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

Life in the first months of confinement in 2020 was slower, so much so that it became known as the “antropause”. As people stayed home to combat the severity of COVID-19, a curious pattern emerged: Many became more aware of animals. Bobcats roamed the Bronx River; people noticed the song of the 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 sandcastle obstructions, loggerhead sea turtles experienced a 39 percent increased nesting success. But nature as a whole did not improve. Some animals struggled without the protections and food provided by the tourists. Although the locks relaxed true fear animals, such as mountain lions, have urban spaces, wildlife-vehicle collision rates increased in the United States during the pandemic. “Nature is healing” became a memes.

Ultimately, the anthropouse analysis shows that the temporary lockdown had both 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, Ella Smith muses. But while we’re here, we need to stay involved in efforts to protect wildlife because people will continue to interact with wildlife. “A lot of the interventions we need are to manage ongoing relationships with people,” says Ella Smith.

She points to efforts to reintroduce grizzlies 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

During the last 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 land and water in the US by 2030, in part through these principles.

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“I think we’re 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 of broker financing in the American West. Wildlife corridors are connections across a landscape that link habitat areas 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,” says Smith.

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

Wildlife corridors are one of the focuses of the Center for the Conservation of Great Landscapes, a nonprofit organization located in Montana that supports projects that stimulate ecological connectivity. One ongoing initiative is the US-191 project, a possible corridor that could facilitate the 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.

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

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

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

Co-adaptation to a changing environment

Farther west, people are considering taking an active approach to sea otters. This means possibly reintroducing the animal to its historical range in northern California and Oregon. In the early 1700s, the world population was at least 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 “recognition of the critical, key role that sea otters play in the nearshore marine environment,” says Michele Zwartjes, a field supervisor at 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 domino 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 evaluate the feasibility of reintroducing sea otters to restore the balance. It marks the first stage of a long process; Going forward would involve a legal assessment, biological assessments, and a socio-economic 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.

The report found reintroduction to be “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 who work in tourism and fishing. The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians are already advocating for the return of sea otters. But people whose livelihoods depend on shellfish may not like the predator in their working range.

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Stakeholder engagement is one aspect of reintroduction that is “just as important, if not more important, than the actual biological and logistical issues that go along with 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. Green 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 largest wildlife bridge in the world when completed in 2025, is intended to help mountain lions. But the anxiety over its success stems from wondering whether or not the lions will actually use it.

Meanwhile, wildlife success is also more likely if human behavior is supported. Killing predators is considered by some to be 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,” says Smith. “There is this idea that coexistence requires co-adaptation. 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 with us as well.”

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