DETROIT (AP) — In a bustling metropolitan area of 4.3 million people, Yale University wildlife biologist Nyeema Harris ventures into secluded thickets to study Detroit’s most elusive inhabitants — coyotes , foxes, raccoons and skunks among them.
Harris and his colleagues have placed surveillance cameras in the wooded sections of 25 city parks over the past five years. They recorded thousands of images of animals that mostly emerge at night to roam and feed, revealing a wild side that many locals may not be aware of.
“We are increasingly exposed to wildlife in urban environments,” Harris said recently while checking several of the devices attached to trees with steel cables near the ground. “As we change their habitats, as we expand the footprint of urbanization, … we will come into more and more contact with them.”
Animal and plant species are dying at an alarming rate, with up to 1 million species threatened with extinctionaccording to a 2019 United Nations report. Their plight is prompting calls to “rewild” the places where they thrived until they are driven out by development, pollution and climate change.
Rewilding generally means reviving natural systems in degraded places – sometimes with a helping hand. This could mean removing dams, building tunnels to reconnect migration routes cut off by roads, or reintroducing predators such as wolves to help balance ecosystems. But after the first assists, there is little human involvement.
The idea may seem better 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 as people find mutually beneficial ways to coexist with nature.
The US Forest Service estimates that 6,000 acres (2,428 hectares) of open space are lost every day as cities and suburbs expand. More than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, according to the UN.
“Climate change is coming and we face an equally significant biodiversity crisis,” said Nathalie Pettorelli, senior scientist at the Zoological Society of London. “There is no better place to engage people on these issues than in cities.”
In a September report, the company noted rewilding in metropolises such as Singapore, where a 1.7-mile (2.7 kilometer) stretch of the Kallang River was converted from a concrete-lined canal to a single lane. winding waterway lined with plants, rocks and other natural materials and flanked by a green park.
Treating urban rivers as natural waters instead of drainage ditches can boost fish passage and allow adjacent land to absorb floodwaters as global warming drives more extreme weather, the report says.
The German cities of Hannover, Frankfurt and Dessau-Rosslau designated vacant lots, parks, lawns and urban waterways where nature could take its course. As the native wildflowers grew, they attracted birds, butterflies, bees, and even hedgehogs.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, describing the UK as ‘one of the most nature-poor countries in the world’, announced a plan last year to fund 45 urban regeneration projects improve habitat for stag beetles, water voles and birds such as swifts and sparrows.
In Enfield, north London, two beavers were released in March – 400 years after the species was hunted to extinction in Britain – in the hope that their dams would prevent flash floods. One died but needed to be replaced.
Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and nonprofit Urban Rivers install “floating wetlands” on part of the Chicago River provide fish breeding grounds, habitat for birds and pollinators, and root systems that purify polluted water.
Urban rewilding can’t return landscapes to pre-settlement times and isn’t trying, said Marie Law Adams, associate professor of architecture at Northeastern University.
Instead, the goal is to encourage natural processes that serve people and wildlife by increasing tree cover to mitigate summer heat, storing carbon, and supporting more animals. Or install surface channels called bio-gullies that filter runoff from parking lots instead of letting it contaminate streams.
“We need to learn from the mistakes of the mid-20th century — cover everything, design everything with gray infrastructure” such as dams and pipelines, Adams said.
Detroit’s sprawling metropolitan area illustrates how human actions can spur rewilding, intentionally or unintentionally.
Hundreds of thousands of homes and other structures have been abandoned as the struggling city’s population has fallen more than 60% since peaking at 1.8 million in the 1950s. Many have been razed , leaving vacant land occupied by plants and animals. Non-profit groups have planted pollinator-friendly trees, community gardens and shrubs.
Conservation projects have reintroduced ospreys and peregrine falcons. Bald eagles have found their way back as the ban on DDT and other pesticides has helped expand their range nationwide. Anti-pollution laws and government-funded cleanups have made nearby rivers more welcoming to sturgeons, whitefish, beavers and native plants, like wild celery.
“Detroit is a great example of urban rewilding,” said John Hartig, a lakes specialist at nearby University of Windsor and former director of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. “It was more organic than strategic. We created the conditions, things improved environmentally, and the native species came back.
The refuge, a half-hour drive from the city center, consists of 30 plots totaling 6,200 acres (2,509 hectares), including islands, wetlands and former industrial sites. It is home to 300 species of birds and a busy stopover for ducks, raptors and others during migration, director Dan Kennedy said.
For Harris, the Yale biologist, formerly at the University of Michigan, Detroit offers a unique setting for studying urban wildlife.
Unlike most large cities, its human population is in decline, although its streets, buildings and other infrastructure remain largely intact. And there is a diverse habitat. It ranges from large lakes and rivers to neighborhoods — some busy, others largely deserted — and parks so quiet “you don’t even know you’re in town,” Harris said as he changed the batteries in the device. photo and taking notes in a wooded section of Parc O’Hair.
His team’s photographic observations have resulted in published studies of how mammals respond to each other and to humans in urban landscapes.
The project brings them into contact with local residents, some intrigued by coyotes and raccoons in the neighborhood, others fearful of disease or harm to pets.
It’s an educational opportunity, Harris said — about proper waste disposal, resisting the temptation to feed wildlife, and the value of healthy, diverse ecosystems.
“Before, you had to go to a remote place to get some exposure to nature,” said Harris, a Philadelphia native who was thrilled as a child to spot a squirrel or deer once in a while. ” Now, that is no longer the case. Like it or not, rewilding will happen. The question is how to prepare communities, environments and societies to anticipate the presence of more and more wild animals? »
Rewilding can be a tough sell for city dwellers who prefer manicured lawns and think ecologically rich systems look unhealthy and neglected or should be used for housing.
But advocates say it’s not just about animals and plants. Studies show that spending time in natural spaces improves people’s physical and mental health.
“A lot of city dwellers have lost their tolerance for living with wildlife,” said Pettorelli of the Zoological Society of London. “There is a lot of relearning to do. To really make a difference in tackling the biodiversity crisis, you’re going to have to have people on board.
Follow John Flesher on Twitter: @JohnFlesher
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