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Photo: John Sturrock
“A modern mania for canal developments is reshaping cities by offering oases of calm in fast-moving town centres,” says the
Guardian.

When our kids were small, the Barge Canal (otherwise known as the Erie Canal) was as familiar to them as their friends’ backyard, as the elementary school, as the Hicks and McCarthy luncheonette. It ran right through town. I remember taking a canal-boat ride up and down (vertically) through the locks with a visiting grandmother and a picnic lunch.

In today’s story, John Vidal writes at the Guardian about a new focus on canals in England.

“Every second Monday of the month, a small group of volunteers meets in the training room of a Birmingham supermarket. They discuss what has long seemed to many of their friends a crazy and probably doomed idea: how to excavate a contaminated 40-year-old waste dump, create an urban marina, restore three miles of derelict canal and build several new bridges and locks.

“Last month, however, the meeting of the 18-strong Lapal Canal Trust committee was joyous. After 20 years of trying to restore this short stretch of the 200-year-old Dudley No 2 canal, permission had finally been granted, they were told.

“What’s more, a feasibility study showed that the plan – which would link the suburbs of California and Selly Oak by water – could be a catalyst for nothing short of the economic and ecological renaissance of a large area of south Birmingham.

“The new canal will generate jobs but also provide space for new houses, as well as pollution-free walking, boating and cycling routes. The marina for 60-100 boats will stimulate businesses and bring in tourists. The wildlife corridor created along the canal will attract herons, otters, fish and waterfowl. And although the whole project will cost about £5m, the study said it would pay for itself in six years.

“ ‘It will improve life in the city. It will complete an old canal loop around the city – we owe it to the future to restore it. … No one is objecting and we have nearly raised the first £250,000 – enough to start work,’ says the Lapal trust CEO, Hugh Humphreys.The Lapal plan is one of at least 80 canal renaissance projects currently making British towns and cities suitable for populations seeking tranquility, leisure space and new ways to move around. …

“It’s not just happening in Britain. … But few countries have as many urban canals as the UK, a legacy of British industrial might – and now a golden opportunity for transformation. Some, such as the Aldcliffe yard development in Lancaster, will see just a few expensive houses built on old industrial canal works; but many seek to create large new ‘liveable’ urban communities in what were some of the Britain’s polluted places, such as Wolverhampton, Leeds, Manchester, Lancaster, Glasgow, Liverpool and Birmingham. …

“Three things unexpectedly changed everything. A postwar infant canal leisure industry emerged; dozens of passionate heritage charities like the Lapal trust voluntarily restored many of the old waterways; and water proved to be the vital ingredient to kickstart a new, property-based canal mania.

“ ‘The restoration of the canals in the 1950s and 60s was thanks to a remarkable act of defiance by unpaid volunteers against the authorities,’ says canal historian Mike Clarke.

“ ‘Volunteers were vital. It’s unlikely there would be many canals today without them. The government, many influential people, and the British Waterways board, were all happy to see the majority filled in. … They told the government, “if you want to complain, take us to court.” …

” ‘They formed isolated stretches of peaceful country within the urban environment. Planners eventually saw them as an asset, and government at last understood their potential for leisure.’ …

” ‘The job is only half done in Britain,’ says Alison Smedley, policy officer of the Inland Waterways Association. ‘The restoration of Britain’s canal system is in full flow but there is so much left to do. … There are still about 1,800 miles left to be restored, although many [canals] have been filled in and are unlikely ever to be reclaimed,’ she says. …

“Canal and River Trust (CRT), the government-part-funded charity set up in 2012 to take over and manage the 2,000 miles of state-owned canal formerly run by British Waterways, [calculates] that about 10 million people a year visit the canals to fish, walk, cycle, observe wildlife or go boating. …

“In addition, canals have become a real alternative for people unable or unwilling to buy city property. .. Ten years ago 10% of the boats on British waterways were used as primary residences. It is now 26%, says the CRT. …

