WCS North America

Impacts of Low Density, Exurban Development

Low density (exurban) residential development is the fastest growing land use in the United States, and is particularly prevalent in areas of high amenity value surrounding protected areas, including the private lands of the Adirondack Park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  Consisting of homes located on large lots of 5 – 40 acres, it is a particularly consumptive development pattern, and, although not always visually obtrusive, it has major and irreversible impacts on wildlife.  Specialized species that are intolerant of humans are displaced by generalist species; human-wildlife conflict may increase due to intrusion by human settlement into prime wildlife habitat; and wide-ranging species suffer the incremental loss of habitat caused by expanded road and driveway networks and the development itself.    

Research in the Adirondacks has demonstrated that exurban development is a quickly-growing development pattern, but until recently the precise ecological impacts in this ecosystem were poorly understood.  Research from the Western United States suggested that these impacts could be quantified and were highly significant, yet little research had been conducted in an eastern context on which to base local management decisions.  In response, WCS has initiated a program to understand and describe the impacts of exurban development in the Adirondacks.


  • Provide scientific information on wildlife and land use impacts to inform and transform local and regional land-use policies and priorities.
  • Characterize the effects of exurban development on biotic integrity in the Adirondacks; for example, identify the building effect distance (the area around a residential structure in which wildlife habitat can be considered to be impacted by the physical structures and associated human activities) for songbirds and other taxa in the Adirondacks.
  • Identify the ecological impact zone (analogous to the building effect distance) associated with a variety of road types in the Adirondacks.
  • Understand ecological integrity across sites and ecosystems and address how landowner characteristics influence local habitat management.
  • Characterize the ecological changes associated with bird, small mammal, and carnivore communities before and after residential development.


Applied Field Science

In order to understand the ecological impacts of exurban development in the Adirondacks WCS is engaged in several projects in the field; these projects are answering specific questions about the impacts of existing development and in one study provide a pre- and post-development picture of biodiversity.  Birds have served as focal taxa for several of these studies.  One of our applied field studies has taken a comparative approach to assessing the differences between the impacts of exurban development in two very different ecosystems: the Adirondacks  the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Human Attitudes About Development and Wildlife

In order to fully understand exurban developments’ impacts on wildlife we are interested in understanding the people who live in these areas what they do on their land and how they feel about wildlife and the variety of land-use tools meant to encourage wildlife friendly development.  WCS has initiated landowner surveys in the Adirondacks and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to capture attitudes of local landowners and to begin to understand how human activities at the parcel level contribute to the changes in wildlife in exurban settings.

Integrative Research on Impacts of Development

Utilizing our own research research by others and publicly available datasets such as the Breeding Bird Atlas we compile and synthesize available information about the ecological impacts of development to create lessons for decision-makers in the East.  We have compiled information in a variety of formats including a comprehensive literature review and a variety of targeted presentations.#Closely related to this work is our effort to provide Tools for Communities and Landowners.


  • WCS’ research projects are some of the first to quantify the impacts of residential development in eastern North America.
  • To date, our research has shown: (1) that biotic integrity is significantly lower in exurban subdivisions than in control sites in the Adirondacks and Greater Yellowstone (2) that breeding bird community integrity has declined in portions of the Adirondacks in concert with increased residential development, and (3) that avian communities can be considered to be altered up to at least 150m from a residential structure in the Adirondacks. 
  • Results of our work on residential building effect zones have been utilized in project review practices at the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) to evaluate potential impacts of proposed.

Latest Publications

All Climate Change and Warming Impacts in Arctic Alaska Publications >>

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Adirondack Communities and Conservation Program
Wildlife Conservation Society 132 Bloomingdale Avenue, Suite 2, Saranac Lake, NY, 12983 USA
(518) 891-8872

Key Staff

Heidi Kretser
Conservation Social Scientist
All The Initiatives of Conserving Habitat Connectivity Staff >>

Partners Include

National Science Foundation
Northeastern States Research Cooperative