Understanding Conservation Priorities: Maine Begins with Habitat

Maine Begins with Habitat

In the State of Maine, conservationists have taken a slightly different tack toward guarding their natural heritage. Just as the Virginians have embraced their place in American history, the citizens of Maine have embraced the fact that they live in one of the wildest states in the nation.

In an age of falling trees and deforestation, Maine remains covered by nearly 18 million acres of forests, as much as all other New England states combined—the most heavily wooded state in the nation. Maine also lists nearly 6 thousand lakes and ponds, 2 thousand coastal islands, 5 million acres of wetlands, 32 thousand miles of rivers and streams. Maine’s winding coastline stretches more than 4 thousand miles, exceeding the air distance from New York to Anchorage.

Those natural features amount to one tremendous godsend of wildlife habitat, a proud natural heritage not lost on its citizenry. Maine’s active community of hikers and outdoorsmen, hunters and anglers, has come to identify with its state’s inherent wildness. And so, in line with its wild priorities, it is quite natural to find Maine’s approach to conservation beginning with habitat.

Which also happens to describe the official name of the program that Maine uses to protect it. Beginning With Habitat, as might be surmised, is a habitat-based approach to addressing Maine’s wildlife and plant conservation needs. Powered by a statewide network of resource agencies and organizations, and founded on the latest conservation science and technology, Beginning with Habitat states its goals very simply: 1. To support all native plant and animal species currently breeding in Maine; and 2. To do so by providing each Maine town with a collection of maps and accompanying information depicting its most outstanding and threatened habitats.

Tending to these special habitats, Beginning with Habitat estimates that upwards of 95 percent of Maine’s wildlife species would likely be protected. And that potential is precisely the goal.

Securing Habitat Under Siege

That goal will take some vigilance. Maine’s wildlands, like many other bucolic environs, are suffering for their mounting popularity. Sprawl—the conversion of rural lands to suburbia and cities—is anathema to wildlife habitat, and one of sprawl’s fastest spreading hotspots has centered on the greater Portland area. In southern Maine, hundreds of lakes have been variously marred by sprawl and hundreds more now lie in its path; along the Maine coast, where rare shorebirds still nest, sprawl is bringing houses and domestic predators to their demise.

For those wishing to defend Maine’s wildlife legacy, there’s the critical question of where to start. The answer lies in the ecological fact that not all wildlife habitat is created equal, and the financial fact that not all is possible to preserve. So Beginning with Habitat begins by targeting the most critical and vulnerable habitats first. Three of these habitats rise immediately to the top of Maine’s priority list.

Streamsides and swamps: Maine’s foremost oases of wildlife, its waterways and wetlands are permanent or part-time home for up to 80 percent of the state’s terrestrial animal species. They are also filters of rainwater runoff, providing vital service to the human community. Impossible to replace, they are most efficiently conserved through proper planning. Towns that wish to preserve these lands can find them highlighted on maps, each outlined with a recommended 75- to 250-foot buffer between water and potential development.

Essential habitats:  The nesting trees of bald eagles and the spawning streams of salmon; the dense groves of evergreens that provide deer their winter shelter through the most brutal of Maine’s winters—these are some of Maine’s miscellaneous hotspots for wildlife. These are the last holdouts for some of Maine’s rarest and most imperiled species, for which development would be disastrous, but which now appear as bullseyes on Maine’s maps of protection.

Large-scale habitat blocks. These are Maine’s massive and rare tracts of undeveloped lands, encompassing 2,500 acres and beyond, providing homes to wildlife requiring expansive room to roam—the bear and bobcat, fisher, moose, and goshawk. These are also the only homes for those species ultra-sensitive to human disturbance, the upland sandpipers and wood thrushes among them. And finally, these are the habitats of a scale necessary to serve as nature’s fortresses and insurance policies against massive storms and outbreaks of disease, to shelter entire watersheds, to provide humans their purest sources of water, their unmarred scenic vistas and irreplaceable sensations of solitude from true wilderness.

Beginning with Habitat has made it possible for the citizenry of Maine—whether as individuals or organized forces; hikers, anglers, and hunters alike—to preserve their natural quality of life, by knowing first where the nature still thrives. These maps do not gather dust in city hall cabinets and abandoned closets; anyone with access to the World Wide Web can find Maine’s most precious habitats with a few taps of the finger, right down to their own back yard. Anyone can therefore help preserve—or build, as it may be—their community in line with the nature that likely led them there in the first place.

[Pullquote: “By beginning with habitat, we’re also preserving water quality, open space for recreation, forestry, traditional hunting and angling. By keeping the landscape functional, fifty years from now there are going to be a lot more benefits than just wildlife or habitat conservation.” -- Steve Walker, Beginning with Habitat Program Manager, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife]  

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