“ ‘Almost unnoticed, the canals have become important sanctuaries for urban and rural wildlife,’ says Simon Atkinson, head of conservation at the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust. … Otters, water voles, kingfishers, ducks, herons, fish, dragon- and damsel flies, even rabbits, are seen on the 100-odd miles of Birmingham canals, some of which are classed as local nature reserves. …

“ ‘If development is done well, it can enhance nature. The canals have never been more important, but it could go the other way. There is a real opportunity for high quality inner-city development and nature to flourish together.’ ”

For me as a lover of Dickens (the novels, not the man), I can’t think of English canals without thinking of the dark spirit of Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend. In fact, maybe I’m ready to read that one again.

Learn more about the benefits and challenges of canal popularity here.

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Photo: National Park Service
Female mountain lions (cougars) are an increasingly common sight in the mountains surrounding Southern California cities.

I like the idea of sharing space with wildlife, but there are limits. Not sure I want too many skunks in my suburban backyard or even one cougar. Richard Conniff at Yale360 explains how coexistence is working in a variety of people-inhabited places around the world.

“One morning not long ago, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka,” he writes, “I traveled with a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist on a switchback route up and over the high ridge of the Western Ghats. Our itinerary loosely followed the corridor connecting Bhadra Tiger Reserve with Kudremakh National Park 30 miles to the south.

“In places, we passed beautiful shade coffee plantations, with an understory of coffee plants, and pepper vines — a second cash crop — twining up the trunks of the shade trees. Coffee plantations managed in this fashion, connected to surviving patches of natural forest, ‘provide continuous camouflage for the predators’ — especially tigers moving through by night, my guide explained, and wildlife conflict was minimal.

“Elsewhere, though, the corridor narrowed to a thread winding past sprawling villages, and conservationists played a double game, part hand holding to help people live with large predators on their doorsteps, part legal combat to keep economic interests from nibbling into the wildlife corridor from both sides. It was a microcosm of how wildlife hangs on these days, not just in India, but almost everywhere in the world.

“For conservationists, protecting biodiversity has in recent years become much less about securing new protected areas in pristine habitat and more about making room for wildlife on the margins of our own urbanized existence.  Conservation now often means modifying human landscapes to do double-duty as wildlife habitat — or, more accurately, to continue functioning for wildlife even as humans colonize them for their homes, highways, and farms. …

“Corridor protection on the grand scale has achieved remarkable results, notably with the 2,000-mile long Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative. It aims to connect protected areas and to ensure safe passage for elk, grizzly bears, and other wildlife across 500,000 square miles of largely shared habitat, both public and privately owned.

“At the same time, research by Nick Haddad, a conservation biologist at the University of Michigan’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, has demonstrated substantial improvements in biodiversity from corridors as little as 25 yards in width, well within the range, he says, of ‘what’s reasonable in urban landscapes.’

Indeed, a new study from northern Botswana has found that elephants traveling from Chobe National Park to the nearby Chobe River will use corridors as small as 10 feet wide to traverse newly urbanized areas.

“Urban areas now increasingly recognize that it’s cheaper to protect clean water by buying up natural habitat both within their own borders and at the source, instead of installing expensive technology to purify it after the fact.  It’s not just about New York City purchasing huge chunks of the Catskills. North Carolina’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund, for instance, has also protected 500,000 acres of watershed and riverside habitat over the past 20 years — with enormous incidental benefits for wildlife. …

“Scientists were stunned in October by the report [that] that over a 27-year period, from 1989 to 2016, the population of flying insects at nature reserves across Germany had collapsed, down by 76 percent overall, and 82 percent in the peak mid-summer flying season. Most of the likely causes — including habitat fragmentation, deforestation, monoculture farming, and overuse of pesticides — were factors outside the borders of these ostensibly protected areas.”

