Pictured Above: Stone walls were once prime snake habitat on the East End, but few snakes have been seen here in recent years, leading to cascading consequences up and down the food chain.

by Leonard Green

When I was a boy, snakes were a common sight on the island: garter snakes, northern black racers, and milk snakes. Black racers are the largest snakes on Long Island. I know they are still around, but I haven’t seen one in years.

I haven’t found any New York State black racer population studies, but across the Sound, Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection tells us: “It is considered an ‘important species’ in the state as its population is declining due to loss of habitat through succession, fragmentation, and development.” 

I’m afraid many of us are happy not to have snakes around. But  they are important, and their declining presence illustrates why we need to take the idea of biodiversity seriously.

Spring in the Northeast

As spring approaches, we’ve probably already started receiving advertisements promising to protect us from ticks, so now would be a good time to think about tick ecology.

The Cary Institute for Ecosystem Research, a leading environmental organization located in the mid-Hudson Valley, has been conducting decades-long tick studies. Their research helps us understand the intricate connections underlying our ecosystems and the importance of biologically diverse communities. 

In the Northeast, white-footed mice play a fundamental role in spreading tick-borne diseases. Larval ticks are born disease free. It’s not until their first blood meal that they can become infected. Cary Institute research finds that “White-footed mice are the principal natural reservoirs for Lyme disease bacteria. Ticks that feed on mice are highly likely to become infected, making them capable of transmitting Lyme disease to people during their next blood meal.”  Ticks that take their first meal from other small mammals are far less likely to survive or to become infected. Long before hitching a ride on you or a white-tailed deer, disease bearing ticks have been infected, most likely, by white-footed mice. Environments with a greater diversity of other small mammals, therefore, and a higher prevalence of white-footed mouse predators, have a lower prevalence of disease-bearing ticks. 

This gets us back to northern black racers and all the other rodent predators, such as foxes and raptors, which I see less often as the years pass. They all play a vital role in the food web. Small mammals, including white-footed mice, are on their menus. In the growing absence of these predators, aided by ever warmer winters, white-footed mouse populations have ballooned, along with cases of tick-borne illnesses.

Balanced or Fragmented?

Biodiversity, then, isn’t just a nice, abstract idea. It’s essential to keeping our natural communities in balance. Yet we persist in fragmenting and eliminating the habitat that supports biodiversity. Black racers need fields, meadows, grasslands and forest edges — what many of us might consider “overgrown” landscapes. Indeed, if we want to keep these mouse-eating predators away, we should keep our landscapes as tidy and trim as possible. 

Absent the predators, we rely on artificial pest control, often creating unintended consequences that extend throughout the unbalanced food web. A recent study, reported in the journal Science, reports that two-thirds of the wolf carcasses sampled in Central and Northern Italy showed the presence of rodenticides. In other words, the very predators nature has evolved to manage rodent populations are the victims of our human interventions to control rodent populations! 

We see this in our own region with birds of prey who eat small mammals. Suburbanization eliminates the hunting habitat of these birds, and we magnify their growing absence by inadvertently poisoning them.

There is something profoundly wrong with this model. 

Ecological Gardening

We need to understand that our properties are inhabited by neighbors who were here long before us. They have evolved intricate balances. We should respect them. Of course, we need spaces in our yards for play and relaxation that will not harbor ticks, but we also need habitat for biodiversity: insects, mammals, birds, and, yes, snakes too.

When we think about gardening and landscaping, we need balance. Perhaps less lawn and more natural horticulture? Nancy Lawson, author of the splendid new book, Wildscapes, points us in the right direction when she says, “And so why not default to just looking at the plants that evolved around us, looking at the animals that evolved here, and have relationships with those plants, and trying to encourage those communities?” 

This is the heart of the ecological gardening and landcare movement, a regenerative awareness of the native plant and biological communities that belong in our gardens and yards. Increasingly, botanic gardens are providing examples. Just consider Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s expanded Native Flora Gardens. They are beautiful and ecologically functional. And they are a reminder — the battle for climate change resilience is also a battle for biodiversity. The two are inseparable.

Leonard Green grew up on Long Island, spending his summers in the African-American summer community of Azurest, Sag Harbor. He now lives in East Hampton, and is a founding member of the environmental action group, Change Hampton. | www.changehampton.org

Climate Local Now is a partnership between the East End Beacon and two leaders of a grass-roots group inspired by the science of Project Drawdown to advance local climate solutions.

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