By Scott Steen

As I walked bleary-eyed through my living room one cold, early morning in midwinter, I was greeted by the sight of two red foxes, sitting together on my deck. I stopped in my tracks, suddenly wide-awake. There is something magical about having an unexpected encounter with the natural world, and these beautiful critters were fewer than 10 feet away from where I stood in my robe and slippers.

A red fox patrols around its den in Springfield, Va.

A red fox patrols around its den in Springfield, Va. Credit: Dherman1145/Flickr

My suburban community has an interesting relationship with nature. Only 30 minutes outside of D.C., the houses here are set on relatively small lots, but our neighborhood is bordered by a large tidal creek and canals that snake through one side, and by a heavily forested area on the other. Because of this, we share the neighborhood with copious quantities of wildlife — mallard ducks, Canada geese, egrets, great blue heron, osprey, groundhogs, muskrats, deer and several families of red fox.

Neighbors here seem acutely aware that the wildlife is precious and that we are privileged to live among them. People tend plants designed to provide food sources for the birds and mammals, platforms for osprey nests are maintained in the creek, speed limits are strictly enforced on the roadways and waterways and the foxes are the subject of as much neighborhood gossip as the people.

A great blue heron at Great Falls Park in Virginia

A great blue heron at Great Falls Park in Virginia; Credit: RachidH/Flickr

Recently, the importance of humans sharing the land with wildlife has been brought home to me anew in big as well as small ways. I recently returned from visiting the forest reserves in Michoacán, Mexico, that serve as the migratory habitat of much of North America’s monarch butterfly population. American Forests has been funding forest restoration projects in the area since 2006, with nearly a million trees planted to date. Thousands upon thousands of monarchs fluttered around us as we neared the top of the reserve (nearly 11,000 feet up), and fir trees that, at first glance, looked brown and dead, were actually vibrant green, but covered with so many butterflies that no underlying color was visible.

As amazing and beautiful as this experience was, it obscured a troubling fact that has been widely reported. In 2014, the migratory population was a fraction of what it was in 2013, which, in turn, had witnessed a significant drop from 2012. The monarch butterfly population is collapsing due to illegal tree harvesting in Mexico and the use of herbicides and farming practices in the U.S. that are obliterating milkweed, the sole food source for monarch caterpillar larvae. And while Mexico has been working on their side of the problem for a number of years, relatively little has been done in the U.S. to stem the loss of milkweed. The monarch’s decline is, apparently, attributable to human causes — like the declines of many forest species. If we want these butterflies to be around in 20 years, we need to do a better job of sharing the land, of recognizing that our actions have consequences beyond our immediate needs.

Young gopher tortoise in Florida

Young gopher tortoise in Florida; Credit: J. Rob McCullough

Shortly before Mexico, I spent a day at the Osceola National Forest planting longleaf pine with a group of volunteers. In 2007, the huge Bugaboo Fire burned across much of Georgia and Florida, destroying large swaths of formerly private industry timber lands used for pine plantations. American Forests has worked for a number of years with the U.S. Forest Service and has planted more than 1 million longleaf pine seedlings in the Osceola National Forest alone, restoring more than 3,000 acres of this typically fire resistant native tree. Osceola’s longleaf pine forests provide critical habitat for gopher tortoises, a keystone species in the region that is also seriously threatened by human causes, from loss of habitat to using them as pets or food. These longleaf pine forests also provide critical habitat for endangered redcockaded woodpeckers, one of the few endemic bird species in North America. The red-cockaded woodpecker also plays a vital role in the ecosystem, creating cavities in trees that serve as nests for other animals. Like the gopher tortoise, this woodpecker is primarily in decline because of loss of habitat to development.

Human actions are at the center of a massive decline in biodiversity worldwide. This is true not just in distant countries, but in our own backyard as well. In fact, according to a NAFTA report, “Half of North America’s most bio-diverse eco-regions are now severely degraded and [North America] now has at least 235 threatened species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.” Today, the very existence of wildlife of all kinds depends on us living more lightly on the land and paying greater attention to the needs of our nonhuman neighbors. We can and must do better, not just out of respect for our wildlife neighbors, but also because of what their health and well-being is telling us about the health of the planet — and what that ultimately means for humans too.