WCS-Adirondacks Receives National Science Foundation Grant to Study Impacts of Sprawl on Birds and Other Wildlife

  • Research will better inform land-use planning and development process
SARANAC LAKE, NY (June 23, 2011) – The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Program (WCS) announced today that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded two WCS scientists, Dr. Heidi Kretser and Dr. Michale Glennon, a four-year, $350,000.00 grant to study the impacts that exurban development has on wildlife in the Adirondack Park of upstate New York and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in southwestern Montana.

The project idea builds upon the results of four related studies on exurban impacts to wildlife in the Adirondacks and Yellowstone already completed by WCS scientists, including a pilot grant from NSF in 2006.   Presently, Drs. Kretser and Glennon are identifying suitable private lands on which to conduct their work in order to prepare for three field seasons, spanning May 2012 – August 2014, that will be supported with the NSF funding. 

Exurban development (large lot, low-density residential development occurring on the fringes of cities, towns and suburbs) is a relatively new and rapidly growing form of sprawl. Already, it consumes more land and causes more widespread conversion of wildlife habitat than other drivers of land-use change occurring in rural North America. As such, it is critical to understand its effects on wildlife and ecosystems so that the development strategies of land-use planners and decision makers are properly informed.

“While on the face of it, exurban development appears relatively benign—a
seasonal camp in a river valley here, a retirement home in the woods there —cumulatively it is changing our landscape ten times faster than urban and suburban sprawl combined,” said WCS North America Program Livelihoods and Conservation Coordinator Dr. Heidi Kretser. “And it is affecting wildlife habitats and communities in the process.”

Understanding sprawl is made complex by the many considerations that determine where and how human activities and influence occur. By interviewing landowners and surveying local residents by mail, the scientists plan to assess people’s individual activities around their homes and their attitudes toward their land and its resident wildlife. This will lead to insight on how those attitudes influence land-use decisions that are ultimately impacting biological communities.

A second component of the study will involve field-based research conducted on private lands in two different habitat types—the interior forest of the Adirondacks and the shrubland/grassland mosaic of Greater Yellowstone—and will record how choices regarding the placement of new structures on the landscape and subsequent activities around houses influence the reproductive success of native birds.

“Our work to date has shown that common species such as robins and blue jays can adapt to living in the areas surrounding houses but that species with more specialized habitat requirements such as wood warblers tend to be found less frequently within a 17 to 25-acre area around a house.  We want to find out if these changes in the bird community result from structural changes to the habitat or from the activities people engage in once they occupy a house,”   said Dr. Michale Glennon, Director of Science for WCS’s Adirondack Program. “We suspect both are important in determining how birds respond to residential development.”

Ultimately, the scientists hope to gain a better understanding of the cause and effect relationships of exurban development so that its negative impacts on natural systems and landscapes can be minimized, and policies that maximize biological integrity in human dominated areas can be better informed..

WCS Adirondack Program Director Zoë Smith said, “The WCS Adirondack Program is very grateful for this grant from NSF and excited to get started on this important project –one we envision will lead to better management and ecologically healthier landscapes.”

Scott Smith: (1-718-220-3698; ssmith@wcs.org)
Leslie Karasin: (1-518-891-8872; lkarasin@wcs.org)

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth. The Adirondack Program is based in Saranac Lake, NY.

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