Prune a Tree, Save a Bear

Finding good news in eight quirky adaptations for recovering wildlife

Cultivate apples

Marsican brown bears in Italy’s Apennine Mountains are recovering from a population that had been stuck at fifty bears for most of the twentieth century. An effective strategy for supporting the rare ursid is to prune senescent apple trees abandoned in the hills. The sweet calories generated by the pruning keeps this cousin of the grizzly away from trouble in valley bottoms filled with beehives, chickens, and Italian drivers. The bears now number at least seventy.

Remove dams

The removal of two dams on the Elwha River in 2012 and 2014 has helped salmon and many other species. Resident killer whales in Puget Sound have been spotted patrolling the restored river’s mouth on the hunt for returning coho and Chinook. And an aquatic songbird called the American dipper now hatches two clutches of eggs each breeding season instead of one, spurred on by the river’s returning health.

Fish with baskets

Sperm whales recovering in the North Pacific have learned how to run a commercial fisherman’s longline through their teeth as a way to pluck fish. With worldwide sperm whale populations up 70 percent from the low caused by whaling, fishers are using mesh baskets rather than hooks to catch fish as they dissuade the whales from their “flossing.”

Try satellites

European bison are living wild in England again after a hiatus of thirty thousand years. Five Bison bonasus now graze an ancient woodland outside of Canterbury in Kent, creating clearings in the overgrown forest and boosting biodiversity. For now, people aren’t allowed in the part of the woods where the bison roam. Rangers are contemplating a future without fences in which the bison wear satellite-guided shock collars so they don’t wander into the nearby cathedral city.

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Get the lead out

California condors, soaring back from a low of twenty-seven individuals to over three hundred today, need recapturing periodically so that toxic lead can be taken from their blood. The condors ingest the lead by consuming animals shot by hunters and never picked up. The “chelation” treatment appears effective and may be a necessary stopgap until lead shot can be banned nationwide.

Negotiate a climate partnership

Sea otters on the Pacific coast have recovered from less than a thousand when hunting was banned in 1911 to one hundred and twenty-five thousand today. The otters boost climate-sucking kelp forests by eating the sea urchins that mow down the forests. But the otters have also depleted shellfish in some areas, to the chagrin of local divers. Biologists and coastal residents are figuring out how to thread the ecosystem needle so that otters, shellfish, and kelp forests can all thrive.

Trick a beaver

Beavers across North America have surged in the last century from one hundred thousand to around fifteen million. Their dam building helps with groundwater replenishment, sediment capture, and wildfire mitigation. But humans have needed tricks to prevent nature’s plumbers from causing unwanted floods. Disguised PVC pipes quietly siphon water through beaver dams. The puzzled rodents are fooled by a technique known as a “beaver deceiver.”

Modify fences

Pronghorn antelope on the Great Plains have climbed from a low of thirteen thousand to a million today. This fastest mammal in North America can outrun any predator but is stymied by a simple fence. Pronghorn did not evolve to jump anything bigger than sagebrush, so they are more comfortable shimmying under wires than jumping over them. Pronghorn fans lobby for the bottom strand of fences to be barbless so as not to impede the handsome ungulate’s limbo dance.


Want to learn about more wildlife recovery stories? Pick up a copy of Preston’s new book, Tenacious Beasts, which celebrates some rare good news about wildlife and presents lessons to help the recoveries spread.


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