Habitat is Infrastructure

by Rhonda Fleming Hayes

Far be it from me to offer financial advice but, as Mark Twain once said, “Buy land, they aren’t making it anymore.”

That savvy suggestion runs through my head whenever I think about wildlife habitat loss. Here, as I sit in our winter hideaway in northwest Florida, that loss hits especially hard. Beyond the strip of beautiful beaches are vast tracts of native landscape, longleaf pine, live oak, palmetto, Yapaun holly and other flora knitted together, with boggy patches of pitcher plants, their veiny fly-trapping funnels lit up where light sneaks through. You can see fat carpenter bees and sulphur-yellow butterflies that catch the sun while cruising above the thickets.

We are located in the fifth fastest-growing county in the country. Our place is surrounded by protected forests but just up and down the road, future developments of ginormous proportions are planned, whole new cities. Numerous other smaller subdivisions pop up seemingly overnight, acres scraped clean with only peach sand left behind.

What does this have to do with pollinators in Minnesota? Well, habitat loss is everywhere. It may be more dramatic here, but it is no less devastating in our own region. What habitat is left is fragmented.

Habitat fragmentation can be caused by natural events like floods, fires and volcanoes. Humans contribute to the phenomenon with roads, commercial and housing developments, and agricultural crops. Habitat is broken into isolated islands by these occurrences, physically disconnected, resulting in food and water shortages, safety issues, reduced mating territory and reproductive sites, and consequently a smaller gene pool among wildlife, including pollinators. The conundrum is how to reconcile human needs with those of wildlife.

Good News

I’m heartened by the inclusion of funds for pollinator habitat restoration in the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It finally acknowledges pollinator habitat as part of our infrastructure, critically important to our food supply and the health of the planet. That’s a big deal. According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the money will be used to create and maintain roadside habitat corridors.

  • Specifically, grants would fund:
    Planting or seeding locally appropriate native wildflowers and grasses, including milkweed and other host plants for butterfly larvae, on roadsides and highway rights-of-way to enhance pollinator habitat;
  • Changing mowing strategies to promote early successional vegetation (flowers and grasses) and limit disturbance during periods of highest use by target pollinator species;
  • Removing nonnative grasses from planting and seeding mixes; and
  • Implementing integrated vegetation management plans.

The money set aside for pollinators isn’t a lot, $10 million over five years.

But the really big deal is that other money in the infrastructure bill, billions in fact, has been designated to help wildlife across our country in the form of wildlife crossings to connect habitat, restoration of aquatic habitat, restoration of native vegetation and help to combat invasive plants among other actions to improve the resiliency of our ecosystems.

Whenever we move to help one species, it overlaps to aid other species. Those dollars to help all wildlife will benefit pollinators in the process.

I preach a gospel that encourages gardeners to plant for pollinators in the hope that the number of gardens multiplies to reach some sort of critical mass that makes a dent in habitat loss. I further aspire to spur neighbors to connect those gardens to combat small-scale habitat fragmentation on a residential scale.

However, we also need to pay attention to and attend meetings about development and current and future land use. We need to support land conservancy. We need to vote in pollinators’ best interests. We need to think bigger while we continue to plant for pollinators.

Because they aren’t making land anymore.

Minneapolis-based Rhonda Fleming Hayes is the author of Pollinator Friendly Gardening (Voyageur Press, 2016).

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