Story of the Week

Jenny out in the Field The Nature Conservancy owns and manages 55 natural areas in Vermont, totaling nearly 30,000 acres. Ecologically speaking, these protected areas provide a lot “bang for your buck.” Some of the most spectacular, unique, and rare natural communities and species in Vermont and the Northeast thrive on these lands. The Conservancy’s small but mighty stewardship team is tasked with maintaining these treasures, an ambitious task for a footprint of land that is the size equivalent of over half of Grand Isle Country.

The acreage of the land permanently protected by the Conservancy is only half as impressive as the rarities protected within it. Raven Ridge Natural Area, for example, made national headlines last year after the discovery of a plant that had previously been thought to be extinct in Vermont—winged loosestrife (Lythrum alatum). Last summer, two state botanists visiting the preserve examined something unusual when walking along the boardwalk: tiny six-petaled, lavender flowers no larger than a half inch in diameter circled round a knee-high stalk. The biologists had made the most recent observation of winged loosestrife in Vermont since 1979 and the 10th observation in state history.

Raven Ridge is a geologically and biologically diverse area in the central Champlain Valley, straddling the town lines of Hinesburg, Charlotte, and Monkton. The natural area boasts Indiana bat and bobcat populations, geological wonders, as well as intact wetlands teeming with native flora and fauna. Originally conserved for the mature shagbark hickory forests that shelter the federally endangered Indiana bat, Raven Ridge packs a staggering 15 different natural communities into 365 acres.

Last fall, my supervisor and I hiked the trail up to the ridge where I noticed a large caterpillar making his way across the path littered with fallen and browning leaves. I leaned down, picked up a nearby stick, and let him climb onto it. He was a beautiful bluish-gray, spotted with white dots and long white hairs. After moving him off the trail so that no harm would come his way, I knelt down and snapped a picture of the little guy. And we walked on.

A few months later, I received an email requesting that I upload my photograph to iNaturalist, a popular citizen science website. My caterpillar photo was featured on the Conservancy’s Instagram the week before, where a local biologist had spotted him. I uploaded the observation and saw that iNaturalist had assigned my little friend the title of imperial moth, and then I read in bold, red words “Conservation Status: possibly extinct in Vermont, US”. My heart skipped a beat. I had discovered another previously thought to be extinct species in Vermont at Raven Ridge. Thoughts of news headlines filled my mind: Two Rare Species found at Raven Ridge in One Year!

Alas, and thankfully for the imperial moth, I had been misled by iNaturalist. Uncommon, potentially, but nowhere near potentially extinct; there were around 30 other observations of imperial moth in Vermont. But that day I really believed something I had long told students as an environmental educator—every observation matters.

Today, especially in places that are well-traveled, it’s easy to think it’s impossible to find anything new or novel. But what if my imperial moth had been the next winged loosestrife? What if I hadn’t stopped to look, to take that picture, to acknowledge that something I hadn’t seen before crossed my path? Even more importantly, what if Raven Ridge wasn’t protected? What if the ridgeline was cleared to give someone’s home a better view of Lake Champlain? What would happen to the Indiana bat, purple loosestrife, imperial moth, and bobcats that den there? What would happen to the wonders we haven’t yet found or that may need this small refuge as a changing climate drives them north?

Every observation is important. More important is making the investment and having the restraint as a society to give nature spaces to breathe. I am so grateful and humbled to serve an organization that has the foresight to protect habitat both for species already here and also those that will arrive as they adapt to a changing climate—a strategy the Conservancy calls “conserving the stage”. It is no wonder that The Nature Conservancy is the international leader in ecological prioritization and conservation. In the end, while my observation didn’t make the news, it reminded me of why I serve to protect places like Raven Ridge, all 30,000 acres and growing.