“I think it’s a special thing about Vermont: people care about their land.” Having grown up in Richmond, Vermont, CCV environmental science major Jesse Littlefield knew this long before embarking on her Professional Field Experience (PFE) internship last fall. But the work she did with Cold Hollow to Canada (CHC), a northern Vermont non-profit with a mission to conserve forestland and connectivity, reaffirmed that truth—about both her neighbors and herself.
Jesse Littlefield’s internship with Cold Hollow to Canada was about building connections. She worked with CHC’s WildPaths project, which studies wildlife corridors by tracking and recording road crossings. So she spent her time walking and driving roadways in search of animals—dead and alive—whose activity brought them into contact with roads.
The goal of WildPaths is to map out wildlife corridors and devise strategies for reducing driver/animal collisions. This could include replacing culverts, increasing signage, or, says Littlefield—although skeptical of its viability in Vermont—building overpasses. In many locations in the mountain west, she says, overpasses prove to be a cost-effective means of reducing collisions. “It’s like a continuation of the forest,” Littlefield says, “so it actually looks like the woods continue to go that way. They are so well-traveled by animals,” she adds. “These animals teach their young, so generations learn where to cross.”
The WildPaths program is considered a citizen science program, promoting community participation in environmental stewardship. CHC’s additional programs include Keeping Track, another citizen science program designed to include community members in the tracking and monitoring of wildlife populations and habitats, and a woodlot maintenance program. “The main goal [of CHC] is forest conservation, so preserve the forest and the wildlife within it and keep everything connected,” says Littlefield, adding, “the woodlots program works with landowners to try to manage their property in the best way for the health of the forest and the wildlife living there. They want to get contiguous land so that they can preserve that connectivity and not fragment everything up.”
One of the best days of Littlefield’s internship involved back-to-back mammal sightings. Driving along Route 118 through Montgomery, she spotted a newly killed coyote. “It was so fresh I was a little worried it wasn’t dead,” she says as she describes approaching it for a photograph. Later, as she continued along the marshy flats beside Belvidere Pond, she saw a young moose cross the road ahead. The excitement from that day is still fresh in her voice as she describes encountering the moose. “That was a very productive day for the WildPaths program, as far as I was concerned.”
The data she collected throughout the fall, which detailed each of her sightings and organized them by species, was compiled and included in CHC’s winter newsletter. This data, and Littlefield’s work, will hopefully advance CHC’s efforts. “The goal is to keep forest ecosystems healthy and keep connectivity of the forest so that wildlife can move through it,” she says, “because they don’t pick one square mile section and stay there their whole lives. They travel.”
While Littlefield was busy studying wildlife and working to enhance ecological connectivity, she was also creating another kind of connectivity: she was meeting and working with many of the people and organizations with whom she hopes to continue growing as an environmental scientist and steward. In the early stages of planning her internship, she’d contacted the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge in Swanton. Though she decided against interning there, she did eventually volunteer for the Refuge, helping out with a duck banding project and leading a nature walk for elementary school students.
At both organizations, Littlefield worked alongside other volunteers, many of whom were hunters. She says she learned a great deal from these interactions—which surprised her; as she says, “I don’t eat [animals] so I automatically thought, ‘hunting is terrible,’ but I’ve learned a lot through talking to hunters. They actually are doing what a normal predator that we don’t have would do, and balancing the wildlife population so that everything is healthy.
“When I was out duck banding at the refuge some of the other volunteers were hunters and trappers, and they knew so much about the wildlife. They would point out, ‘do you hear that noise? It’s not a plane, it’s a ring-necked duck.’ Or, ‘that beaver is probably this old and this gender.’” That knowledge is often passed down through generations, and it’s just what Littlefield is referring to when she talks about Vermonters caring about their land.
And Littlefield wasn’t only making connections that she will utilize personally. She was also learning about the network of organizations that are striving to protect wildlife.
She was excited to learn about the extent to which conservation groups collaborate with one another. “There’s no competition,” she says. “Everybody’s working toward the same cause.” The WildPaths program is based on a similar program in Maine, and another project she began at CHC surveying culverts was based on a template that had been developed elsewhere.
For Jesse Littlefield, the Professional Field Experience was a way to connect with her home landscape, to connect with her neighbors, and to connect with her passions. “I found what I like the most about [my major] is the wildlife ecology part,” she says. “I really like to be out in the woods with wildlife and in nature…the volunteering and the internship really solidified that for me. That has brought a lot of satisfaction to my life.”