Secrets of the Shawangunks: Free lecture series at SUNY-New Paltz

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

In our region, the most noticeable impact of climate change has so far occurred along waterways – namely, flooding of rivers and creeks and tidal surges along the Hudson River caused by more frequent and extreme storms – but the forest is also expected to be significantly affected. There will possibly be a shift in species, with some animals and plants pushed north as the climate warms. To ensure that they’ll have an escape route, the Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups are planning to identify and protect connecting corridors between the Shawangunks, Catskills and Hudson Highlands.

On February 21, as part of a monthlong lecture series sponsored by the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership and held at the SUNY-New Paltz Lecture Center, representatives from the Nature Conservancy, the New York Department of Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program, the Mohonk Preserve and other local conservation groups will discuss their efforts to establish these links, focusing primarily along the stretch of Route 209 running between Ellenville and Kerhonkson. The talk is titled “The Catskills/Shawangunk Connection” and will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Nature Conservancy staff placed cameras along the underlying culverts of the road in the fall to document the movement of wildlife. The researchers are also referencing the records of roadkill that are maintained by the New York State Department of Transportation, according to Cara Lee, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Shawangunk Ridge Program.

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Lee said that section of 209 has been targeted for study because it consists of a narrow gap of mostly agricultural lands, squeezed by the borders of nearby state forests. She noted that the groups are considering various tools, such as conservation easements and land acquisition, to ensure connectivity between forests once significant corridors of wildlife activity have been identified.

Other lectures in the series will focus mainly on the migratory wildlife of the Gunks and Catskills. Tom Sarro, professor of Biology at Mount Saint Mary College and a Mohonk Preserve research associate, will share his 20-years-plus experience studying raptor migration at Mohonk’s Hawk Watch on February 14, while Chris Bower, education coordinator for the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve, will talk about eel migration on the Hudson River. (The tiny “glass eels,” which migrate up the river every spring in a seemingly miraculous journey that originates in the Sargasso Sea, are in serious decline, due to the high price that they fetch in the Japanese market.)

The series kicks off on February 7 with a showing of Lords of Nature, an award-wining documentary film about how reestablishing predators, such as wolves and cougars, in Western habitats is helping restore the ecosystem. Presenter Dr. John Laundre, a Biology instructor at SUNY-Oswego and vice president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, will talk about how those efforts might shed light on ways that would help prevent Eastern forests from collapsing.

If that sounds like hyperbole, just talk to John Thompson, director of conservation science at the Mohonk Preserve. Thompson said that the oak forest in the Gunks, which has been around for 8,000 years or so, is not regenerating, thanks to the prevalence of deep shade and the overpopulation of deer, both of which prevent oak seedlings from surviving. Mohonk is conducting controlled burns to bring more light into the forest, and thus encourage the growth of seedlings; but yet another threat is invasives, such as Tree of Heaven and the Japanese barberry, which are elbowing out the oaks.

Fifty years from now, the forest could look significantly different, with red maple the dominant tree. Unfortunately, since acorns are a key food for wildlife in the fall, this shift could affect many other species. In the Catskills, a pest called the woolly adelgid threatens the hemlocks, Thompson said, noting that the hemlocks, spruces and firs may not survive the warmer temperatures.

“Secrets of the Shawangunks: Predation and Migration” lecture series, Thursdays, February 7, 14, 21 & 28, 7 p.m., free, Lecture Center 102, SUNY-New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz; www.mohonkpreserve.org/events.

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