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Sustainable land management balances wildlife and human needs

Brent Wills and daughter working on farm
Brent Wills and daughter.

Virginia boasts some of the most diverse landscapes in the nation, from the highlands of the Shenandoah Valley to the sandy expanses of the Eastern Shore. Over centuries, as more and more humans have made themselves at home here, there have been significant changes to the land. Forests have given way to crops, paths have evolved into highways and wetlands have been drained and filled to create neighborhoods. 

But the progress and development desired by humans doesn’t have to be completely at odds with the nature that sustains wildlife. With careful planning, the land we all call home can benefit animals and humans alike.

Agriculture has completely transformed the topography of many parts of the world. Where once there may have been lush forests, there are now patchworks of fields for growing and grazing. Farmers have found many ways to protect crops and livestock from their wild neighbors, but they’ve also found ways to protect wildlife with minimal sacrifice. They might plant trees to help control habitat-damaging erosion or leave some crop remains in place for birds to gather nesting material.

Before European settlers cleared much of the land to make way for homes, roads and farms, Virginia had broad expanses of wild grasslands, or prairies, that sustained a wide variety of plant and animal species. Small pockets of these ecosystems still exist in the Commonwealth, and their preservation maintains a connection to what Virginia’s countryside looked like before widespread human intervention. Even in their vastly reduced area, they are home to species like the prairie warbler and act as a filter for rainfall as it moves toward the water table.

Forests cover much more territory in Virginia but sometimes need interventions to thrive for the benefit of both humans and wildlife. It may seem counterintuitive, but fire can make a forest ecosystem stronger through prescribed burns. With careful observation and planning, landowners can help to restore at-risk tree species and minimize the harm of common diseases and invasive species

In major cities up and down the East Coast, urban planning is being done to accommodate wildlife that lives in unexpected places. Preserving large greenspaces and creating road-free pedestrian zones are two great ways to make a city more hospitable to its wild neighbors.

What You Can Do!

  • Choose native plants for your own land. They’ll help to feed the local wildlife and won’t require chemicals or expensive irrigation to thrive.
  • Keep your yard as natural as possible. A smooth, green lawn of grass might look picture-perfect, but it offers very little to wildlife and can be a major source of runoff that pollutes our waterways. Think about allowing a portion of your land to grow the way it might have in pre-Colonial times.  
  • Support local farmers and ranchers who are managing their land in a sustainable way. Go to farmers markets and ask questions. It’s wonderful to know where your food is coming from!  
  • Support businesses that promote sustainable land practices, and spread the word so others will too.
  • Check out The Wildlife Center of Virginia to learn more about the wild animals around you, and how you can help keep them safe.