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Why can’t the chicken cross under the road? Or over it?

A man in a suit with a Park Avenue address folds a newspaper under his arm. He addresses his personal assistant, “Do you know what my father said to me when I was 6 years old?” He continues, “He said, ‘Son, stocks may rise and fall. Utilities and transportation systems may collapse. People are no good. BUT they’ll always need land, and they will pay through the nose to get it.’” That man was Lex Luthor, in the 1978 movie “Superman,” but while he is not wrong, like most villains, his methods of solving the problem are problematic. The same with Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Major comic book villains are concerned with a real problem: habitat loss. There is only so much land, and we have to share it with other humans and with wildlife. As we expand our cities, build roads from place to place, and build farms to feed our growing population, wildlife faces one of its greatest global threats. 

 Habitat loss is the process by which a natural habitat becomes incapable of supporting its native species. Human expansion is inevitable. Cities grow and their borders increase. Population increases require more resources to sustain those populations.  

Many times, when we think of deforestation and habitat loss, we think of swaths of the Amazon being clear cut for plantations, but habitat loss is something that is also happening in our own backyards. Even the creation of our backyards caused habitat loss, but we will get to ways that you can mitigate that in a bit.   

One of the biggest barriers to getting people to do things that help the environment is that they may think of “the environment” as some faraway place. Yosemite. Yellowstone. The Amazon rainforest.  Places we only see on Animal Planet or read about in National Geographic. But animal habitats are everywhere. Where I live. Where you live. Where no one lives. Animals are where we are. That is why we have companies that will come rescue raccoons and opossums from attics or get snakes out of your garages. We call those companies pest control, but we have moved into what was their space. We need to rethink that terminology, but that is a different topic for a different day, but words do matter.   

If we are going to exist on this planet, then we must live somewhere, but we have the responsibility to make sure that we are saving habitat space for animals, that we do our best to replace habitats where we can, and that we employ countermeasures if we disturb areas where animals live naturally. Two places where we see habitat loss that most people don’t think about are in our yards and roads.  

Roads. Maybe where we’re going, we won’t need roads, but more than likely in the near future, we will.  In the state of Georgia alone, we have over 90,000 miles of roads. If each road is a two-lane road – unlikely – then there are over 11.4 billion square feet (about half the area of Yosemite National Park) of road just in the state of Georgia, and over 525 billion square feet of road across the country (that is about half of the entire state of Indiana). I looked it up and did the math. We need roads and have to go from place to place. We also have to transport goods from place to place. Amazon has to bring those boxes to my house some way. Roads cut a line through habitats, causing danger for wildlife in those areas. That is why you see deer crossing signs by roads in wooded areas or even busy suburban communities. It’s also why you see animals on the side of the road who sadly did not make it. But there is a solution. Many states are putting in wildlife bridges or wildlife underpasses to provide an avenue for animals to go from place to place without having to cross roads. This is safer for us and for the animals as well. 

Wildlife overpasses and/or underpasses are a fairly new solution to animals crossing the road. However, with time given for the animals to discover and explore and become acclimated to the crossings, the results can be amazingly positive, not just for the animals but for us as well.  In Banff National Park in Canada, wildlife bridges have reduced accidents with large ungulates (animals with hooves – deer, elk, moose, and bison – in this case) by 80%. In Florida, natural underpasses allow wildlife to travel under the roads and move from place to place, allowing Florida panthers, bears, and alligators to move without danger from being hit by cars. On St. Simons Island, Georgia, holes cut into the concrete median allow diamondback terrapins to cross the road, but it is still a dangerous proposition for them. In Texas, the largest wildlife crossing in the country exists just outside of San Antonio. The animals in this diverse ecosystem are now free to travel about their habitat and not have it be bisected by a busy highway anymore. In 2013 in Georgia, six wildlife bridges were proposed to help mitigate bears being hit by cars – yes, we have that many bears in Georgia, and the population is steadily growing which is great! That project never started but hopefully one day, it will. In Asheville, North Carolina, a wildlife bridge to help elk, deer, and bears cross the road is under construction as you read this right now. Wildlife crossings may cost money and infrastructure, but they save human lives and animal lives, not to mention thousands of dollars in car repair. As a part of our global outlook and OneHealth, we can see how we can coexist with wildlife and do things that benefit both humans and flora and fauna in our backyards.   

Speaking of our backyards, let’s talk about another place where there is habitat loss: your yard.   
Who doesn’t love the smell of fresh cut grass? Or, that nice lime green stain on the bottom of your old worn-out pair of tennis shoes after pushing the lawn mower back and forth across your front and back yard on a warm spring afternoon? We love our yards. It’s where we play catch. It’s where we have hamburgers and hotdogs on a summer day. Or maybe you just like the feeling of the grass on your bare feet. Yards are great, but they don’t always make great habitats for local wildlife. Animals like native birds, squirrels, reptiles, foxes, opossums, raccoons, and others that should live in the area where our yards are have moved to places where they can have shelter. Because they have less room than before, they are exposed either to predators or the elements in the open ground of a treeless landscape with short grass. There are things we can do, though. Plant native flowers in your backyard or in a flower bed to encourage pollinators to visit your yard.  

“But Zach, I do not know what plants are native to where I live.” The Audubon Society has a great website where you put in your zip code, and it will supply a list of native plants that you can plant and what types of bird those plants attract: https://www.audubon.org/native-plants   

Another thing you can do is put a bat house up to encourage bats to roost near you. Not only will it provide them with a home, but they will also eat a ton of mosquitoes in and around your home, making your backyard more enjoyable instead of being eaten alive by thousands of mosquitoes in the evening sitting on the back porch. Encouraging the growth of more native plants and more natural spaces is an easy way to fight habitat loss and to help your local wildlife that should be in your own backyard. 

Habitat loss continues to happen as the human population on the planet grows. Taking small actions in our own spaces and examining where and how we live makes a huge impact. Planting native plants can encourage pollinators and birds to return to green spaces that they have left. Wildlife bridges and underpasses can help mitigate wildlife collisions with automobiles and restore access to a previously divided habitat. These are solutions that are economically, physically, and environmentally beneficial.  As we look to the future, finding more solutions that benefit humans, wildlife, and the rest of the environment will be crucial to continuing the progress we are making. 

 SOURCES 

Lacey, D. (2021, November 5). Wildlife Passage under I-40 in Pigeon River Gorge, ‘excellent start’ for Bear, elk safety. The Asheville Citizen Times. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/2021/11/05/nc-pigeon-river-gorge-wildlife-passage-southern-appalachian-highway/6283332001/ 

Main, D. (2013, January 2). Bear tunnels to be built under Georgia Highway. LiveScience. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.livescience.com/25935-georgia-bear-tunnels.html 

Do wildlife bridges work. Give Wildlife a Brake – Compassion, awareness and action for wildlife crossing roads. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.givewildlifeabrake.com/do-wildlife-bridges-work.html 

US states: Area and ranking – Enchantedlearning.com. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.enchantedlearning.com/usa/states/area.shtml 

Superman. (1978). Learn, J. R. (2021, May 29). Your perfect lawn is bad for the environment. here’s what to do instead. Discover Magazine. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.discovermagazine.com/environment/your-perfect-lawn-is-bad-for-the-environment-heres-what-to-do-instead 

 

Zach Stich
Public Programs Coordinator  

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl