The Basin’s fish and wildlife provide tangible economic benefits to the region. Bird watchers flock to the region to add bird species to their “life lists,” anglers and hunters are attracted by the abundant opportunities to harvest fish and wildlife, and researchers from around the world study the Basin’s unique ecosystems. In 1997, more than $204 million was spent on fishing-related activities in the Basin. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources estimates that bird-watching and other wildlife viewing generate at least $50 million a year.
While the Basin has an abundance of plants, fish, and wildlife, some species are listed as endangered or threatened at the state/provincial and federal levels. At present, more than 60 species are listed in New York, Vermont, and Québec.
Twenty-one species of amphibians have been identified as native to the Lake Champlain region. Of these, three are listed as endangered or threatened by either New York, Québec, or Vermont. Nineteen species of reptiles have been found in the Champlain watershed. Nine of these species are listed as threatened or endangered in at least one of the three jurisdictions of the Basin.
For many of these species, little is known about their population status and distribution in the Lake Champlain area. The New York Herp Atlas Project, a ten-year survey (1990-1999) of amphibians and reptiles, has helped provide a clearer picture of the geographic distribution of these species in New York. Additionally, the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Project also is making great progress collecting and sharing information on the natural history, distribution, and conservation of Vermont’s reptiles and amphibians..
Taxonomic classification for some of these species is changing, as the use of DNA has allowed a more precise analysis of amphibian and reptile taxonomy. Exotic reptile species which have escaped captivity have been found on several occasions, although to date none has established a population.
In Vermont, the five-lined skink is presently known from only one locality. Vermont timber rattlesnake populations have been decimated by destruction of habitat and by bounties imposed out of fear in the early 20th century. Only two known populations remain in the Vermont-portion of the Basin. Spiny softshell turtles in Lake Champlain are genetically separated from Great Lakes populations, and have been found only on the Vermont side of the Lake and in some Vermont tributaries. In Vermont, map turtles are restricted to Lake Champlain and the lower portions of its tributaries.
More than three hundred species of birds have been found to breed, overwinter, or pass through the Lake Champlain Basin on migration. A very visible part of the ecosystem, waterfowl and shore birds use the Lake Champlain Basin as breeding grounds, and for critical stopovers during spring and fall migrations along the Atlantic Flyway. Twenty-four bird species are listed by New York, Vermont and/or Québec as endangered or threatened.
Common threats to these species are destruction of habitat and declining water quality, particularly from persistent toxic pollutants. Lead has harmed loons and other waterfowl. Lead sinkers have been banned in New York (1-oz or less in 2004) and Vermont (0.5-oz or less in 2007).
The Common Tern, an endangered species in Vermont and threatened species in New York, is a bird conservation success story in the Basin. The Common Tern Recovery Project, a joint effort of Audubon Vermont and Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, has increased adult numbers on Lake Champlain by 300% since 1988.
The double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), considered a nuisance species by some, is certainly one of Lake Champlain’s most notorious birds. These large black waterfowl were first recorded in Vermont during the 1930s. In the 1970s they were seen near Young Island in Lake Champlain and in 1981 35 birds were recorded. Today, nesting cormorants on the Lake average more than 4,000 pairs. The summer population is estimated at 15,000 birds, 98% of which nest on Young Island, VT and Four Brothers Islands, NY. The current population target established by NYS DEC and VT DFW is 2,000-4,000 cormorants lakewide at any point in the year.
On Lake Champlain cormorants have been nesting on Young Island, Mud Island in Panton, Bixby, Shad, Popasquash, and Four Bothers Islands. They like to nest on islands to be more protected from humans and other predators. On Young and Four Brothers Islands cormorant guano has caused extensive defoliation that has negatively affected the nesting habitat for the black crowned night heron, cattle egret, great egret, snowy egret, and great blue heron.
Cormorants are also of concern to anglers who believe that they may consume game fish and yellow perch. A 2001-2002 study found that cormorants do consume large quantities of yellow perch, but they do not commonly feed on salmon, bass or trout.
