All creatures, including humans, share life’s basic requirements. They include food, water, and shelter. What’s more, these requirements must be within reasonable reach of each other if any given creature is to survive. The requirements, as a package, can be defined in a single word — habitat. Each of the requirements comes in many forms and from many sources, depending on the creature being considered. A larger, more mobile creature like a deer can cover a lot of ground to meet their daily needs, but a small, non-flying insect may need to find them all within a few square feet. Although many creatures may share similar habitat needs, each one has its own specific requirements. A few creatures are highly adaptable and can meet their needs from a broad variety of sources, while others are highly specialized and can utilize only a few. Ecologists have told us for years that each creature plays its own important role, and that eliminating any creature weakens the ecosystem that all creatures, including us, depend on. Religious educators have have a saying that supports the same conclusion: “God didn’t make any junk.”
A few creatures can alter their habitat to better meet their needs. Humans are the hands-down best at doing that. We ship food and redirect water flow for long distances. We drill deep wells where no surface water exists to satisfy our thirst and water our crops. We mine energy and distribute it over long distances to maintain our amazing mobility and keep ourselves at comfortable temperatures. Beavers are among the best known wild habitat modifiers as they create ponds with their dams. Their feeding and construction work perpetuates young, succulent woody growth as cut trees re-sprout from the stumps. That means more of the beaver’s favorite food right near the pond. Other wildlife like deer benefit from the same young growth.
Habitat imposes limits on even the most adaptable creatures, though. It’s true even for those that can alter their habitat. We humans stretch those limits seemingly far beyond the point where something ought to break, but, in the end, it’s true for us just like all other creatures. It may take awhile, but Nature has had, and always will have, the last word. Aquifers are being pumped dry as we use water at a rate faster than they can recharge. Even where water is still available, it can become too polluted to support life (consider the Gulf Dead Zone that hit record size last year). A single major volcanic eruption can alter world climate (and habitat) enough to limit the growth of primary food plants, leading to famine in various places around the world.
Look around as you travel this winter. Consider where our fellow creatures might find enough food, water, and shelter to survive and reproduce. Ask yourself if the fabric of life in our area looks strong and healthy, or is it stretched rather thin or even torn. Look carefully and you’ll also find a few areas where people are working to repair or strengthen that fabric through a variety of innovative land management practices. We humans may ultimately be as vulnerable to habitat limitations as our wild neighbors, but we have the creative ability to help them and ourselves at the same time. Will 2018 be the year that we become more responsible stewards of our fragile habitat? Will the Iowa Legislature finally get behind real management practices that will improve our land and water, or will they, yet again, kick the can down the road and just talk about some future plans that might get funded when times are better? It will help if you encourage our legislators to support our lands and waters.
Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.