Extinctions, shrinking habitat spur ‘rewilding’ in cities

DETROIT (AP) — In a bustling metropolitan area of ​​4.3 million people, Yale University wildlife biologist Nyeema Harris ventures into remote thickets to study Detroit’s most elusive inhabitants, including coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks.

Harris and colleagues have placed trail cameras in wooded areas of 25 city parks over the past five years. They’ve captured thousands of photos of animals that usually emerge at night to roam and forage, revealing a wild side that many locals may not know exists.

“We’re increasingly exposed to wildlife in urban settings,” Harris said recently as he checked several devices attached to trees by steel cables close to the ground. “As we change their habitats, as we increase the footprint of urbanization, … we will increasingly interact with them.”

Animal and plant species are dying out at an alarming rate up to 1 million threatened with extinctionaccording to a 2019 United Nations report. Their plight calls for the “rewilding” of places where they thrived until they were displaced by development, pollution and climate change.

Rewilding generally means reviving natural systems in degraded sites – sometimes with a helping hand. That might mean removing dams, building tunnels to reconnect migration routes separated by roads, or reintroducing predators like wolves to balance ecosystems. But after the first assists, there is little human involvement.

The idea may seem best suited to remote areas where nature is freer to heal without interference. But rewilding is also happening in some of the world’s largest urban centers, where people are finding mutually beneficial ways to coexist with nature.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 6,000 acres (2,428 hectares) of open space are being lost daily to the expansion of cities and suburbs. According to the UN, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050.

“Climate change is coming and we are facing an equally important biodiversity crisis,” said Nathalie Pettorelli, senior scientist at the Zoological Society of London. “There’s no better place to get people involved in these issues than in cities.”

In a September report, the association noted rewilding in metropolises such as Singapore, where a 1.7-mile stretch of the Kallang River has turned from a concrete-lined channel into a winding waterway lined with plants, rocks and other natural materials and flanked through a green park landscape.

Treating urban rivers as natural bodies of water rather than drainage ditches can encourage fish passage and allow adjacent areas to absorb floodwaters as global warming brings more extreme weather, the report said.

The German cities of Hanover, Frankfurt and Dessau-Rosslau designated vacant lots, parks, lawns and urban waterways where nature can take its course. As native wildflowers have sprung up, they have attracted birds, butterflies, bees and even hedgehogs.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan described the UK as “one of the most nature-deprived countries in the world”, last year announced a plan to fund 45 urban rewilding projects to improve the living environment for stag beetles, voles and birds such as swifts and sparrows.

In the North London neighborhood of Enfield, two beavers were released in March — 400 years after the species was hunted to extinction in Britain — in hopes their dams would prevent flash floods. One died but had to be replaced.

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and the Urban Rivers non-profit organization “floating wetlands” on part of the Chicago River to provide fish farming areas, habitats for birds and pollinators, and root systems that purify polluted water.

Urban reforestation cannot and does not attempt to return landscapes to pre-settlement times, said Marie Law Adams, an associate professor of architecture at Northeastern University.

Instead, the goal is to encourage natural processes that serve humans and wildlife by increasing tree cover to reduce summer heat, store carbon and house more animals. Or installing surface channels called bio-swales that filter stormwater runoff from parking lots instead of allowing it to contaminate creeks.

“We have to learn from the mistakes of the mid-20th century — covering everything, engineering everything with gray infrastructure,” such as dams and pipes, Adams said.

Detroit’s sprawling metro area illustrates how human action can fuel rewilding, whether intentional or not.

Hundreds of thousands of homes and other structures were abandoned as the struggling city’s population fell by more than 60% since its peak of 1.8 million in the 1950s. Many were razed to the ground, leaving empty spaces that were taken up by plants and animals. Non-profit organizations have planted trees, community gardens and pollinator-friendly shrubs.

Conservation projects reintroduced ospreys and peregrine falcons. Bald eagles found their way back when a ban on DDT and other pesticides helped expand their range across the country. Anti-pollution laws and government-funded cleanups made nearby rivers more hospitable to sturgeon, whitefish, beavers and native plants, such as wild celery.

“Detroit is a great example of urban rewilding,” said John Hartig, a lake scientist at nearby University of Windsor and former chief of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. “It has been more organic than strategic. We created the conditions, it became more environmentally friendly and the native species came back.

The shelter, half an hour’s drive from downtown, consists of 30 lots totaling 6,200 acres (2,509 hectares), including islands, wetlands and former industrial sites. It’s home to 300 bird species and a busy stopover for ducks, birds of prey and others during migration, manager Dan Kennedy said.

For Harris, a biologist at the Yale School of the Environment, formerly associated with the University of Michigan, Detroit provides a unique backdrop for studying wildlife in urban settings.

Unlike most major cities, the human population is declining, even though streets, buildings, and other infrastructure remain largely intact. And there is a varied habitat. It ranges from large lakes and rivers to neighborhoods — some occupied, others largely abandoned — and parks that are so quiet “you don’t even notice you’re in the city,” Harris said as he swapped camera batteries and took notes in a wooded part of the city. the city. O’Hair Park.

Her team’s photographic observations have spawned published studies of how mammals interact with each other and with humans in urban landscapes.

The project brings them into contact with local residents, some intrigued by nearby coyotes and raccoons, others fearful of disease or damage to pets.

It’s an educational opportunity, Harris said — about proper waste disposal, resisting the temptation to feed wild animals and the value of healthy, diverse ecosystems.

“In the old days, you had to go to a remote location to get in touch with nature,” says Harris, a Philadelphia resident who was excited as a child to see the occasional squirrel or deer. “That is not the case now. Like it or not, rewilding will happen. The question is, how can we prepare communities and environments and societies to anticipate the presence of more and more wildlife?”

Rewilding can be a hard sell for urbanites who prefer well-maintained lawns and think that ecologically rich systems look weedy and unkempt or should be used for housing.

But proponents say it’s not just about animals and plants. Studies show that time in nature improves people’s physical and mental health.

“Many city folk have lost their tolerance for living with wildlife,” says Pettorelli of the Zoological Society of London. “We have a lot to re-educate ourselves. To really make a difference in tackling the biodiversity crisis, you need to have people on board.”


Follow John Flesher on Twitter: @JohnFlesher


The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. Read more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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