Conserving Maine's Wildlife
Maine is a land rich in contrasts between the boreal and temperate, freshwater and saltwater, upland and wetland, and alpine and lowlands. The state has enormous natural variety and owes its biological wealth to its 17.5 million acres of vast forests, rugged mountains, more than 5,600 lakes and ponds, 5,000,000 acres of wetlands, 31,800 mi of rivers and streams, 4,100 mi of bold coastline, and 4,613 coastal islands and ledges. Maine is the most heavily forested state in the nation, but also contains some of the most significant grassland and agricultural lands in the Northeast. This mosaic of diverse physical settings supports a wide diversity of wildlife that can be equaled in few other states.
Maine is a transition area, and its wildlife resources represent a blending of species that are at or approaching the northern or southern limit of their ranges. The species most familiar to us – birds (292 species), non-marine mammals (61 species), reptiles (20 species), amphibians (18 species), inland fish (56 species), and marine species (313 – chordates, fishes, and mammals) – actually comprise less than two percent of the known wildlife species in the state. Over 16,000 species of invertebrates, 2,100 species of plants, 310 species of phytoplankton, 271 species of macrophytes, and 3,500 species of fungi have been documented, but experts believe many times these numbers actually exist.
In 2005 the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife released its Wildlife Action Plan [WAP]. This document sets the course for the future of wildlife conservation in Maine. Never before has this Department and its conservation partners undertaken a more comprehensive planning effort including the identification of 213 Species of Greatest Conservation Need, 21 priority habitats, and 140 Focus Areas of Statewide Ecological Significance. Maine's Wildlife Action Plan addresses the state's full array of wildlife and their habitats including vertebrates and invertebrates in aquatic (freshwater, estuarine, and marine) and terrestrial habitats.
The plan focuses on species in greatest need of conservation while highlighting landscape conservation efforts including the Beginning with Habitat program designed to keep "common species common" within a functional and resilient network of habitats. The plan covers the entire state, from the dramatic coastline to the heights of Mt. Katahdin. Maine's WAP is intended to supplement, not duplicate, existing fish and wildlife programs and builds on a species planning effort ongoing in Maine since 1968.
Primary Challenges for Conserving Wildlife in Maine
The Maine landscape is not static but the result of profound natural and human changes. Changes brought about by fire, land conversion, abandonment of agricultural land, timber harvesting, and the defoliation of forest by insects have had, and will continue to have, a dramatic impact on habitats and levels of biodiversity. Similarly, aquatic ecosystems in Maine have been profoundly and adversely affected by exotic introductions, dam building, road crossings, pollution, pesticide use, and excessive nutrient input. These effects have occurred, and are occurring, statewide but differ in intensity from north to south. Maine has traditionally benefitted from good stewardship practices of private land owners of both large and small holdings. Similarly, by continuing the tradition of providing public access to private lands, Maine's landowners have supported Maine's proud outdoor heritage.
The Twenty-first Century brings with it new challenges that are unprecedented in Maine's history of wildlife stewardship. Residential construction and land conversion are quickly outpacing traditional agriculture and forestry. Climate models predict significant changes along Maine's coastline as well as substantial changes in the timing, type, and quantity of precipitation that will affect Maine's aquatic communities. Predicted temperature changes will alter the character of Maine's southern forests and north woods and will forever change the current distribution of Maine's plants and animals. We are preparing for this change by assessing the vulnerability of our treasured landscapes and native species. Our ability to conserve Maine's natural heritage for future generations will depend on our success over the next few decades in maintaining a functional landscape that allows species and habitats to adapt to a changing climate.
Photo Credit: Beth Swartz
Maine's political divisions also present challenges to habitat conservation that are not common to other states. With 470 organized towns each with home rule authority, no land use oversight at the county level, and vast unorganized territories regulated through a state administered Land Use Regulatory Commission any comprehensive approach to landscape scale conservation requires the direct engagement of multiple government divisions, elected officials, and private landowners. Maine's principal approach to meeting this challenge is to deliver the best available resource data, planning tools, and technical assistance directly to local partners including municipalities, land trusts, and land owners in an attempt to lay the foundation for a shared vision of a statewide conservation blueprint that benefits from local buy-in and the actions of local champions.
We encourage you to browse through Maine's Wildlife Action Plan, Beginning with Habitat links, and other information highlighting the efforts of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Conserving Maine's wildlife requires the collective efforts of all Maine citizens. Please let us know how we can assist efforts within your community.