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Uniting Farming and Wildlife Management
Indiana Ag Connection - 08/10/2017

Alex Caskey is a graduate student at Tufts University who is spending his summer working with Champlain Valley farmers to figure out how agriculture and wildlife can coexist.

Caskey, a 29-year-old who grew up in Indiana, earned undergraduate degrees in conservation biology and ceramics. He met his fiance while they were both working in Africa and then moved back to the states to settle near Boston, where he is working on his master of science degree in Agriculture, Food and Environment.

"It's three words that sound nice together, but then everyone asks what it means," he chuckled. "I mostly describe it as a sustainable food systems degree. It's pretty interdisciplinary."

Caskey said there is a lot of freedom in the degree he is pursuing and other students may choose to focus on animal husbandry or crops. But Caskey is taking on an issue that all farmers have some familiarity with.

"The first real contact I had was ... Michale Glennon at the Wilderness Conservation Society and I started talking to her and discovered that this realm of wildlife and farmers was an interest of some of the higher-ups at WCS," he said. "So that seemed like a really obvious place to partner since they have the expertise in wildlife."

Caskey is technically an intern with Champlain Area Trails (CATS) and his position is supported by the Eddy Foundation for the summer. CATS is better known for their development of hiking and scenic trails in the Champlain Valley, while the Eddy Foundation purchases and preserves wildlands in the eastern Adirondacks.

While farmers have always had to deal with wildlife interactions - from deer browse to predation - there seems to be a divide between farming science and wildlife management. Caskey hopes to bridge that divide.

"Ideally, they'd dovetail," he said. "Historically there's been this big - I don't think it needs to be there - but it's this sort of divide between farmers and wildlife in particular.

"So I think there's a real opportunity here in the park. The animals are already here.

"Any farmer has to deal with predators, they have to deal with wildlife. And some of them are beneficial to their operations whether it's rodent control or insectivore control with bats and birds or whatnot.

"But then there's plenty of others that cause all kinds of headaches, whether it's through predation losses of livestock or ripping through fences or deer browsing."

Caskey said Champlain Valley farmers have a reputation of being on the forefront of what could be called holistic farming. The newer generation of farmers likes to sell the food they raise locally and support their home communities. But Caskey thinks there's still room for improvement, and that's where he hopes his project can fill in the gaps.

"You talk to some people, and they're like 'The farmers here are the best. They're doing everything, they're totally tuned in.' Then you talk to some of the conservation folks and they're like, 'These new farmers see themselves as being environmentally friendly, but they're not. They're not fencing their livestock out of the creeks.'

"So lets talk to people and actually figure out what the status is. So that's really the core piece of it (his project) is just trying to establish this baseline," he said.

"Let's have a clear starting point - what is and what isn't happening."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has guidelines for farmers on how to handle wildlife interactions, and Caskey also hopes to see how that is playing out. He said he wants to know how farmers who follow the guidelines are faring, and why other farmers are choosing to not follow the suggestions.

"Because ultimately, any time a farmer has to start thinking about accommodating wildlife, at a very minimum that's time out of their day and at most it's expensive," he said. "In a perfect world, you'd find funding sources for them and they'd meet halfway and everyone would win. That doesn't always happen, but that's ideally what we're looking for."

Caskey has already conducted interviews with about a half-dozen farmers and hopes to double that number before his time here ends. But regardless, he thinks his work is an important first step.

"My hope is that this sort of forms the baseline for future work," he said. "It could contribute to, I think, a solid grant proposal. It's not really so much for my requirements. All I have to do for my requirements is show up and have somebody sign the thing that says I was here.

"But out of my own interest in wanting to have results from this that are usable, so some of it hopefully will be for farmers. They probably already know a lot of the stuff they're dealing with but maybe try and get them connected to resources, maybe some funding."

Caskey admits his work this summer is preliminary, but he said most of the literature regarding farming and wildlife is geared toward ranchers in the western U.S.

"There's not a lot written, at least that I've found yet, about the eastern United States," he said. "So really this is just a perfect place for it because you've got this state park but it's still working lands.

"So part of this interest in the Champlain Valley in particular is because of the Split Rock Wildway," which starts in Split Rock Wild Forest in Essex and Westport. "It's the idea of trying to connect that to the High Peaks and just provide connected corridors where wildlife can pass through.

"The other part is that people here care about it and are willing to talk about it," he said. "Farmers - they certainly don't all agree - but most are thinking about it. They have to, whether they want to or not.

"Whether their solution is just shooting coyotes or thinking more holistically about how to manage stuff. So it's ended up being a really exciting and perfect place to look at all of this."

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