By Julia Purdy
RUTLAND—On Wednesday, March 29, Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks & Recreation hosted a public information open house at its offices, 271 North Main St. in Rutland, to inform the public about and take input on long-range management goals for the Blueberry Hill Wildlife Management Area (WMA).
The planning process begins with scoping and a study of the natural communities as well as taking public comments. Draft plans are developed for further public comment. There will be three presentations. Notices will be mailed to a statewide stakeholder list, including groups with an interest in planning, surrounding owners and local groups such as Rutland Audubon. Press releases will announce the future meetings.
The conference room was set up with wall displays illustrating the various aspects of the WMA, photographs, written descriptions and explanations of the history, geography, forest and wildlife populations of the WMA.
The open house was organized and staffed by State Lands Forester John Lones, along with several members of the department. Approximately a dozen visitors browsed the displays and engaged with Fish & Wildlife personnel in enthusiastic discussion.
The purpose was both to introduce the Blueberry Hill WMA and to poll the public for what they want to see included in long-range management for the WMA. Easel pads and sticky-notes were available for visitors to jot down reactions, questions and ideas.
The Blueberry Hill WMA occupies three separate hillside parcels overlooking Route 4 and the Castleton River, near the Castleton-Ira line. Blueberry Hill is part of the larger Castleton Management Unit. The WMA encompasses 1,296 acres, distributed among three separate parcels spread across the hillside above the westbound lanes of Route 4 between the West Rutland overpass and the Hubbardton exit. Above, Grandpa’s Knob rises to almost 2,000 feet.
The WMA is open to hunting, trapping, fishing, wildlife observation, hiking and other recreation, including horseback riding, mountain bikes and ATVs on designated trails. The long-range management plan would have multiple goals: wildlife habitat, forest health, conservation and recreational opportunities.
The major hindrance to full public use of the land is the lack of sufficient access to the WMA. Although the WMA comes down to the highway, no access is permitted onto the hillside from Route 4, per federal regulations. The most recent timber sale was in 1995, accomplished by a partial right-of-way agreement. The three parcels were originally owned by the Agency of Transportation, which transferred them to Fish & Wildlife in 1970 when the new Route 4 divided the Castleton River valley, and the WMA has been landlocked ever since.
The only access into the WMA is presently across a parcel owned by the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, under a memorandum of understanding with the state, which will expire in 2027. The access road is marked by a granite monument about one-and-a-half miles up Belgo Road. The surrounding area is posted by private landowners. Fish & Wildlife says it hopes to work with the abuttors to allow more access from Belgo Road.
Attributes of Blueberry Hill include 900 acres of “mast” tree species, mainly oak and hophornbeam, providing a food source for many species. Because of its milder southern exposure, it is a critical deer wintering area, containing 500 acres of mapped “deer yards.” Twenty acres of old fields are kept open for browse and habitat for forest-edge-dwelling animals. Deer, turkeys, coyotes, cottontail rabbits, squirrels, foxes, fishers and the occasional bear can be found here. Wildlife biologist Nick Fortin said the ledgey hillsides are ideal bobcat habitat.
The woodland at Blueberry Hill is classified as a dry oak-northern hardwoods forest, found mainly in the Taconics and rocky hillsides in the Champlain Valley. Sugar maple, ash, white and red oak and hophornbeam are interspersed with stands of white pine and a sparse, grassy understory. There are small streams, none of them fishable.
Vermont has 96 “natural communities,” areas where the vegetation, trees and wildlife live symbiotically within a specific habitat, such as a swamp or dry upland. The management plan would focus on the “state-specific” natural community here: the dry oak forest and a seepage swamp. Long-range management would also focus on the deer wintering area in the hardwood slopes, habitat for the Northern long-eared bat, and connectivity—facilitating the movement of wildlife from place to place without encountering the danger of highways or other obstacles.
Connectivity is a serious concern at the Blueberry Hill WMA and the subject generated a lot of discussion. The new highway is a hazard to wildlife trying to reach the WMA’s main water source, some small ponds in the valley floor on the other side of the highway and the railroad tracks. To reach them, deer regularly lose their lives and endanger motorists. Elsewhere in the state, underpasses have been built to allow cattle and even salamanders to cross busy highways. The question for Blueberry Hill would be the type of crossing, location, funding, and the will to build it.
Photo by Julia Purdy
Ponds and wetlands below Blueberry Hill WMA attract waterfowl, geese, heron, and deer in search of water. To reach water, deer must cross four lanes of Route 4 and a railroad track.