Habitats are Not Lost; They are Taken
Elephants, giraffes, cheetahs, frogs, lightning bugs, the Sumatran Tiger, and koalas are but a minuscule sampling of species in population decline due to habitat loss.
There is an innocence and sense of sympathy that can come with the word ‘loss’. We have all lost something, and usually that loss was unintentional and/or inadvertent. We didn’t mean to lose the pen, the phone, the tickets or any of the other things that seem to float away from us.
As a student, teacher, professor, researcher, land manager and Quartermaster of TSE, habitat loss has always been a focal concern of mine. Preventing the loss of habitat, healing the damage, and replacing or restoring the loss are central themes in species protection and recovery.
Of late though, it has seemed to me that habitat loss is the wrong term and sends the wrong message – for habitats aren’t lost. Habitats do not wander off the trail, become confused and fail to find their way home again. Nor do habitats fall through a hole in one’s pocket, or get jostled out of a backpack and get left behind.
Habitats are not lost, they are taken.
We humans have three general approaches for taking habitats: destruction, fragmentation, and degradation (1). All three mechanisms stem from a common premise: that a particular piece of the planet would serve a higher economic and/or civic function if it operated the way we wanted it to, rather than the way nature had designed it to.
For most people, habitat destruction is the clearest example of habitat take, i.e. one bulldozes a forest to replace it with a palm oil plantation. Another example would be to take ranch land and turn it into a housing development – if buyers can afford the mortgage, they can probably afford to eat out or buy interstate/internationally shipped food at the grocery store. And they can afford the premiums for flood insurance because the ground and foliage that once absorbed rain is now covered with an impervious surface, so it often floods in heavy weather.
Habitat fragmentation can be harder to see from the land or roadway, but elevated and aerial views make it distinguishable. Fragmentation occurs when holes are punched into a habitat like a clear cut in the center of woodland, or the scarring of a seagrass bed. As we break up the size of the contiguous habitat, or sever the corridors between habitats, we significantly change the ability of that place to support the species diversity of the site.
Habitat degradation is undoubtedly the toughest form of habitat take to perceive. Habitat degradation is a slow and insidious death. Chemical pollution and run-off can gradually poison an area so that native inhabitants can no longer live there. Sometimes humans divert water and either dry a site out or flood it. In either case, we render the site inhospitable to the previous community of species. Or we introduce (intentionally and unintentionally) exotic invasive species that come to dominate the landscape and change ecological relationships.
When I think of habitat take, a variety of personal experiences come to mind. A clear cut in the Ecuadorian Rainforest resulted in local butterflies having no place to lay their eggs. A Sandhill Crane hunting for food in an outlet mall parking lot – a site that less than a year before had been a prime habitat for that species. Fishing boats stranded at the dock as pollution has rendered the local seafood inedible. And lastly, the ever-growing silence of my neighborhood as “improvements” replace nesting sites for birds, and lawn maintenance reduces the available food supply.
In the near term, habitat take will continue to be focused on the individual species that are immediately and directly impacted. We will sit in judgment of the loss and measure it relative to our personal preferences. Do you like to go fishing, or hunting, or hiking, or bird watching or whale watching? Do you think snakes or butterflies are cool? Do you like the fact that some bats eat thousands of mosquitos a night? Do you like the shade of an oak tree, the beauty of a magnolia in bloom, the taste of maple syrup on your pancakes?
The biggest habitat take we cause is climate change as it mutates habitats at a planetary scale.
150 species go extinct each day (2) – primarily because we refuse to share the resources of the planet with them. It happened yesterday and it will happen tomorrow. The choice is ours as to how long we want to value our short-term selfishness over our long-term benefit.
And as we each puzzle over the answer to that quandary, it might be good to remember that we are a species that needs food, water and oxygen; and generates carbon dioxide. We need other species to balance the equation of our mutual survival. To deny them existence is to deny our children the future we wish for them.