Cacapon watershed

Last in a 6-part series appearing every 2 months about the Lost/Cacapon River, by 6 authors who love it. 

 

The 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan, produced by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources with input from stakeholders across the state, identified 1,143 plants and animals as Species of Greatest Conservation Need, noted climate change as a substantial concern for native plants and animals and included climate-induced habitat shifts, temperature extremes, droughts, storms and flooding as major stresses on these species. 

Wildlife species are likely to respond to changing conditions by moving across the landscape to find suitable habitat. Evidence has been documented for over 1,000 species currently shifting 1 of 4 ways: locally toward suitable microclimate, upslope to higher elevations, downslope toward moist areas and northward toward cooler latitudes. 

Recent analyses indicate that areas with complex terrain, geology and soils, diverse habitats and microclimates that are connected by natural cover may be the most resilient to climate change and will allow species to move and survive in response to changing conditions. 

The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Land Mapping Tool (see https://maps.tnc.org/resilientland/) classifies complex, intact natural landscapes as “resilient,” those that enable concentrated flow of species along intact, narrow ridges or valleys as “corridors,” and those interconnected, intact landscapes that allow more diffuse movement as “flow zones.” It also identifies those resilient lands, corridors and flow zones with documented species diversity. 

The Appalachian Mountains provide a corridor of these resilient, connected landscapes and they are one of the most important in North America. The Cacapon watershed, with its complex topography, diverse species and habitat types, and its ridges and river valleys running south to north, contains an array of resilient lands situated to enable species movement in the heart of the Appalachians. 

The 2015 action plan identified the Cacapon River and Patterson Creek as 1 of 21 Conservation Focus Areas around the state with unique sets of species and habitats that are priorities for conservation and where conservation work with local partners could be most effective. 

To enhance climate resilience, the action plan advocated reducing stressors to native plants and animals, maintaining landscape connectivity and protecting intact, complex landscapes. 

What can local landowners and land managers do to ensure that wildlife continue to adapt and survive in this critical climate corridor? In 2018, DNR and The Nature Conservancy began convening local partners to develop Action Plans for each focus area. The action plan for the Cacapon lists numerous voluntary actions landowners and land managers can take to reduce stresses on priority wildlife species, maintain landscape connectivity and protect intact landscapes. 

For example, actions in forest habitats could include hunting to manage deer populations and promote regeneration of native plants, and forestry practices to improve habitat for specific species and promote a diversity of native tree and plant species, sizes and age classes. 

Actions in stream habitats could include maintaining forested buffers to provide habitat, shade and cooling, organic matter and debris, stabilize stream banks during high flows and improve water quality. Restoring wetlands can provide important habitat while absorbing high flows and pollutants. 

Replacing undersized or hanging culverts can accommodate higher flows, reduce flood damage to habitat and infrastructure, and allow aquatic species to reach additional habitat as they move in response to changing conditions. These actions plus maintaining soil health, safeguarding water quality and creating pollinator habitat can also boost agricultural habitat resilience. 

Maintaining natural cover to connect forest, stream and wetland habitats is critical for species movement in response to changing conditions. Conservation easements can protect intact, resilient and connected landscapes. 

The action plan also lists many local partners and programs that can assist landowners with conservation activities to maintain the Cacapon Watershed as an important wildlife corridor. For additional information see: http://wvdnr.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Cacapon-River-and-Patterson-Creek-CFA-Action-Plan.pdf. 

Todd Miller is the Director of Conservation Programs for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia. He enjoys frequent visits to his family’s old farm along the headwaters of the Lost River. 

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