In 1972 double-crested cormorants were added to the list of species protected by the federal 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. However, in 2003, the USFWS ruled that cormorant management in Lake Champlain was allowed in areas where the birds damage fish, vegetation, or other birds. Methods used to reduce cormorants and protect other nesting birds include egg oiling and destruction of eggs and nests, lethal control of adults, harassment, and grid netting to deter nesting. Populations on the islands fluctuate with the intensity of management efforts. While cormorants negatively impact other birds, management has helped. Caspian tern nesting pairs have risen from one in 2001 to 50 in 2007. The common tern also has benefited from cormorant control.
Ninety-three species of fish have been identified in the Lake Champlain Basin, with 78 native and 15 non-native species. About twenty of these species are actively sought by anglers, including large and smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, chain pickerel, brown bullhead, channel catfish, yellow perch, lake trout, landlocked Atlantic salmon, rainbow (steelhead) trout, brown trout, and rainbow smelt. At present, ten species found in the Basin are classified as endangered or threatened by New York, Vermont, or Québec.
The Lake Champlain Fisheries Technical Committee, a sub-committee of the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Management Cooperative, released a new Strategic Plan for Lake Champlain Fisheries in 2010. This plan highlights goals for the fish community and the Lake Champlain fishery, including a framework to develop and guide fishery management programs for the Lake and its tributaries. In addition, the plan provides a review of the history of fishery management in the basin, guiding principles, a suite of actions, and information priorities to help management agencies achieve these goals. Management actions include efforts to prevent new introductions of invasive species and suppress current populations of nuisance species.
Five fish hatcheries or fish culture stations operate in the Lake Champlain Basin. These operations help to rehabilitate fish populations and expand the ranges of desirable fish. New York DEC, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service all maintain fish stocking programs in Lake Champlain and its tributaries, including rainbow trout, lake trout, brown trout, and landlocked Atlantic salmon. Several hatcheries are open to the public. Contact the hatcheries directly for more information.
Ed Weed Fish Culture Station
Grand Isle, VT
VT Fish and Wildlife Department – (802) 372-3171
VT Fish and Wildlife Department – (802) 352-4371
Dwight D. Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery
North Chittenden, VT
US Fish and Wildlife Service – (802) 483-6618
White River National Fish Hatchery
US Fish and Wildlife Service – (802) 234-7302
Saranac Lake, NY
NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation – (518) 891-3358
Essex County Fish Hatchery
Crown Point, NY
Essex County Fisheries Department (518) 597-3844
Invertebrates, including mussels, aquatic snails, and insects are a very important part of the Lake Champlain ecosystem. Surveys and studies of aquatic invertebrates in the Lake Champlain Basin have focused on freshwater mussels, dragonflies and damselflies, and for terrestrial species, butterflies, moths, and beetles (particularly ground beetles and tiger beetles).
Fourteen native freshwater mussel species live in the Basin, but native mussel populations are threatened by nonnative zebra mussels. Zebra mussels compete with native mussels for resources and habitat, and they can suffocate native mussels by attaching to their shells. Asian clam have been found in areas close to the Basin for some time, but were found in the Basin in 2010 in Lake George. Eight freshwater mussel species are listed as threatened or endangered.
Tiny shrimp-like invertebrates, called zooplankton, float in the Lake and its tributaries. These invertebrates are food for a huge variety of larger animals, such as small fish, frogs and turtles, and form the base of Lake Champlain’s food web.
Fifty-six species of mammals find their homes in the Lake Champlain Basin. Six species are listed as threatened or endangered by New York, Vermont and/or federal designation.
Many bat species have been affected by white-nose syndrome (Geomyces destructans). This fungus was first identified in bat colonies (hibernacula) outside of Albany, NY in February 2006; it was found in bat colonies throughout the New York and Vermont portions of the Champlain Basin in the winter of 2007-2008 and was confirmed in Québec in 2010. The fungus has caused, directly or indirectly, nearly a 90% population decline in large bat hibernacula that are afflicted with the fungus. Population decreases of this magnitude could be beneficial to bat prey species, such as mosquitos.
Chronic wasting disease is an untreatable, fatal disease that afflicts the nervous systems of deer, elk and moose. Fortunately, it has not yet been discovered in the Basin. It was discovered in New York in 2005 in captive and wild deer herds in Oneida County, but hasn’t been seen since. It has not been found in Vermont or Québec. Management plans have been developed in New York, Vermont, and Québec to prevent it from arriving in the region.
Management agencies have developed wildlife management plans for a number of species in the Basin.