Planting Projects, Backyard Habitats Can Re-Create Livable Natural Spaces
By April M. Short
The world's wildlife is in danger of dying off, and inevitably taking humanity out with it. Humans have destroyed enormous portions of the planet's natural spaces, and caused a climate disaster as well as the unprecedented acceleration of mass extinction events. Among the many species struggling to stay afloat are the butterflies, birds, bats, bees and other pollinators we depend upon in order to grow basic food crops. People cannot live without the earth's diverse wild plants and animals.
Scientists agree that continued disruption of the earth's ecosystems threatens the future survival of humanity as much as climate change does. And the two aren't entirely separate issues; healthy forests and soil systems, for example, sequester carbon naturally. As they are destroyed, there is increased carbon in the atmosphere. A study published in 2019 in the journal Science found that forest restoration is among the best possible climate change solutions.
The current pandemic brings these issues home, as the problems of climate change, habitat destruction and pollinator decline are intricately linked, as outlined in an article by Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust published in Modern Diplomacy in April.
And, as explained by Ensia's environment editor John Vidal in an article that appeared in Scientific American in March, the destruction of wildlife habitat in particular creates breeding grounds for new viruses — and is a likely cause of the devastating current outbreak of novel coronavirus.
"Only a decade or two ago it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harboring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases in humans like Ebola, HIV and dengue.
"But a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity's destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19 … to arise — with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems."
As Vidal notes, this likely won't be the only pandemic we experience. Keeping the next one at bay hinges on protecting and stewarding habitat spaces for wildlife.
While the outlook on both pandemic and climate change can seem bleak, we're also witnessing a demonstration of how quickly the planet can repair itself when people merely slow down a little. In just a matter of months, without changing much other than how often we go out to work, spend and gather in public spaces, the world's skies have cleared up in places that were murky with smog for generations.
The pandemic has caused a steep decline in air pollution levels around the globe. Weeks without hordes of tourists have deepened the blue of the waterways of Venice, Italy, and there are reports of fish being visible through the clear waters for the first time in decades; the Himalayas are visible in parts of northern India that haven't been able to catch a glimpse of them in 30 years; Los Angeles's famous traffic has eased up. It's clear that the small efforts by large numbers of people can and do ripple throughout the world, and they have the potential to combat mass destruction. If so much can begin to change when all we do is ease our operations a little, what can change if we make concerted efforts together in support of nature's resilience?
Planting Habitat From the Grassroots
Gardening to support pollinators and other wildlife is one way individuals can help. The movement for native habitat planting seeks to re-supply wildlife with the plants and habitat spaces that support them, by way of individual garden projects.
Since the 1970s, the native plant movement has encouraged people to garden and grow native species of plants, which can provide biodiverse habitat for birds, butterflies, amphibians and other creatures that live among us. Out of the native plant movement, many backyard and community habitat gardening certification programs have emerged across the country, to educate and incentivize people to plant habitat gardens.
The largest habitat gardening certification effort in the U.S. is the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)'s Community Wildlife Habitat Program (CWHP), which offers tools and a certification program not just for individual backyard gardens, but for whole communities interested in participating. The program started in 1997 in the small town of Alpine, California, in San Diego County, as a grassroots effort by a few individuals who decided to team up and encourage local native garden projects. Now, the program is a concerted national effort that works with approximately 200 certified communities and municipalities across the country, including some major cities, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, and Houston, Texas.
NWF has encouraged people to create habitat gardens for more than 40 years through its Garden for Wildlife. The CWHP builds upon that longstanding initiative, with a science-based program framework for community leaders to restore wildlife habitat — including wildlife corridors and road passage areas — and engage residents. The end goal for areas that participate is to be certified as a wildlife-friendly community through the NWF.
The program encourages communities to integrate a set of wildlife-friendly practices into plans for parks and general sustainability. It offers tools for its members to educate as well as motivate private community members — residents, schools, places of worship, and others — to get involved and transform their garden spaces via native trees and plants, and non-toxic practices.
Patrick Fitzgerald, senior director of community wildlife for NWF, says anyone can get involved with the habitat gardening effort, even people in highly urban areas, via container gardens.
"If you're planting a garden, you can really make an impact for wildlife and the environment literally right outside your front door," he says, noting that the monarch butterfly offers a particularly potent example of a species that might be positively affected by collective individual efforts. The Western monarch's populations have been plummeting, down from the millions in the 1980s, to 200,000 in 2017, and just 30,000 as of 2018, as reported in March 2020 by The New York Times.
"The example of the monarch shows how the simple act of planting milkweeds in your garden, in a pot and just about anywhere, can have an impact for a very specific species," adds Fitzgerald. "A lot of folks, myself included, just love this monarch butterfly for its migration and metamorphosis. It's an amazing species. We've seen a call to action for the monarch butterfly, and so many people are planting milkweed and other native plants that they need to survive in their yards and telling us about it. … Knowing that you're part of millions of people doing this, all for the sake of one black and orange butterfly, is a pretty powerful thing. It's just tremendously rewarding."
