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Interstate highways as wildlife habitat

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  June 17, 2013 12:11 PM

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Interstate highways are where nature goes to die. This is true literally, in the case of roadkill, and it's true spiritually, too: Is there a less serene place in the world than the concrete desolation of I-95? Yet an article earlier this month in Yale Environment 360 reports that at a time of shrinking habitat, highway median strips might just be the wildlife home of the future.

Over the last decade, journalist Richard Conniff writes, an international movement has been growing to transform the land around roads into attractive places for animals to live. Techniques including planting wildflowers to support floundering honeybee populations, keeping grass long to provide homes for ground-nesting birds, and turning stormwater runoff ponds into amphibian habitats.

Highway embankments are not the first place most animals would choose to call home, but wildlife in many parts of the world are running out of options. As the article explains, agriculture and urbanization are claiming more and more land, leading Rebecca Kauten, manager of the integrated roadside vegetation management program at the University of Northern Iowa, to call roadsides “the last refuge, the last vestige of hope” for many species.

It’s a strange marriage in every respect: animals don’t have much experience living alongside big rigs, and state departments of transportation haven’t traditionally been at the vanguard of conservation. But the grass is green next to highways, and increasingly there is no other side.

For more on roadside ecology, see Roads of the Future, which ran in Ideas in 2011.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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