Sharing is caring: how we give the land back to animals

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Life in the first months of confinement of 2020 was slower, so much so that it was known as the “anthropause”. As people stayed home to combat the severity of COVID-19, a curious pattern emerged: Many became more animal-conscious. Wildcats roamed the Bronx River; people noticed the singing of birds. The serious phrase “nature is healing” spread online.

Somehow, it was cured. Global air pollution levels fell and there was a decrease in noise pollution. In places like Florida, where closed beaches meant less trash and fewer clogged sandcastles, loggerhead sea turtles experienced a 39 percent increase in nesting success. But nature as a whole did not improve. Some animals struggled without the protections and food provided by tourists. Although the locks relieved the true fear animals, such as mountain lions, have urban spaces, vehicle collision rates with wildlife increased in the United States during the pandemic. “Nature is Healing” became a memes.

Ultimately, the anthropopause analysis shows that the temporary lockdown had positive and negative effects on wildlife, contrary to the expectation that a natural world with less human interference would be better. For some scientists, this highlights how humans are both threats and custodians of the environment. But it also underscores why a unifying theme has increasingly emerged in conversations about how to protect wildlife and their habitats: coexistence.

Justine Smith is an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, researching wildlife restoration and human-wildlife interactions. If humans on Earth suddenly disappeared, animal life would continue, she muses. But while we’re here, we need to stay involved in efforts to protect wildlife because people will continue to interact with it. “Many of the interventions that we need are to manage ongoing relationships with people,” says Ella Smith.

She points to efforts to reintroduce brown bears in California as an example. The big question isn’t whether or not they can live in the available habitats, it’s whether they can coexist with the nearly 40 million people in the state.

Restoring the human-wildlife balance

Over the past 10 years, there has been increase in studies focused on human-wildlife interactions and the concepts of coexistence, tolerance and acceptance. But these are not new ideas: some communities, including many indigenous peoples, have long-established practices for living in harmony with wildlife. It’s more because certain institutions, like the US government and mainstream science, are now paying attention. Research on some indigenous techniques, for example, is now countering the Western belief that conservation requires the absence of people. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden’s America the Beautiful 2021 initiative aims to “conserve, connect and restore” 30 percent of the land and water in the US by 2030, in part through these principles.

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“I think we are realizing, in the United States, that human use of landscapes is not going to go away,” says Smith. “So if we want to restore connectivity or increase the viability of wildlife populations, we need to start from that point because people will be there regardless.”

One of the central elements of the America the BEAUTIFUL initiative is the advancement of wildlife corridors. In April, the Department of the Interior announced a new round financing brokers in the American West. Wildlife corridors are connections across a landscape linking areas of habitat and increase survival for many species. Corridors, along with the reintroduction of mammals, have become two powerful tools that people can use to protect and maintain wildlife.

While these two techniques may seem different, Smith describes them as related concepts that have the same goal. “When you think about restoring wildlife populations, you can do it actively or passively,” Smith says.

Reintroducing animals to a place where they may have lived before, or need to live to survive climate change, is an active approach. The corridors are more of a passive process, where “you’re trying to let the animals move to places where they can survive, given the environmental conditions that humans have created,” he explains.

Wildlife corridors are one focus of the Center for Greater Landscapes Conservation, a Montana-based nonprofit that supports projects that encourage ecological connectivity. One ongoing initiative is the US-191 project, a potential corridor that could facilitate movement of animals between Yellowstone and the Teton Range. The hope is that an effort like this can help animals migrate despite increasing tourism and development. It would also save lives: An assessment attached to the project found that nearly a quarter of reported crashes on US-191 are due to wildlife.

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The next steps involve evaluating which points along the road are most likely to facilitate a safe crossing, what structures might allow this movement, and how human behavior may affect the process, explains Abigail Breuer, senior program officer at the Center.

“For the survival of wildlife, movement is absolutely critical,” says Breuer. Furthermore, conservation science suggests that this connectivity is more likely to succeed if people accept it.

“We have to find a way for wildlife and people to coexist,” she says. “We can’t keep it all.”

Coadaptation to a changing environment

Farther west, people are considering taking an active approach to sea otters. This means possibly reintroducing the animal to its historic range in northern California and Oregon. In the early 1700s, the world population was at a minimum of 150,000 individuals. By 1911, after being hunted for their fur, there were fewer than 2,000 sea otters. The last wild sea otter in Oregon was killed in 1906.

But in 2020, Congress directed the US Fish and Wildlife Service to assess the feasibility and costs of reintroducing sea otters to the Pacific coast. The genesis of this idea was “the recognition of the fundamental key role that sea otters play in the nearshore marine environment,” says Michele Zwartjes, field supervisor with the Oregon Office of Fish and Wildlife.

Sea otters help mitigate climate change by keeping sea urchin populations in check. Sea urchins left unchecked decimate kelp forests, seagrass systems that help with carbon sequestration. Zwartjes points to the ripple effect of starfish disease as an example of how unbalanced parts of the Pacific coast are. Although Northern California and Oregon lost sea otters long ago, starfish kept the sea urchin population in check. But when the plague hit, the sea urchin population exploded and they “just cut down the kelp forest,” she says. The general loss of biodiversity resulted in a less resilient ecosystem.

Zwartjes is part of a team that produced a recent report assess the feasibility of reintroducing sea otters to restore balance. It marks the first stage of a long process; going ahead would involve a legal assessment, biological assessments, and a socioeconomic impact assessment. If the reintroduction goes ahead, there are two potential sources of animals that could repopulate the area: wild otters from other regions or released stranded pups raised by otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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The report found that reintroduction is “undoubtedly feasible…we know it can be successful,” she says. But what is more uncertain is how the event would impact local communities and whether or not they will be on board. Some will clearly benefit: people working in tourism and fishing. Confederated tribes of Siletz Indians are already advocating for the return of sea otters. But people whose livelihood depends on shellfish may not like the predator in their working range.

Stakeholder involvement is one aspect of reintroduction that is “just as important, if not more important, than the actual biological and logistical issues that accompany a reintroduction,” says Zwartjes. “Ultimately, if you don’t have that kind of commitment and support, any reintroduction effort is highly unlikely to be successful.”

This commitment, along with these passive and active approaches to restoring wildlife, connects to a third key ingredient highlighted by Smith: behavior management. This refers to animals and people. Eco projects are more likely to be successful if an animal’s behavior is taken into account. For example, a wildlife corridor in California, which will be the world’s largest wildlife bridge when completed in 2025, is meant to help mountain lions. But anxiety about its success stems from wondering whether or not lions will actually use it.

Meanwhile, wildlife success is also more likely if human behavior is supported. Some consider killing predators a form of coexistence. But such action is clearly not conducive to the ecological goals of people seeking to restore biodiversity and mitigate climate change.

“We still have a pretty low tolerance for animals that make us uncomfortable in general,” Smith says. “There is this idea that coexistence requires coadaptation. At the same time, the animals that are going to be able to live with us are going to be the ones that can co-adapt to us as well”.

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