Why Shouldn’t You Be Optimistic About Protecting Endangered Wildlife?

Building Hope Through Habitat Restoration

How do you have optimism in the face of climate change, the collapse of wildlife populations, deforestation, pollution, and all of the other environmental crises we face? You don’t.

That’s because simply being optimistic about a given outcome means placing your faith in something outside yourself with the assumption that someone else will fix the problem. Instead, we shouldn’t just be optimistic about environmental challenges; we should work together to overcome them.

In the case of the biodiversity crisis, we have to be the ones who make sure frosted flatwoods salamanders, bog turtles, Chiricahua leopard frogs, and other imperiled species don’t go extinct. 

The way to do that is with hope. Hope isn’t just wishing for something good to happen. It’s having a concrete plan to make it happen. 

That’s what habitat restoration is for us. As part of our larger plan to safeguard species in trouble, habitat restoration, the art and science of reconstructing ecosystems, is like a beacon of hope in our increasingly fragmented and damaged natural world. 

Restoration involves the manipulation of the characteristics of a degraded site, such as the plant community or the hydrology, to return the area to a previous state of natural functioning. Whether the objective is to revegetate a field used for agriculture with native plants or prevent the erosion of a streambank disturbed by cattle, each project is a step towards reclaiming what has been lost or damaged. 

We include all these approaches and more in our PARCAs, or Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Areas, across the US. However, overall, it’s simple: our goal is to enhance the habitat of imperiled amphibians and reptiles so that they have what they need to thrive.

When beginning the restoration of an area, we look to a reference state—a snapshot of a past ecosystem—as a guide. Yet, in a world where climate change and human activity continually reshape landscapes, the definition of “natural” is a dynamic concept. Instead of looking to the past, sometimes, we must give more consideration to projected future conditions.

As a result, and because we’re working to restore a wide range of habitats, from mountain bogs to longleaf pine savannas to desert springs, every restoration plan in every PARCA looks different. For example, in several Southern Appalachian PARCAs in Virginia and North Carolina, we’re collaborating with landowners to restore the wetlands that once dotted large swaths of these rolling, mountainous landscapes. 

For centuries, large-scale wetland drainage projects were implemented throughout the region to make land more suitable for development and agriculture. Drainage was accomplished by installing ditches and drainage tiles, which are tubes with perforations buried underground to re-route soil water. Unfortunately for the species that inhabited them, these methods were so effective that only about 10% of the region’s wetlands remain today.

To restore the bogs, fens, and other wetlands here for the species that rely on them, including the Threatened bog turtle, we partner with landowners to remove historic drainage tiles, fill in ditches, and clear away invasive plant species. With these modifications, landscapes are once again inundated with water. This not only provides critical habitat for bog turtles but other vulnerable species as well, such as swamp pink, a long-stemmed plant with an elegant tuft at the top made up of dozens of tiny pink flowers.

Farther west, in the Cochise PARCAs of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, we’re working with federal partners to restore mountain wetlands for Threatened Chiracahua leopard frogs and northern Mexican garter snakes, along with hundreds of other species. As vital oases in these arid lands, wetlands were once much more commonly dotted across the landscape. Over the last century, a large number have been lost or degraded due to development, unsustainable livestock grazing, groundwater pumping, and water diversion. 

To return these critical refuges to the region’s dry lands, our efforts range from restoring the topography with heavy machinery to removing invasive species. With a variety of actions, such as removing nonnative cattails that crowd out native plants and alter the site’s hydrology, we can repair these wetlands to ensure that Chiricahua leopard frogs have ponds to breed; northern Mexican garter snakes have places to find food; populations of wildlife and plants are connected to allow for gene flow; and much more.

It’s this work and our national strategy for carrying it out that gives us hope of making a difference in the biodiversity crisis. Together with you and the rest of our partners, we have to be the ones who make sure ecosystems are restored for wildlife and societies. Once we accept the fact that today’s environmental issues have already changed the natural world in big ways, the result isn’t despair–but an energizing motivation. The things we feared have already happened. Now, we’re free to focus on how to fix them.