Deciding between deer and humans (4/23/09)

Subdivision proposed for winter deer habitat

April 23, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

A 34-unit subdivision that includes 20 affordable housing units may make sense for Williston’s human population, but the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department says the land might be better populated by white-tailed deer.


    Observer photo by Tim Simard
Deer tend to frequent the fields pictured above, which are located below the proposed Settlers Village subdivision, says property owner Dan Fontaine. The fields border much of what the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department classifies as prime deer wintering grounds.

The nearly 300 acres in North Williston sited for a subdivision serve as prime winter habitat for deer. The deer population of Vermont numbers roughly 140,000.

Last week, brothers Mike and Dan Fontaine received a discretionary permit from the Development Review Board for their Settlers Village development off North Williston Road. While the board recognized the location as deer wintering grounds, it believed the project’s 223 acres of open space would mitigate any wildlife issues.

But the final verdict on that piece of the development will come during the state’s Act 250 environmental permitting process. An Act 250 permit ensures the development complies with environmental, storm water and wildlife concerns.

Dan Fontaine said deer frequent the wooded hillsides of his family’s property near the Winooski River, and can roam more than 1,000 acres stretching from the river to Williston Woods and Catamount Family Center.

“There’s a lot of land for them there,” Fontaine said, adding that Settlers Village would impact only a fraction of that section of town.

Deer habitat

John Gobeille, a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, said the Champlain Valley, and Chittenden County in particular, has some of the best deer habitat in the state. The area’s winters are generally milder than the rest of the state and easier on deer, he said.

Gobeille said he did not have data on the number of deer that might be living around the Fontaine property.

The Fish and Wildlife Department’s deer specialist, Shawn Haskell, said protecting deer wintering grounds means life or death for a herd. Winters that feature 18 to 20 inches of snow on the ground for more than a month can spell disaster.

“When there’s 20 inches of snow on the ground, they can’t move without using a lot of energy, which causes them to starve,” Haskell said.

The winters of 2001 and 2003 were particularly difficult for Champlain Valley deer, Haskell said, while the Northeast Kingdom herds took a hit this past winter. Haskell estimated 20 percent of the state’s herds could be killed off during a hard statewide winter.

Though the Fontaine property may seem like a fraction of the region’s deer habitat, Gobeille said Williston has lost significant deer wintering coverage in the past few decades. He said land around Taft Corners and IBM used to be perfect deer habitat until it was developed.

“If we didn’t have those deer yards, the population would crash in a bad winter,” Gobeille said. (Habitats) are becoming fewer and fewer over the years.”

Proposed changes

Gobeille said the Fish and Wildlife Department is not against development. He commended the Fontaines for scaling back their project from the originally proposed 49 units, as well as clustering the development rather than spreading it out over woodland and farmland.

“We’re not telling them they can’t develop there,” Gobeille said.

To minimize impact on deer wintering grounds, Gobeille said the department asked to have the 20-unit second phase of the project moved to another location. But that would require the Fontaines to remove several acres of mature trees.

In the current plans, both phases of construction would be built over existing sand pits already devoid of trees. The operating permit for the sand pit where phase two would be built expires in 2016 and would have to be replanted with softwood trees to meet its Act 250 requirements.

Fontaine said he doesn’t see much sense in cutting down trees when a nearby spot is already cleared and ready for construction in a few years. If trees were planted in the second sand pit, Fontaine said, it would be 50 to 70 years before the trees are mature enough to be considered prime deer wintering ground.

Fontaine said the project follows Act 250 guidelines closely, allowing for appropriate buffers to streams and including 75 percent of their land as protected open space.

“We’ve been working with them all along,” Fontaine said. “As far as I know, we’ve met their criteria.”

If the Fish and Wildlife Department stands by its proposal, the Fontaines’ project could be significantly set back. Settlers Village would have to return to the pre-application permit phase, said Williston’s Senior Planner Matt Boulanger. The Fontaines would again have to compete for growth management allocation, he added.

Fontaine said with support from town officials, he hopes the state will rule in their favor when applying for the Act 250 permit in the coming months.

“I like the project, our neighbors like it (and) the town likes it,” Fontaine said.