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A reptilian take on your bright green lawn

Green grass
CC/Flickr/mtsofan
The price of a green law? The dying off of frogs, turtles and salamanders.

It has always baffled me. Right here in the suburbs of the Twin Cities you see your neighbors – good people, people you know and like – standing there on perfectly groomed lawns spraying more fertilizers, mole killers, pesticides, whatever it takes to keep the glossy green look I guess they’re after.

Collette Adkins GieseCollette Adkins Giese

They’re smart people, so they have to know that all that poison either seeps into the groundwater or gets washed directly into the local waterways and ponds — like the pond down the street where their kids and my kids like to go to play and check out the tadpoles and frogs.

Being a trained biologist, it’s easy for me to get pessimistic about what we’re doing to the planet. But I don’t want my 5- and 6-year-olds to feel any of that weight. So I just try to stoke their love of nature.

I show them all the critters in our local pond – the one where all the neighborhood pesticides end up. We take canoe trips and hikes. We just got back from Yellowstone, where we saw buffalo and elk and wolves and all those amazing hot springs and geysers.

Still, the work I do can make it tough for me to stay positive. As a biologist and attorney specializing in the protection of rare amphibians and reptiles, I know in great scientific detail many of the reasons frogs, turtles and salamanders, like so many species, are dying off at as much as 10,000 times their historic rates. And I know they’re remarkably accurate indicator species whose health offers us a picture window on what we’re doing to our own health and the broader environment – the one I’m leaving behind to those kids of mine some day.

Petition for protection

That’s why I chose my line of work. Earlier this month (July 11) I completed the largest legal petition targeting the protection of reptiles and amphibians ever filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The petition, which I did for the conservation group I work with, includes 53 species, from lizards with specially adapted toes that help them to run without sinking into desert sands, to the world-famous wood turtles found right here in Minnesota. If you collected those turtles as a kid, you weren’t alone.  The colorful markings on their necks and legs and the cool geometric growth-line etchings on their shells make them highly coveted across much of the world. That popularity, coupled with habitat loss and degradation, has left wood turtles in serious decline.

Overall, scientists estimate that about 25 percent of the nation’s amphibians and reptiles are at risk of extinction, yet they make up only 58 of the approximately 1,400 U.S. species that have received federal protection.

A long process

For me, the good news is that the 53 species in our petition have a great chance of surviving if we offer them the protections of the Endangered Species Act, because it has prevented 99 percent of species placed under its care from going extinct. It’s a long bureaucratic process, and many of these increasingly rare animals don’t have much time left. But it offers me some hope.

And my two wonderful kids are helping me to build on that hope. They came back from our Yellowstone trip and immediately starting selling popsicles to the neighborhood kids to raise money for their own little conservation project.

They say they’re planning to move to the Amazon to protect all the animals in the rainforest.

Collette Adkins Giese, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, is the nation’s only lawyer focusing on the protection of reptiles and amphibians. cadkinsgiese@biologicaldiversity.org.

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Comments (4)

Neighborhood associations and city councils

In a lot of communities, you can be cited for anything OTHER than a traditional weed-free green lawn. Heaven forbid you go "off the rails" and try to replace it with a natural prairie or even - gasp! - a vegetable garden.

Until that paradigm changes - on the legal, as well as the cultural front - it's still going to be a battle to get people to consider something other than their high maintenance glossy green grass that they take so much pride in.

Unfortunately

People won't believe that having your lawn treated with toxic chemicals has anything to do with degrading the environment until they have to complete and environmental impact statement to do so. How many people in Minnesota have "protect habitat" license plates on their cars but cannot understand that protecting habitat begins in your own back yard? Thanks for connecting the dots.

So Creeping Charlie is okay

Our yard probably contains the majority of the creeping charlie in the twin cities but it's green and smells good when it is cut. It is definitely a better competitor than any grass species in our shaded acidic soil.

Since we have pastures and farm fields on 3 sides of us our over grown tangle of box elders while not aesthetic provides a great home for a number of creatures. Frogs and toads seem to be making a great come back. The fox/coyote niche is now filled by a fox but that varies. Deer graze withing 50 feet of the house and one one occasion a young raccoon, fox kit and my monster barn cat held a three way conversation at 3:00 AM near the oak. The loons and sandhills can make a defining racket if they want to. And I have a crow that washes it's food in one of our driveway depressions that fills with rain water.

I wouldn't trade any of it for a shapely lawn.

Toads Welcome

I've been seeing toads in my slighly brown, somewhat weedy back yard, which I take as a sign I'm doing things right.