S.A. section 5401 et. seq.). Although the state's Agency of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife Department are responsible for the protection and conservation of threatened and endangered species, communities may offer necessary and important support for the legal mandates of Vermont 's Endangered Species Law in their town plans. Sample Language: The community recognizes the significant contribution that rare, threatened, and endangered species make to our natural heritage and the health of Vermont 's environment. Because of the precarious nature and status of their populations, the community believes that the conservation and protection of the habitats that support these elements of our fish, wildlife, and natural heritage require great vigilance. We therefore will support all efforts, pursuant to the state of Vermont 's Endangered Species Statute, or through other regulatory and nonregulatory mechanisms, to conserve or otherwise protect those species and the habitats necessary for their continued survival.  

        b. Provide landowners and resource managers who own or are responsible for the stewardship of lands that support rare species with a map and list of such species on their land. For each rare species, develop management plans with interested landowners or managers. To accomplish this, it may be necessary to secure the services of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department or a qualified resource specialist or biologist who can conduct a more detailed inventory of the population status of the plant or animal. Land owner permission is essential prior to conducting any field inventories. The management/conservation recommendations should be based on existing information, discussions with experts, and observation of any threats during the site visit. After consultation with NHIP, implement any necessary management/conservation efforts. Monitor the species and adjust management plans accordingly. 

        c. Establish an overlay district for areas of known rare, threatened, and endangered species and their habitat(s) that prevents development or disturbance of those areas and directs development away from them. The overlay district can require a town to deny permiting to any project that takes place within 1000 feet of any mapped point location of rare species and within one mile up or down stream for aquatic species locations. A zoning bylaw could require consultation with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, and a formal written opinion issued by the Department or other appropriate expert. In addition, such a bylaw may require an applicant to provide sufficient information about the species/habitat(s) to understand the full implications of the project to the species/habitat(s) and whether the proposed development is compatible or incompatible with the conservation interests and needs of the rare species and the community's interests therein. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department can review this information. 

        d. Incorporate information about the location of rare, threatened, and endangered species and related habitats into open space and land conservation plans. Target these species' locations and their habitat in open-space planning and land acquisition programs. 


2. Goal: Maintain, restore, provide long-term stewardship of, or conserve habitats and natural communities that support rare, threatened, and endangered species.  


        a. Initiate an impact fee program and use funds to restore habitats for rare, threatened, and endangered species on town-owned land. Use information on habitat needs of each species to assess whether its habitat is functioning well for the species. If not, develop a natural community restoration plan. 

        b. Since many rare, threatened, and endangered species are associated with wetland habitats, a town or other organization should consider petitioning for reclassification of any wetlands that support such species to Class I in accordance with the procedures established by the Vermont Water Resources Board and pursuant to the Vermont Wetland Rules. Such reclassification will also serve to enhance protection for myriad other important wetland functions for a community. 

        c. Incorporate habitats that are important for the conservation and protection of rare, threatened, and endangered species into conservation districts, open space plans, and land acquisition/conservation plans. These areas of overlap should be targeted as high priority conservation zones within a town or area of interest. Conservation easements should be considered especially for lands that support important habitat for rare, threatened, or endangered species. 

        d. Include a map in the town plan that identifies important locations/habitats for rare, threatened, and endangered species. Indicate that those lands/habitats will be protected for the unique ecological functions they serve and the significant community interests they represent.    


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