Creeping Impacts

Talk of our impacts on the environment often seems to suggest that the only important impacts are big, severe and obvious. Don’t believe it. Environmental impact statements sometimes have trouble dealing with them but many of our impacts these days creep up on things rather than blasting them out of their habitats.

The contamination of well water in the village of Sydenham was not sudden. It was slow and crept up on people over a long time. But there is no question that it eventually became an important impact on their environment (and wallets).

What has been the creeping effect of our introduction of snowmobiles and ATV’s into previously quiet stretches of bush? Push it up one step. What have highways done over time to the environments along them? Not only do they turn wildlife into roadkill, but the effects of highways and motorized trails extend well beyond a narrow traveled line. Vegetation, with or without leaves, does not stop much noise. It takes solid, flat things like the noise barriers along superhighways. A multi-year study in The Netherlands showed that highway noise reduced the successful nesting of several bird species for up to 200 metres on each side of the road. The Dutch government has now dug some of their new roads down into giant trenches so that the side walls catch some of the noise and better protect the environment beyond.

We create many creeping impacts that are hard to notice. I live on a small peninsula that is hard to get to for many kinds of wildlife. We have built our houses along both edges of the peninsula and our road down the middle. Foxes that used to have pups here only visit occasionally now. Without considering how activities around homes restrict the movement of some species, our impacts crept through most of the habitat. Some wildlife can no longer live with us. Dogs, cats, humans, smoke, noise, light, all can do it, depending on the sensitivity of the wildlife.

If we plan a housing development, how many dogs does that mean? How much noise? How much excess light going into the night forest? Dogs from homes built near the woods can put an end to nearby deeryards. But cats, both yours and the ones dropped off along the road, can be an even greater impact creeping out from our houses into the surrounding habitats. Good, multiyear studies have shown that not only do cats reduce the numbers of many kinds of wildlife but they also can completely exterminate some species locally. It may be cruel but fortunate that coyotes eat cats.

Some species are more sensitive than others to our creeping impacts. Other species have learned to live with humans and even to use resources that we supply, like our garbage. As our impacts creep up on them, we chase away sensitive species and soon the only species that we can see and experience close to home are tolerant ones such as raccoons, gray squirrels, crows and, eventually, in cities, just Norway rats, house mice, starlings and pigeons.

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