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Wildlife dynamics in the changing New England landscape

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Abstract Aim 

Over the past four centuries the eastern US has undergone remarkable landscape and land-use transformations involving deforestation, intensive agriculture, farm abandonment, reforestation and human population increase that have induced sweeping changes in wildlife assemblages, abundances, and distributions. This study compiles data on major wildlife species and seeks to identify broad population trends and to address both fundamental and applied questions regarding these long-term patterns. Location 

The study encompasses the state of Massachusetts, which is broadly representative of the habitat conditions and landscape and cultural history of other New England states. Methods 

A wide range of historical sources of data were used including town histories, newspaper and other popular accounts, scientific studies, museum collections, compiled trapping, bounty and harvest records, explorer accounts, and agency records. Statewide distribution maps and generalized population trends were assembled for individual species where practical, and major trends in species trajectories were identified. Emphasis was placed on mammals and birds for which data are readily available. Results 

Although species exhibited highly individualistic long-term dynamics in response to habitat change and human pressure, six major trajectories of species changes are identified: (1) large mammals and birds that declined historically and increased recently, (2) open-land species that went from low to high abundance with the creation of open habitat but are in rapid decline today in the heavily wooded landscape, (3) species regionally extirpated or globally extinct, (4) species expanding their range from the west, north and south, (5) non-native, introduced species, and (6) persistent species not exhibiting major long-term trends. Currently, wildlife populations are changing at a remarkable rate leading to significant ecological impacts on the landscape and many other species, creating major conservation and management challenges, and generating novel and oftentimes significant conflicts with human values. Conclusions 

The rate of historical and current changes in wildlife assemblages pose many scientific and conservation challenges, especially in this heavily forested but highly populated landscape. Historical data are fragmentary and oftentimes uncertain, modern information on wildlife populations is similarly incomplete, and small populations of species that are immigrating, expanding or declining from previously high levels pose major sampling problems; development of conservation and management plans for rapidly expanding populations of large woodland mammals (e.g. moose, coyote, deer, bears, beaver) and for declining populations of cherished species that are dependent on cultural landscapes generates conflicting directives; and educating, and modifying the behaviour of a human population that is living in but separated from nature is a difficult enterprise. The future is guaranteed to bring major dynamics in these historically novel species assemblages.
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Keywords: Massachusetts; New England; Wildlife; animal populations; habitat change; land use

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: 1Harvard Forest, Harvard University, Petersham, MA, USA, 2: Missouri Department of Conservation, Kansas City, MO, USA and 3: Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Westborough, MA,USA

Publication date: 2002-10-01

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