A Siena College professor took to the forest this month to begin leading a three-year-long research project about the effects of housing development on forest and wildlife ecology.
The study has been made possible by a $184,511 grant from the Northeastern States Research Cooperative that was awarded to Siena assistant professor of environmental studies and sciences Dan Bogan in June.
“I was very excited to receive this grant, and had a moment of being beside myself for a minute there and had to take a quick walk around our quad and enjoy the moment,” Bogan said.
The money will allow him to not only purchase necessary equipment and other resources, but also hire more than 20 students over the next three years to help out and gain their own fieldwork experience.
“This is a pretty sizable research grant,” Bogan said. “I know I’ll be able to conduct field research for the next three summers and beyond with this kind of money.”
One of the students that will join along in this research mission is 20-year-old Lauren Costello, a rising senior at Siena studying environmental science. She will be assisting in both fieldwork and data analysis.
“I’m really excited to start,” said Costello, who is originally from Cohoes.
Bogan, Costello, and the rest of the research team will explore the Northern Forest, which stretches through New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The researchers will stay in Albany this summer to conduct a pilot session of the project, but during the next three summers, they will examine how human sprawl in natural, forested areas — also known as the wildland-urban interface — impacts the ecosystems that live there. .
According to Bogan, who has studied wildlife conservation in urban landscapes for years, housing development irreversibly changes natural habitats in a way that other landscape changes, such as agriculture or the construction of a park, do not. Not only does this change reduce or completely eliminate the habitat that the wildlife of the area once inhabited, but it also threatens biodiversity.
“One of the other types of conflicts that I want to shed some light on is the complex nature of where our ecosystems are currently and how predator and prey interactions are out of sync from what they historically were, which ends up leaving some of these populations completely unchecked or nearly unchecked, like white-tailed deer,” Bogan said. “We see a shift towards a particular species of small mammal — the white-footed mouse and deer mice — instead of seeing the diverse community evolve of small mammals that we’d normally see in a healthy wildland environment.”
But this loss of biodiversity not only threatens the species within forested areas. To Costello, it also threatens the opportunity that humans have to learn from the surrounding nature.
“I think it’s really important that we’re maintaining these environments and making sure that we maintain that level of biodiversity in our area and the Northeast in general,” said Costello. “People can learn a lot from wildlife and their habits and the habitat they live in so we have to preserve it so we can learn from them.”
Bogan and his team will be using various tools to study this impact on mammals, including non-invasive camera traps, live-capture and recapture of small animals and vegetation sampling.
The findings of this research will naturally benefit the environmental science community, but it will also have significant implications for the Capital Region. According to a Cornell analysis of the US Census Bureau data released earlier this year, a majority of the Capital Region counties, including Schenectady, Saratoga, Fulton, and Montgomery counties, saw a growth in population from April 2020 to July 2021.
With this growth comes pressure for housing development, particularly in the rural and wooded areas of Upstate New York. But in addition to a loss of habitat and biodiversity, housing developments in forested areas often bring interactions between wildlife and humans.
Housing developments tend to be built in patches, leaving natural and wooded landscapes between each developed space. This leaves room for the animals to roam and, inevitably, wander into residential sites and stumble upon humans.
“There’s a lot of forested habitat all intermixed within the housing developments,” Bogan said. “And for a lot of people, that’s what they want: they want to see that natural habitat — that green space — all around them but what that ends up doing is providing the opportunity for interactions between wildlife and people.”
The Capital Region has had its fair share of these interactions recently. In May, a moose found its way into Niskayuna and the Department of Environmental Conservation had to remove a sleepy bear from a tree in Albany’s Washington Park. A black bear and cub were also spotted in Albany in June.
“The example of the black bear and also the moose moving into a fairly suburban and populated area — those are examples of some of the symptoms that we would be studying so we want to get to the root cause of what leads to those special cases, Bogan said.
These interactions aren’t typically dangerous for humans as animal attacks are rare, although they can present a larger threat for small pets who may be outside.
“Unfortunately, what happens is that if a person lets out their cat or a small dog, that predator might see the cat as a food source or maybe the small dog as a competitor and they can often injure or kill pets,” Bogan said.
The most common interactions between humans and wildlife come in the form of communicable diseases, most notably Lyme disease, which Capital Region residents are no strangers to. These types of diseases can become more prevalent as animals, such as white-tailed deer or deer mice, move more into residential spaces as a result of development in forested areas.
According to Bryon Backenson from the New York State Department of Health, this move raises the likelihood of people “being in places where animals have been where ticks could potentially wind up dropping off” and exposing humans.
All of these effects will be investigated in Bogan’s research. Overall, though, he hopes the study will inform future land development policies and practices to encourage conservation and better predict the potential interactions between humans and wildlife.
“We’re conducting this research to learn something about our local environment,” Bogan said. “But really, ultimately, we want to be able to make recommendations to municipalities and land planners so that they make really informed decisions about where to develop so that we can protect biological diversity and protect wildlife and forests but also protect the interests of people too .”
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