Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Roads and the future of wildlife

This is a fresh newspaper column from me

Almost from the moment in 1988 when my late wife and I moved to Conyngham from the Air Force base at Plattsburgh, N.Y., I began keeping track of roadkill – the native wildlife species I came across while hiking and fitness-walking on the many rural roads surrounding the borough in both Sugarloaf and Butler townships.
The list-keeping has continued ever since and also includes roadkills found in other states, both East and West. Most of the species I annotated in field notebooks (I’m now in my fourth volume) were, however, found on Pennsylvania roads. That’s simply a matter of having spent more time exploring, hiking, walking and cycling in Pennsylvania than elsewhere.
It takes very little to stir my memories of those journeys on foot. It happened again this week as I scanned through my photo library, coming across images of dead wildlife from those years.
There, see those eyes? I wonder what that Eastern Cottontail (that’s the official name for a creature most folks label a “rabbit”) would say if it had a chance? The photo, snapped with a first-generation digital camera on West County Road in Sugarloaf, shows the cottontail on the asphalt ribbon’s shoulder, its dark eyes staring upward, frozen in time.
Most roadkill, whether found on Butler Drive in Conyngham or on any other road, amounts to a carcass flattened almost to the point of making species identification difficult. But not this cottontail.
Even making a good guess at the roadkill data in Pennsylvania, or any other state, is hard-to-impossible as even keeping track of the dead of one species – the white-tailed deer – is tricky and time consumptive.
One thing for sure, though. Pennsylvania has to be the dead white-tailed deer champion throughout the species’ wide range. There are several factors at play in that estimation. From the ecological side is this: Pennsylvania has a lot of edge habitat; edge habitat favors habitat generalists, like the white-tail and raccoons, squirrels, opossums, skunks and more. And just like in other eastern states, Pennsylvania keeps on creating even more edge habitat (e.e., the zone between one habitat type (forest) and another (the shoulder of a road). Our society’s zeal for sprawl development and our reliance on the private automobile (the machine that made sprawl happen) mean even more edge habitat and more deer.
My field notebooks tell me this: I’ve now tallied the roadkill dead of 157 animal species, from bumblebees and green darners up to sapsuckers, screech owls, Canada goose, and on and on and on. My overall tally (and, again, most of those numbers were tallied in Pennsylvania) is, surely, quite conservative in scope.
If we were ever able to put together an entire team of naturalists to go out and, say, over a 24-hour period, keep track of every roadkill species found, the final tally would be much higher than what my own field notes reflect.
The solution?
Walk, not drive your car, when you can. Live in already established neighborhoods. Tell your borough council or township supers you do not like the idea of more sprawl development.
And tell them you want our community to be as friendly as it can be toward bicyclists and walkers – forms of transportation that keep practitioners slim, fight obesity, and burn calories, not fossil fuels.
And which save wildlife – our natural heritage.
Look carefully at the accompanying photo of an Eastern Cottontail: What do those eyes tell you?

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