The NWF program also works with communities interested in larger restoration efforts, such as wildlife thoroughfares, urban forestry, water conservation, planting for climate resilience and green infrastructure efforts.
"In terms of climate resilience, a lot of the actions that our teams in our cities, counties and communities are taking have multiple benefits for wildlife and for people — and they're also helpful in terms of addressing climate change in different ways," Fitzgerald says.
He points to efforts like reforestation and planting trees along waterways to reduce erosion and mitigate runoff into waterways, or efforts to increase soil carbon storage.
"A lot of folks who participate in our programs, they just love wildlife, and from there, they're looking for strategies to attract more wildlife to their neighborhoods and communities," he says.
Houston, Texas, is one of the largest communities certified by the NWF Community Wildlife Habitat Program. Kelli Ondracek, the natural resources manager for the City of Houston Parks and Recreation Department, says that when the city started working toward the certification in 2016 it was a natural fit, as many of the efforts already underway in the city overlapped with the NWF's habitat certification program. The city of Houston partners with the Houston Audubon, for instance, to replace invasive plant species in public areas with bird-friendly natives, and Houston is a certified "Bird City" of Texas by the state's Parks and Wildlife program.
In order to encourage Houston residents to participate and plant backyard habitat gardens, Ondracek says they began to include information about the certification effort at all of their regular events. Since the city was already offering many of the educational events and information required for the NWF certification, once they got enough homes and common areas involved with the project, it came together citywide, by way of volunteer efforts.
Among the bigger habitat initiatives in Houston is its longstanding prairie restoration project, which replants fields full of native prairie grasses and wildflowers throughout the city's parks, medians, and other relevant public spaces. Ondracek, who oversees the city's greenhouses, says the prairie restoration efforts have involved collecting seeds and propagating more than 10,000 gallon pots' worth of native plants.
Ondracek says the wildlife habitat project in Houston involves taking inventory of the land in their parks system — which is vast — and assess what that land would have historically looked like. Then, they work to re-create it.
"We try to get it as close as possible back to the historic habitat, with a focus on really diverse native species," Ondracek says. "We're really trying to focus on native plants — and we're growing them ourselves because often you can't really purchase them — so that we can get our restoration projects completed."
The prairie restoration project serves to provide habitat, and also to mitigate climate change–related threats such as increased flooding and drought, as detailed in a Christian Science Monitor article published in October 2019.
Ondracek says Houston also has a native tree farm and is working to replant trees along waterways in 70 of its parks, with the goal of planting more than 200,000 trees along the city's bayous and other water systems. Trees along the waterways, known as riparian buffers, serve to reduce the impacts of flooding and improve water quality for both humans and wildlife. The goal of this effort is twofold: to rehabitat these spaces as wildlife corridors, and to create a more climate-resilient future for the city. The tree project acts as part of Houston's Climate Action Plan, which centers on large restoration projects like tree installations to mitigate inevitable increased flooding and help sequester carbon.
Many cities, counties and states around the U.S. offer their own habitat certification programs, unrelated to the NWF's certification. Portland, Oregon's local Backyard Habitat Certification Program (BHCP), for instance, is a collaboration between Portland Audubon and Columbia Land Trust.
Megan Van de Mark, the Portland BHCP's program manager, says the localized program is particularly hands-on and serves more than 6,100 properties throughout Oregon's Clark, Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties. The program originated in Portland, where more than 4,600 properties are enrolled, and works hands-on with community sites, including religious institutions, multi-family complexes, schools, etc., as well as private backyards.
"One person can make a difference where they live by incorporating native plants in their yards and gardens, by removing noxious weeds, by reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, and by taking actions that steward wildlife and manage stormwater at home," Van de Mark says in an email.
Van de Mark says the program shows that the cumulative actions of individual people can add up to a significant positive impact.
"An ecosystem is an interconnected system," Van de Mark says. "What each of us does makes a difference specifically because we're all connected. The ecosystems within which we reside are home to many. By building habitat where you live and reside (i.e., by planting native plants, removing noxious weeds, reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, and by taking actions that steward wildlife and manage stormwater on-site), you can help ensure that birds, pollinators, and other species also have enough to eat, a way to get around, and a place to call home. We're all in this together."
This article was reposted with permission from Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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By Tara Lohan
Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.
Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.
"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."
Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.
It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.
Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.
Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.
One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.
The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.
They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.
"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."
That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.
And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.
"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."
Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.
"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.
The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.
"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.
The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.
"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."
The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.
The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.
The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.
To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.
Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.
"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.
"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."
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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.
For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.
"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."
To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.
"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."
So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.