The Journal Gazette
Thursday, November 14, 2019 1:00 am

Let roadsides grow wild for imperiled species

Jay Butler

I just finished reading Mike Todd's Oct. 29 letter to the editor, “Weeds are out of control along state's roadways,” with the writer lamenting that the Indiana Department of Transportation “is letting our roadways go back to natural habitat,” implying that Indiana road rights-of-way are being left in shameful condition.

I felt that a second opinion was in order. While I do understand there are those who would have the grass along Indiana highways looking as pristine as a well-tended lawn, there is excellent reason to let them go natural. There is an ever-decreasing area for small-game animals, pollinators and birds to live because of our continuing commercialization of farmland.

The writer complains that “INDOT mows just the edge,” which is likely done just for safety concerns and not for the sake of saving operator time or fuel for mowing.

But let's get to something that I am more familiar with. Who has not noticed that compared with the days of our youth, we now see far fewer fireflies winking on and off as they drift across the darkened sky on warm July, summer evenings? What we may not have noticed is that we also have far fewer bee pollinators, butterflies and songbirds than we had as recently as 10 years ago. And we may not have noticed less small game, including rabbits, pheasants and others.

The fact is that our honeybees are under serious threat, as are our Indiana songbirds. Both are essential to the future – one to feed our bellies and the other to feed our souls. The main threats facing pollinators are habitat loss, as native vegetation is replaced by roadways, manicured lawns, crops, and non-native gardens. Our pollinators are losing the food and habitat necessary for their survival. Without flower pollen – no bees. Without bees – no honey, but more importantly, no way to pollinate our fruits and vegetables.

A similar chain-of-life threat holds true with enumerable other insects, birds and wildlife here in Indiana. We have less land suitable for pheasants, grouse and other game birds, as well as rabbits, and they are all becoming dependent on the natural areas along our roadways. With fewer hunters year after year, we are losing the revenue source from hunting licenses that is the primary source of wildlife funding efforts.

All these God-given gifts of nature benefit by our leaving our highway rights-of-way go natural rather than mowing them to a lawn-like consistency.

As an alternative to mowing, I'd recommend more seeding with wildflowers native to Indiana, including milkweed for the monarch butterfly, an insect also under stress. Then, I'd ask the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to post signage, educating our populace about the planned wildlife sanctuaries being propagated along the Indiana roadways.

Native grass and wildflowers not only add beauty but also protect those not able to protect themselves. And planned properly, less – not more – weed spraying is needed, as well as less mowing. If mowing is considered necessary, it should not be done in the months when game birds are nesting.

I belong to the Izaak Walton League of America, a conservationist organization, committed to protection of soil, water, air and wildlife. One way to achieve this protection is to educate our neighbors on the importance of retaining natural areas for the propagation and protection of nature's gifts that we often take for granted.

Too often we don't even realize these “gifts” are under ever-increasing threat – a threat we can alleviate through education, planning and protecting, via simple things like enhancing, rather than decimating, the areas for nurturing them along our Indiana roadways.

So thank you, INDOT, for your wisdom, and may I encourage you to take the next step in planting more wildflower patches in our rights-of-way, supplemented by plants such as milkweed, the flowering weed needed by the monarch butterfly in order to complete their life cycle.

And then, INDOT, proudly tell of your efforts by adding signage to educate those like the earlier editorial writer, who unwittingly is a proponent in the demise of nature's plant, insect and wildlife beauty rapidly disappearing in Indiana.

I am sure Mr. Todd enjoys the beauty of the monarch butterfly, the taste of honey and the song of the whippoorwill and very likely simply does not realize the importance of our Indiana “natural” road rights-of-way to their continued existence.

The threat is very real, and sometimes the easiest way is the best way to ensure the future.

Jay Butler is vice president of the Fort Wayne chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America.

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