By Daisy Morales Bravo
“I speak for the trees,” said the Lorax.
I heard this phrase in elementary school. Almost every single one of us did. But many of us were too young to realize that in this line, Dr. Seuss was going beyond just making a children’s book. He was trying to expose a real-life issue: habitat loss.
Dr. Ron Sutherland, the chief scientist for the conservation nonprofit group called the Wildlands Network, recently sat down to talk about the environmental impacts of big constructions on animals.
“I mean, there’s this idea out there that the animals kind of bring the Lorax movies/books to mind, the brown barbaloots, packing up and going out somewhere else,” Sutherland said. “And the reality is there is nowhere else for these species to go.”
Sutherland explained that with so many houses and buildings being constructed, these creatures are in great peril.
“There’s just not that much natural habitats left, especially dry natural habitats,” Sutherland said. “In North Carolina, we have lots of wetlands that are still left, thanks to some wetland protection laws.”
The uplands, however, don’t have enough protection, he added.
“Wilmington, for example, has very little natural forest left, even though it used to be a really rich area with all kinds of biodiversity,” Sutherland said.
As a result, animals are looking in new places for food. Landscaper Curtis Grainger, who works for a landscaping company in Corolla, sees animals such as deer eating flowers or shrubs that were planted as decoration.
When asked how we, as humans, can address this problem, Grainger responded: “We should leave the smallest footprint damages to the land and we should limit land sales for new homes.”
While having animals in our backyard can be pretty disturbing, Sutherland recommends appreciating these magnificent creatures while they last.
“Animals can be a nuisance,” Sutherland said. “But if animals are also a blessing, and like if you have wildlife in your yard, you probably should just be enjoying it.”
Especially since, according to Sutherland, habitat loss is expected to increase in the coming years, and wildlife will be pushed to find new homes.
“Oftentimes they try to hide in trees and the tree will get cut down and taken,” Sutherland said.
Sutherland added that sometimes these animals will escape but that it is rare when they find a new place because basically, they have to carve out new territory.
“Basically, when we lose wildlife habitat in North Carolina right now, there’s the species that used to live there, they’re just basically going to die unless they get really lucky,” Sutherland said.
Sutherland noted that some animals are in more danger than others, such as the box turtles which were selected in 1979 as North Carolina’s official state reptile. They often become roadkill as cars and humans encroach on their habitats.
“They’re slow, slow-growing, and slow to reproduce and so they can’t handle that much road mortality,” Sutherland said. “Once you get too many cars around the box turtles, they basically disappear.”
Even though conservationists have been doing their best to protect wildlife and prevent habitat loss, not all animals could be saved.
For example, the name of North Carolina’s professional football team, the Carolina Panthers, didn’t come out of nowhere. At one point panthers were actually found in North Carolina. Unfortunately due to habitat loss and hunting, Sutherland said that the panther population has become extinct in the wild.
“At some point, we kind of closed the frontier, people had been chasing the mountain lions with dogs and everything,” Sutherland said. “At some point, they killed the last one.”
Another animal with a history similar to the panther is the red wolf. These rare animals are very close to extinction, being listed as one of North America’s most endangered animals.
Red wolves were once a part of the ecosystem of the entire Southeastern coast. But like the panthers, Sutherland said, their numbers started decreasing greatly due to habitat loss and hunting.
“I think North Carolina lost its last wolf by around 1900 and then, about 50 years later, people sort of assumed the wolves were gone,” Sutherland said. “But then they realized there were a few wolves left and so they decided to catch them and bring them in captivity and breed them and then put them somewhere safer in the wild.”
With 100,000 acres of habitat, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was the perfect place to start releasing red wolves. According to Sutherland, biologists started releasing pairs of red wolves into the refuge in 1987.
The red wolf recovery program, which Sutherland is a part of, saw success over the past two decades.
“The wolf population grew pretty well up to about 130 to 250 animals around 2006,” Sutherland said.
Their numbers started to decline again in 2012 for a variety of reasons, according to Sutherland.
“As of last year, the population got down to only eight confirmed animals,” Sutherland said. “In the wild, it’s one of the most endangered species in the world; it’s likely that it has a captive population.”
While Sutherland has always been a fan of nature and of helping animals, his real interest for conserving wildlife started after a big construction project took away what he used to call his playground.
“We had this nice forest that we played in and one day I went out there and it was covered in red tape,” Sutherland said. “All the trees had red-flagging tape all around them.”
That eventually led Sutherland to become a die-hard conservationist.
“That kind of hit home deeply to me, I was really frustrated by that,” Sutherland said. “Since then, I’ve seen places all over the country, especially here in the Southeast, getting ripped up to make more and more developments.”
Developments and new construction projects have been tearing up places filled with lush vegetation. That’s why Sutherland suggests that taking care of the environment right now is more crucial than ever.
“Wildlife is important for its own sake, it’s important for the ecosystem that we live in,” Sutherland said. “A lot of humans forget that we live in an ecosystem and that we mess with the ecosystem to our own peril.”
Sutherland explained more about how, as humans, we live in an ecosystem, and as such we have to act as part of it.
“I try to be cognizant of the fact that I’m just part of one species, and there’s all these other millions of species around the planet,” Sutherland said. “Humans should not really have the right to destroy space for those other species.”
Sutherland further noted that animal conservation is not just important for us, but for future generations as well. Grainger shares that sentiment.
“We should protect our future.” Grainger said. Our grand- and great-grandchildren need to have animals around and animals need space to thrive for our next generations.”
As Sutherland stated, everyone should care about what is happening to the wildlife in North Carolina, even young people who can’t yet vote. Especially since, according to Sutherland, in the upcoming years we will lose another couple million acres of wildlife habitat in North Carolina.
So if we don’t stand up and take action, then we might be looking at a world with no trees left. The Lorax summed up everything Sutherland suggests.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,” Dr. Seuss’s the Lorax says. “Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
This story was supported by the North Carolina Sea Grant through the Community Collaborative Research Program and with a huge assist from Aranzazu Lascurain, assistant university director of the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center at N.C. State University. NC Health News founder and editor Rose Hoban, NC Health News reporter Anne Blythe and Sarah Sloan, media producer at Narrative Arts, worked with a half dozen students to help them develop these podcasts and essays.