For more on global efforts to protect biodiversity near human habitation (and the unlikely entities getting on board, such as power companies, highway systems, and active train systems), click here. You can also learn ways of protecting beneficial insects outside your home at my friend Jean’s Meadowmaking website, here.

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On my walk this morning I saw an official-looking sign on a fence in a residential neighborhood. The sign read “Certified Wildlife Habitat.”

I had to look it up when I got home. The website of the National Wildlife Federation says, “Wildlife needs our help. … You can invite wildlife back to your own yard and neighborhood by planting a simple garden that provides habitat. …

“Providing a sustainable habitat for wildlife begins with your plants. That’s why we call it  a wildlife habitat ‘garden.’ When you plant the native plant species that wildlife depend on, you create habitat and begin to restore your local environment. Adding water sources, nesting boxes and other habitat features enhances the habitat value of your garden to wildlife. By choosing natural gardening practices, you make your yard a safe place for wildlife. …

“Here is what your wildlife garden should include:

“Food: Native plants provide nectar, seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, foliage, pollen and insects eaten by an exciting variety of wildlife. Feeders can supplement natural food sources.

“Water: All animals need water to survive and some need it for bathing or breeding as well.

“Cover: Wildlife needs places to find shelter from bad weather and places to hide from predators or stalk prey.

“Places to Raise Young: Wildlife needs resources to reproduce and keep their species going. Some species have totally different habitat needs in their juvenile phase than they do as adults.

“Sustainable Practices: How you manage your garden can have an effect on the health of the soil, air, water and habitat for native wildlife as well as the human community.

“Already have all these elements in your wildlife garden? Certify today!” And there’s a box to click on if you think you are ready.

Now I’m wondering if the chipmunk on our back steps today thinks our yard could qualify. It’s a small yard, so not much cover. And we’d need to provide water. Hmm.

More at the National Wildlife Federation, here.

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Is the New England cottontail no longer in trouble? I guess, as David Abel suggests at the Boston Globe, it depends on who you talk to.

“The threatened New England cottontail — the region’s only native rabbit, made immortal in The Adventures of Peter Cottontail [by Thorton Burgess] — appears to be making a comeback.

“Federal wildlife officials [are] removing the cottontail from the list of candidates to be named an endangered species. It’s the first time any species in New England has been removed from the list as a result of conservation efforts. …

“Wildlife officials said the bark-colored rabbits, which have lost nearly 90 percent of their dwelling areas to development, are benefiting from an increasing effort to protect their habitat. …

“The rabbit, which has perky ears and a tail that looks like a puff of cotton, has been the victim of development that has wiped out most of the region’s young forests. … Unlike its abundant cousin, the Eastern cottontail, the New England species relies on the low-lying shrubs of young forests for food and protection from predators, such as raptors, owls, and foxes. …

“Some environmental advocates worry that the federal government may be acting prematurely in removing [New England cottontails] from the list of candidates for endangered status …

“It has never been easy to galvanize concern for the cottontails, given how much they look like the nonnative Eastern cottontails. Those rabbits, brought to the region by trappers in the 19th century, have flourished because they have better peripheral vision than the native bunnies …

“ ‘People think they’re everywhere,’ Scott Ruhren, director of conservation for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, said of the local cottontails. ‘But like every species, they are important and deserve a place on the New England landscape.’ ” More here.

Update January 10, 2019: More good news at EcoRI, here. If zoos can do more this sort of wildlife restoration, they will go a long way toward justifying their existence to opponents.

Photo: Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe
A New England cottontail bred in a refuge in Newington, N.H., was penned Thursday in advance of its release.

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Once again, Andrew Sullivan provides me with a thought to chew on. I had heard of building tunnels under highways to let wildlife maintain their historic routes, but  an Orion magazine article on the topic includes an overpass.

Andrew Blechman wrote the article. “When the Montana Department of Transportation approached the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes about widening the portion of U.S. Highway 93 that bisects the Flathead Indian Reservation, the tribes resisted. They first wanted assurances that any highway expansion would address the spirit that defines this region of prime wildlife habitat and natural wonders. The primary goal for the tribes was to mitigate the impact of the road on wildlife.

