Our Disappearing Wildlife: What Parks Can Do About It

December 30, 2016, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

2017 January Conservation 410

Ask any longtime park person who is knowledgeable about nature in parks if they think the diversity of wildlife has declined in recent years. Almost without exception, they will say that it has decreased, and sometimes alarmingly so.


Bobwhite quail, monarch butterflies, rusty-patched bumblebees, leopard frogs, bog turtles: All of these species are in serious trouble. The Washington Post ran an article not too long ago titled, “Ten Things in Nature That Could Vanish Before Your Kids See Them.”


Sam Droege, a research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey who is head of the National Bee Inventory and Monitoring lab says, “In my field, the study of bees, the decline is alarming.”


U.S. Mirrors Global Loss of Biodiversity
The Living Planet Index, a widely respected summary of conditions issued biennially by the World Wildlife Fund, shows a substantial and steady decline in biodiversity globally. All vertebrate species are on the decline with the greatest losses in freshwater and terrestrial species.


The 2016 update of the Index shows that a stunning 58 percent of all wildlife species in the world have disappeared in just over 40 years. And, the data is not coming just from developing countries. Other research has shown that many songbird populations in the mid-Atlantic of the United States have declined nearly 80 percent. One-third of all North American bird species are at risk of extinction and, in the United States, two-thirds of all mammal species are declining.


The greatest factors cited in the decline of wildlife are habitat loss and degradation. Negative changes to freshwater systems are also responsible for greatest losses of species diversity. Climate change, invasive species and pollution are also cited. Overall, freshwater species are estimated to have declined by 81 percent over this period, with amphibians the most seriously threatened freshwater class of species. These are shocking losses that are happening within our lifetimes.


Just how much habitat is being lost? The Land Trust Alliance, a national nonprofit in the United States, estimates that more than 5,000 acres per day of open space is being lost to residential and energy development. This is a jaw-dropping loss of land that previously provided habitat for wildlife — every day!


Reasons for Hope
But, even in the midst of such grim statistics, there are reasons for hope. Terrestrial animals, according to the Living Planet Index, have only declined 38 percent, and losses in protected natural areas were only half that percentage, a factor strongly indicating that nature preserves, parks and other protected open spaces can help stem declines.


Tim Moloney, executive director of Columbus Franklin Metro Parks in Ohio, says that we are seeing declines, but there is much we can do to reverse these declines. Even though central Ohio has seen unprecedented development in recent years, Moloney says, “Our park system has been able to keep pace. We restored a prairie, and we now have bison roaming in our parks. Sandhill cranes are now nesting in our parks, and I am looking out my window at 19 turkeys, a species that was rarely found here 25 years ago.”


Greg Kearns, senior park naturalist for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, says, “Some species are certainly on the decline, but others are on the rise — for example, look at bald eagles and osprey in the Chesapeake Bay. They have made a dramatic comeback since the 1970s.” Other species, he agrees, are in serious decline — in the United States these species include forest interior-dwelling birds, grassland birds, certain waterfowl species, many amphibians, pollinating insects and others.


The reasons for the decline are not fully known. “Climate change is a reason, but not the only factor. Chemicals, for example, are being spread throughout ecosystems,” Kearns adds. He described the work of a doctoral candidate who’s been taking blood samples of osprey, a fish-eating hawk, on Poplar Island in a remote area of the Chesapeake Bay. “She found traces of blood pressure medicines, antidepressants and other substances in their blood. What kind of questions does this raise?” he asks.


Other species, Kearns noted, such as coyotes, have adapted well to human influence and are flourishing. However, their predation of meadow voles has likely caused the further decline of barn owls, a species in need of conservation. “It is so important to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity,” says Kearns. “We don’t know what the long-term effects of the loss of many wildlife species will mean to our future.”


What Can Parks Do?
There is much that parks can do to reverse these downward trends, and it is important that we do. “Parks will become the repository of biodiversity,” says Droege. “It’s all about habitat. As our nation continues to grow and develop, all the infrastructure being built — homes, power lines, roads — is taking land. Protecting places for nature will more and more become the mission of park and recreation agencies. Parks need to think beyond just providing recreation.”


Moloney agrees: “All too often we react to those customers who want athletic fields and recreation facilities. But, there is a voice for conservation that is not always heard. We have 9.5 million visitors per year to our parks whose visits are primarily based on conservation — hiking, birding and wildlife viewing.” He adds that wildlife-friendly parks don’t have to be big. They can include a pocket wetland or a vernal pool. “If you do it right,” he continues, “even small places can create diversity and attract wildlife, as well as attracting the public.”


Every park and recreation agency should include conservation in its mission. Of course, every agency doesn’t have prairies for bison to roam, or lakes and rivers for osprey to nest. But, every agency does have places for wildlife and opportunities to enhance habitat. Your staff and your citizen volunteers can put up nest boxes for cavity-nesting birds, such as bluebirds, that are threatened. You can enhance habitat by managing meadows and grasslands, installing pollinator gardens and seeking other innovative opportunities to improve habitat for wildlife. You can conserve and restore native wildlife species. To reverse the declines, every agency needs to embrace the conservation of wildlife. Your public will support you and it is the right thing for parks to do.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.