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Protection of Significant Wildlife Habitat

2021-2023 Significant Wildlife Habitat Regulations UPDATE!

Between 2021 and 2023 the Conservation Commission worked on updates to the SWHA regulations in the town's development bylaws. Working with Jens Hilke from Vermont Fish and Wildlife they conducted an analysis of the Town's habitat blocks using Geographical Information Systems. 

This analysis categorized the town's habitat blocks into 3 tiers of importance as well as identifying habitat connectors and wildlife road crossings. The changes require the avoidance of development on Tier 1 habitat and minimization on Tier 2 habitat. To ensure that landowners retain some rights to develop their land the analysis also discussed how relief could be given where parcels were highly constrained by identified habitat blocks. These changes were incorporated into draft amendments to Chapter 27 of the Williston Development Bylaws. 

The intention is that the Conservation Commission will conduct outreach and consultation on these draft changes in the spring of 2024. Pending public feedback they could be incorporated into the Town Plan and the Williston Development Bylaws. 


Like much of the Lake Champlain Basin, the Williston landscape has experienced extensive changes in the last 50 years, as agriculture has declined and suburban development has intensified. During this period, natural land cover has increased, with abandoned pastures and hayfields growing into various forest types, but intensive residential and commercial development has also increased significantly, replacing vegetated land cover (both natural and agricultural) with impervious artificial surfaces. The northwestern section of town, in particular, has been converted to developed land uses, but all sections have been affected by suburbanization. These changes have important ramifications for wildlife populations, affecting the quality and distribution of breeding and foraging habitat. They also affect the ability of wildlife to move among different habitat types in Williston and adjacent towns. Now, more than ever, a management mechanism is needed to effectively guide conservation projects that will protect and restore essential wildlife habitat before landscape fragmentation becomes too pervasive to support Williston’s biological diversity.

Wildlife management in Williston began in 2005, when the Williston Conservation Commission (WCC) hired the UVM Spatial Analysis Laboratory (UVM SAL) to assess wildlife habitat in selected parts of the town that contain the largest undeveloped areas of habitat for wildlife. The final report, An Assessment of Wildlife Habitat in Williston, Vermont, 2005, identified seven “wildlife units” and their cover types (forest, wetland, agricultural, etc.). While this initial report was an important first step in identifying valuable wildlife habitat in Williston, the report does not extend past the boundaries of those seven units and does not map migration corridors, which are critical in aiding wildlife in movement between the disconnected areas of their natural habitat.

A follow-up study, An Assessment of Wildlife Habitat in Williston: Expanded Land Cover Mapping and Corridor Modeling, dated June 1, 2011, was completed as an addendum to the 2005 study.  The 2011 assessment completed the land-cover mapping of the entire town; revised the potential habitat maps for the previously-used set of representative species; and 3) identified possible landscape connections between important habitat blocks.

This mapping effort was codified as the Significant Wildlife Habitat Area (SWHA) map and accompanying regulatory protections in the Williston Development Bylaw, adopted on April 21, 2014.

The Williston Comprehensive Plan Chapter 13 directs the town to periodically review the modeled data on which the significant wildlife habitat area is based, to further refine the SHWA and  if necessary, modify the standards in the Williston Development Bylaw Chapter 27 to more effectively achieve its intended goals.

The existing SWHA overlay map encompasses several different habitat types aggregated together as a single layer without discrimination, in a well-intentioned attempt to protect as much habitat as possible. This has resulted in agricultural fields and forests having equal protection. Since then, regional and statewide research has highlighted the importance of forests to the maintenance of overall ecological health and function; and has also documented the increasing threat to forests from incremental development and the lack of protections under state law.

In recognition of these facts, in January 2018 Vermont adopted Act 171, which allows and encourages municipalities to address protection of forest blocks and habitat connectors. Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) developed guidance for municipalities looking to implement Act 171. After January 1, 2018, municipalities seeking to have their plans approved by their Regional Planning Commission must include additional information on the future land use map and language that identifies state, regional or locally significant forest blocks and habitat connectors. The plan may also include specific policies on how the community will take steps to reduce forest fragmentation, enhance forest health, and support essential ecological functions.

The Conservation Commission is currently working with the Community Wildlife Program at Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department to further refine the SWHA map and regulations, to improve its effectiveness and to meet the goals of Act 171. The map revisions will utilize newer, finer scale land cover data and will use Vermont Conservation Design to further prioritize significant wildlife habitat areas. 

Vermont Conservation Design is a tool developed by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife that identifies features at the landscape and natural community scales that are necessary for maintaining an ecologically functional landscape – a landscape that conserves current biological diversity and allows species to move and shift in response to climate and land-use changes. 

For more information on this project, contact Conservation Planner Andrew Plumb, aplumb@willistonvt.org or at 802-878-6704, Ext 1.

Related Reports and Links

March 2018

Planning: A Key Step Towards Protecting Forest and Wildlife Resources/Act 171 Guidance

June 1, 2011

An Assessment of Wildlife Habitat in Williston: Expanded Land Cover Mapping and Corridor Modeling

July 11, 2005

An Assessment of Wildlife Habitat in Williston, Vermont

Spring 2007

PLACE program, Williston Landscape Analysis


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