Bob Zaino: Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department

  • Tell us about your background.

    I’m a natural community ecologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, and I’ve been with the Department for more than 15 years. I am responsible for the inventory, assessment, and conservation of Vermont's natural communities. This includes working with landowners and others to protect and manage important natural communities, as well as reviewing and providing recommendations on how to minimize environmental impacts of development projects. I also work to identify and protect the large habitat blocks and corridors that sustain our states’ biological diversity.

    The Department’s mission is “the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the people of Vermont.” That’s a broad mission, encompassing everything from common, well-known species like black bear, common loon, and brook trout, to rare or poorly understood species, like small-whorled pogonia (a flower), frosted elfin (a tiny butterfly), and ebony boghaunter (a dragonfly). In fact, Vermont is estimated to have as many as 40,000 species, most of which we know little or nothing about.

    We can’t approach the conservation of all these species individually. We need efficiency in conservation. Natural communities are one way to find that efficiency. For example, if we conserve good examples of a Hemlock Forest natural community, we’re conserving habitat that supports many species, like white-tailed deer, Blackburnian warbler, and saw-whet owl. It supports plant species, like marginal wood fern. And it also supports many fungi, lichens, and invertebrate animals like beetles and moths, even if we can’t enumerate them all. I work to find, evaluate, and protect good examples of all of Vermont’s natural communities, so we can sustain all their species.

    What is the Vermont Conservation Design – in a nutshell?

    Vermont Conservation Design (VCD) takes this idea of efficiency in conservation and applies it on the statewide scale. It answers the question: how do we conserve all those 40,000 species without going one-by-one? To do so, VCD identifies not just natural communities, but a whole suite of features that collectively meet the conservation needs of many species.

    I call Vermont Conservation Design a “scientific vision” to maintain nature and all its benefits.

    VCD is scientific because we used science as the bedrock of the design. Using this idea of efficiency, it identifies the places—lands and waters—that are most important for maintaining an ecologically functional landscape, that is, an intact, connected, and diverse landscape where all its plants and animals can thrive, reproduce, migrate, and move in response to environmental change.

    Vermont Conservation Design includes landscape features, and natural community and habitat features which are the highest priority for conservation and management in order for us to maintain ecological functionality. Landscape features—forest blocks and riparian areas—occupy large areas and are the foundation for intact and connected natural systems. Natural communities and habitats are finer-scale pieces, such as hemlock forests, wetlands, old and young forests, and grasslands that provide critical ecological functions and support our plants and animals. Together, these features form Vermont’s ecologically functional landscape.

    VCD is also a vision, because it looks to the future of our state. Vermont is fortunate to be rich in forests, waters, plants, and animals, but we know from other places what happens when natural systems, wildlife habitat, ecological functions, and rural economies are compromised or lost. Vermont Conservation Design provides a reference point for us to thoughtfully consider our choices for the future.

    How can I see the maps and data of Vermont Conservation Design?

    The best way to understand what Vermont Conservation Design means for a specific place is to explore it on the BioFinder website. BioFinder is an interactive map that displays the data of Vermont Conservation Design. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department is also hosting a series of webinars about BioFinder and VCD. You can find more information at: https://vtfishandwildlife.com/Current%20Webinars%20%26%20Trainings.

    What does VCD say about the mechanisms we use for land protection?

    Vermont Conservation Design identifies about 70% of the state as highest priority. It will take the full toolbox of conservation strategies to sustain the vision of VCD. Land protection will be just one part of achieving the vision. Other tools include: the Use Value Appraisal program (Current Use), which helps maintain working forests; land use planning and municipal zoning; and the continued thoughtful stewardship and management done by private landowners.

    VCD does not prescribe what conservation approach to use in any one place. But in general, I think land protection is a powerful tool for places that are especially vulnerable, or of exceptional value. Important connectivity corridors, rare natural communities, and old forests are some examples of features that are probably best conserved by land protection.

    Are there other comparable tools and frameworks like this out there?

    I’m really pleased at the way Vermont Conservation Design echoes larger conservation planning efforts, such as The Staying Connected Initiative focus areas, The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient and Connected Network, and the Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities vision for New England. I see all these efforts as sharing the same basic goal of maintaining an ecologically functional landscape that is resilient to climate change. I’m also really excited about the way many Vermont towns are taking the maps of VCD and combining them with their own community values as part of their town plans.

    What are you most excited about in this process?

    Of course, I’m excited about the opportunities this process brings to expand our protection of biodiversity. The landscape envisioned by VCD is critical to plants, animals, and people. If we lose it, Vermont will be a very different state. But as we delve into the conservation planning phase of Act 59, I’m also excited to think about how the features prioritized in VCD intersect other community values. I’m excited about questions such as: How do we conserve biodiversity while providing outdoor recreation opportunities across the state? How do we conserve biodiversity and continue to support our important local food production? How do we conserve biodiversity and support social justice, equity, and community resilience?

    What are the main public benefits if we successfully implement Act 59 through the parameters of VCD?

    Vermont Conservation Design started as a science project, identifying what we need to sustain species and their habitats. But if we maintain the vision of Vermont Conservation Design, we support so much more than just biodiversity. The landscape it envisions sustains environmental services, like clean air and water, crop pollination, carbon sequestration, and flood protection. It supports numerous social and economic values, including our outdoor traditions and outdoor recreation opportunities, the forest products economy, and the landscape that draws people to Vermont. It supports nature, both for its intrinsic value and for the benefits it provides us.


    About the Author

    Bob Zaino is a Natural Community Ecologist for Vermont Fish and Wildlife, where he's been working since 2008. He holds a master's degree from the field naturalist program at the University of Vermont. He is also a co-author of Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont. During his time off, Bob enjoys fly-fishing, rock climbing, canoeing, and backcountry skiing.