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Changing Environment

When Nicole Hamilton is asked about the status Loudoun's wildlife populations in the face of continuing development, she sighs.

"We are definitely having issues," she said.

Hamilton, president of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, is anything but resigned to the fate of Loudoun's wild animals, however. Instead, she and the Wildlife Conservancy are busy working to not only track what is happening to the populations, but to figure out ways that animals and development can exist in harmony.

"We do population surveys, bird and butterfly counts," she said. "We want to start to aggregate that data so we can notice trends."

Although the focus of a lot of the conservancy's work has been on smaller animals, Hamilton says she hopes they can begin working with the county's mammals as well.

"We haven't done a lot with them," she said, "but we want to start mammal tracking so we can get a real sense of what the population trends are."

Cliff Fairweather, lead naturalist for the Rust Nature Sanctuary in Leesburg, said it can be difficult to track exactly how wild animals are being affected by development.

"We don't always have a handle on what is really disappearing and how much is really changing," he said. "We often rely on citizen monitoring, people calling us and telling about different things they see."

WHILE IT MAY be difficult to come up with solid numbers of animals in the county, both Fairweather and Hamilton say it is clear that the animals' habitats are changing drastically, which can only mean changes in the animals' populations.

"When you have the development of farm land and area that are normally weedy and wild where grassland birds and butterflies flourished, you are going to see a change in their populations," Hamilton said. "Their habitats are being destroyed."

Fairweather said that, as the countryside in the county changes, there will be animals that are considered "winners" and ones that will be "losers."

"There will be animals who can adapt to the new environment," he said. "They will emerge as winners."

Deer and larger mammals, such as raccoons, are often considered winners because they can benefit from human interaction to some extent.

"All of this development has created an edge habitat," Fairweather said. "Deer need an open habitat to flourish and new growth has created that. They, and raccoons, can find food from humans, like garbage and gardens."

In addition, the impact of development on wooded areas makes it easier for animals such as deer to move into the understory, or ground layer, and destroy habitats of smaller animals.

"Development changes the diversity," Hamilton said. "Certain animals have more opportunities and other animals are getting pushed out."

Species such as migratory birds and wood turtles are feeling the effects of development in a negative way, Hamilton and Fairweather said.

"Song birds from the south and Central America, like wood thrushes and Kentucky warblers need a dense forest to breed," Fairweather said. "The fragmentation of the woodland allows predators to penetrate more."

The same things are happening to the county's turtle populations, Hamilton said.

"As development encroaches on streams the turtles' eggs are becoming exposed," she said. "Wood turtles have become an endangered species for Loudoun."

EVEN THOUGH SOME animals have learned to adapt to a habitat populated by humans and growth, Fairweather said that humans have become the main predator of mammals, especially deer. He added that the issue is not hunting, it is cars.

According to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), which is responsible for the clean up of any animals killed on Loudoun's state maintained roads, the number of animals killed increases every year.

In 2004, the most recent data available, there were 178 accidents involving wild animals in Loudoun. Each of the accidents resulted in more than $2,000 in damages.

Ryan Hall in VDOT's public affairs office said there were 3,400 calls in 2004 reporting dead deer across Northern Virginia.

Indeed, Laura Danis of the county's Department of Animal Care and Control said the department is constantly getting calls from citizens about wild animals.

"We get more and more every year," she said. "The number this spring and summer has really grown since last year."

While the county department only deals with cases where an animal may be a threat to humans, Danis said it often fields calls from citizens concerned about animals on their property.

"We get a lot of calls from new developments where animals are being displaced," she said. "A lot of the people are new to the county as well."

THE MOST IMPORTANT part of preserving Loudoun's wildlife is education, Hamilton said, both for residents and for developers.

She said there is a lot that developers can do to help protect animals, from laying out the houses to avoid habitats to working with the natural design of the land.

"We want to encourage developers to leave a buffer between themselves and the habitats," she said. "Not just the 100 feet that is required, but to go above and beyond."

There are things that residents can do in their own yards to protect the animals that live in their developments, Fairweather said, such as planting native trees.

"These are things that come from this area," he said, "Not only are they home to some of the animals, but they are adapted to our environment and are often easier to care for."

While the Wildlife Conservancy does have petitions going to protect animal habitats in some areas scheduled for development, Hamilton said the main concern is for the animals.

"Our goal is not to stop development entirely," she said. "We just want to make sure there is room for both."