Back in the early 20th century, the State of Vermont actually imported white-tailed deer from Pennsylvania to support a limited hunting season. This now abundant species had all but vanished from New England, along with beaver, wild turkey, black bear, lynx and bobcat. The recovery of New England's wildlife is one of the great environmental stories of our time, and for many species this has been greatly facilitated by the regrowth of the Eastern deciduous forest.
The Berkshires of today bear little resemblance to the open agricultural landscape of the mid-nineteenth century. Species that thrived under these conditions -- grassland birds and early successional wetland plants -- are now in decline as abandoned fields return to forest. Wildlife that require large areas of intact woodlands -- fisher, interior nesting birds, bobcat, and black bear - are returning to the region after in some cases more than a century of absence.
New England's reforestation began in the latter half of the nineteenth century as upland pastures that once supported flocks of Merino sheep were abandoned following a massive outbreak of hoof and mouth disease, forcing area farms to turn to dairy to remain competitive. The decline of agriculture and the growth of metropolitan areas created the conditions for old fields and wet meadows to return to forest, and with this regrowth enabled species long absent to return.
In the 1940s there were a handful of beaver in western Massachusetts, a species reintroduced in 1932 after being completely extirpated from the Commonwealth by the late 1700s. Today it is estimated that the beaver population exceeds 70,000 state-wide. White-tailed dear are near their pre-European settlement numbers and in many areas are expanding faster than hunting and natural checks on their population can control.
To be sure, there are other factors influencing wildlife population dynamics besides reforestation of the landscape. With increasing residential development in rural areas there are corresponding increases in edge-adapted species, such as deer and house sparrows. Species that benefit from close contact with human settlements may outcompete or prey excessively on those that require wilder habitat. Declining turtle populations may correspond to increases in nest predators such as skunks and raccoons that thrive on household waste.
Some species like the eastern gray wolf and elk have not returned and reestablished viable populations and the forests of today are far different than the woodlands that covered this landscape prior to clearing and chestnut blight. Others, like the eastern coyote, have expanded their range and found new niches in New England's ecology. Invasive species such as Japanese barberry and zebra mussel are overwhelming native communities and ecosystems and according to noted scientist and Pulitzer Prize winning author E.O. Wilson, invasives are the second leading cause of biodiversity decline world-wide after habitat destruction.
The New England landscape of the twenty-first century could become far less diverse, with increasing development pressure and the effects of acid rain and global climate change. Nonetheless, there is reason for hope that careful stewardship and nature's resilience may help sustain our rich ecological heritage.
This posting was printed in the Five Town News of Monterey, MA in July, 2005