“While people view highways as a means of getting from one place to another, to wildlife they are just the opposite: a barrier….

“Collaboration between the tribes and highway engineers, with help from Montana State University and Defenders of Wildlife, led to the creation of the most progressive and extensive wildlife-oriented road design program in the country.

“The 56-mile segment of Highway 93 now contains 41 fish and wildlife underpasses and overpasses, as well as other protective measures to avoid fatalities. As creatures become accustomed to the crossings, usage is increasing—at last count, the number was in the tens of thousands. Motion cameras have captured does teaching their young to run back and forth through the crossings, much like human mothers teach their children to safely cross a street.” More at Orion.

See the overpass below.

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An Associated Press blurb in the Globe caught my eye today.

Here it is in its entirety: “Unity Plantation, Maine. A two-year quest by Unity College students to fit a black bear with a video collar has succeeded. The Morning Sentinel said Professor George Matula and about a dozen students trekked deep into a 4,000-acre patch of woods off Route 139 Thursday to fit the collar on a trapped bear. While one student kept the angry bear’s attention, another sneaked in from behind to deliver a shot to knock it out.”

I had to find out more. The website of Unity College, “America’s Environmental College” located north of Augusta in Waldo County, explains it wasn’t a professor-assisted prank.

“With permission from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Unity College Bear Study team does hands-on research to provide information on a bear population in Central Maine. Students work with faculty mentor George Matula and alumna mentor Lisa Bates ’08 to tag, tattoo and radio collar bears to collect data and monitor activity.” More at Unity College, here.

But about actually collaring the bear. …

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling  writes at the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel, “Once Matula gave the all-clear, the students descended on the bear, intent and serious as each performed a well-defined role. They still spoke in whispers as they took blood samples, checked its vital signs and prepared to affix the all-important video collar to its neck. …

“One student, Leon Burman, cradled the bear’s head in his lap while he pulled back its lips, using a tattoo gun to leave an identification mark on the gums.

“[Student Jonah] Gula lifted the bear’s front right paw, inspecting a raw and red line defining the previous capture’s cable. Gula speculated later that it meant the bear was pulling at its snare more aggressively than most. The team treated it with a first-aid kit.” More here.

Photo: Mark Bennett

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According to Christopher Joyce at National Public Radio, young whooping cranes learn from older ones, and when older cranes are unavailable, they can learn from ultralights.

“Being a wildlife biologist in the 21st century increasingly means rescuing rare animals from extinction. Among the success stories is the whooping crane. Seventy years ago there were only about 16 birds left on the planet. Now there are about 600.

“But breeding more birds isn’t enough. Scientists want to restore the crane’s way of life, too. And a team of ecologists at the University of Maryland have discovered something that suggests they are succeeding: Captive-bred are picking up tips from older birds about how to skillfully navigate south for the winter.

“It’s a sign that those whooping cranes are passing knowledge from one generation to the next and, in a sense, rebuilding their culture.”

So how do whoopers raised in captivity learn to follow and where to go when there are no older birds around?

“Workers drive around the enclosures in an ultralight, one-person aircraft … that moves along the ground. It’s the first step in teaching these birds to identify an as a mature whooper. Then when the birds are yearlings and it’s migration time, they’re shipped up north, to Wisconsin.

” ‘The ultralight in Wisconsin not only circles on the ground and teaches them to follow,’ [Greg Smith of the U.S. Geological Survey] says, ‘but it also ultimately lifts up into the air’ and accompanies the whooping cranes on their great migration, which lasts between 50 and 100 days.”

More.

Photo: Joe Duff/Operation Migration USA Inc.
This young whooping crane is on its first fall migration, guided by an Operation Migration ultralight aircraft. Each whooper in this population wears an identification band, and many carry tracking devices that record their movements in detail.

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