At MFPC members recent “roundtable” with Gov. Paul LePage, John Gray raised some concerns about the Beginning with Habitat program at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. IFW Commissioner Chandler Woodcock told him that a number of changes have been made to the program to address concerns from landowners. The commissioner sent the information below to explain the changes. After reading the information below, Gray said, “The best I can say is that it is a step in the right direction.”
Beginning with Habitat (BwH) is a voluntary tool intended to assist landowners, resource managers, planners, and municipalities in identifying and making informed decisions about areas of potential natural resource concern to them. Department staff has conducted hundreds of presentations, and distributed hundreds of data packages. To date the program has received very positive feedback from landowners, consultants, developers, conservation groups, municipal officials, and others who have participated. Occasionally there are concerns that BwH may be interpreted as a mandate imposed on the public by the Department. Staff is clear to emphasize that the program is a voluntary tool and we only provide this service when requested to do so by the public. Regardless, this perception exists and is of concern to us.
Recently there have also been concerns raised regarding the accuracy of data provided by the program and depicted on the BwH maps. We make every effort to distinguish data based on well-documented field investigations, such as occurrences of Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Wildlife and their associated habitats, from those that are based on information that has not yet been field verified (large unfragmented habitat blocks, connecting corridors, etc.). Regardless of the manner in which data is created, we commit significant staff resources to ensure that data provided to local partners is of the highest quality and is based on the best available science. We believe that local knowledge is critical to improving statewide data and at every local meeting we stress that BwH maps should be considered as the starting point for local resource discussions, and not the end of conversation. To further clarify program goals, improve data quality, and further clarify how data is intended to be used we have recently:
- Removed the USFWS habitat suitability polygons from maps that present MDIFW data. The USFWS data is based on computer models, not field investigations and sometimes was confused with actual Significant Wildlife Habitat polygons or state mapped rare, threatened and endangered species habitat.
- Revised the narrative information presented on the legend of the BwH maps to further emphasize the nature of this voluntary program and the role that the public can take.
- Revised the program guidebook and other supporting information to clarify how maps should be used to inform local decisions, limitations of the data, and the importance of verifying habitat information with Department staff prior to relying on maps for local land use decisions.
Additionally, we are also undertaking:
- Deer Wintering Areas – an extensive review of all deer wintering areas (DWAs) located in our two southern-most regions (Regions A and B), with removal expected of several DWA polygons that no longer meet habitat requirements, are not actively used, or for which we do not have a management agreement. DWAs are a critical habitat for our deer population in certain areas and under critical conditions. These resources have been more present and necessary in more northern and higher elevation areas. Our staff is actively investigating methods for assessing and revising DWA data and will incorporate it as soon as available. In the interim, we have modified map legends to clarify that DWA locations and boundaries shown are estimates and intended to identify locations where Regional Biologist contact is strongly encouraged prior to basing land use decisions on DWA polygons presented.
- Public Presentations – The Department is typically invited to a forum as a guest. To the extent possible, staff will encourage the event organizers to invite local legislators, Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, Planning Boards, conservation groups, municipal officials, landowners, economic development interests, and other potentially interested parties, if not already a part of the planned forum.
- BwH Steering Committee – The BwH Steering Committee includes the Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine, Maine DOT, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Maine Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, Maine Coastal Program, USFWS, and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry. The Department will investigate the feasibility of expanding representation on the steering committee and welcomes suggestions.
- Increased Capacity to Address Landowner Needs – For the first time in the program’s 10-year history, the program is now fully staffed with two biologists and a full-time cartographer. We now regularly work with landowners, realtors, and land managers to assist with the development of parcel specific management plans, provide customized maps, and provide information to best inform future development planning efforts. Some recent steps to this effect include collaborative work with Maine Forest Service to develop an on-line data checker application for foresters; launch of an on-line BwH map service; and on-going work on species and habitat specific management guidelines.