Most of us live in areas that look like this when viewed from the window of a plane:
It’s astounding to see the changes that humans have exerted on the planet, altering and using almost every habitat within our reach. In Butler County OH, where I live, the historic landscape where the birds flew and the frogs called looked more like this:
So, it would seem that turning a nice forest into this would be a complete environmental travesty:
But the research I have done on golf courses leads me to have hope that we humans can use land in ways that minimize the impact on natural systems. In 2004, I started a study in golf courses in Missouri to examine if amphibians could live in golf course ponds—areas that have a high level of physical and chemical management. I predicted that few amphibians would survive these environments because of excess contamination from frequent mowing and spraying. However, I was surprised to find that not only did they survive well in golf course ponds, but there was greater survival for some amphibian species reared in golf course ponds than in reference ponds. We were rather stunned, but water sampling also suggested that aquatic predators were less abundant in golf course ponds (an indicator of lower water quality), which allowed amphibians to survive in greater numbers because of reduced predation. We have done related studies in Ohio and found that amphibians survived in golf course ponds here as well, suggesting that amphibians may survive larval development in the aquatic environment successfully. (Work examining if they can survive in the terrestrial environment is still inconclusive.)
What these results suggest to me is that green spaces used for humans for recreation have a high potential for incorporating some of the natural flora and fauna if managers take a few things into to consideration, which could create a win-win situation for both wildlife and humans. And when you consider that golf courses may be some of the very limited green spaces in urban areas, there is the potential for these areas to harbor some of the local native species with some care. Audubon International (http://www.auduboninternational.org/) is an organization that works with golf courses to help managers design golf courses that are as environmentally friendly as possible. There are hundreds of golf courses that meet the criteria and they can be found at this link: http://www.auduboninternational.org/PDFs/CACS%20Golf%20list.pdf. For Ohio golfers, there is only one course in Cleveland that meets the standards, unfortunately.
A lot of the “must do’s” for amphibians are fairly simple if the golf course managers are aware of them. In fact, if managers did three simple things to their ponds, they could benefit local amphibian species greatly. For instance, leaving ponds free of fish is probably the most important factor. Fish are often added to ponds to reduce algal blooms, but anuran larvae will have the same effect. Research we and others have done show that even herbivorous fish can eliminate amphibians from wetlands; only a couple of species persist successfully with fish (namely, bullfrogs), and these are not the species that are most at risk to extinction. Secondly, allowing some vegetation to remain around parts of the ponds can provide terrestrial amphibians with area to hide from predators and live in their terrestrial life stage. This may mean leaving out of play areas unmown—a savings for managers and a benefit to some of the native species. Thirdly, most amphibians complete larval development in the late winter through summer months, so it is most beneficial for the ponds to hold water during this time. Water levels are frequently lowered for irrigation on courses and for pond cleaning, and doing this during the fall or winter can allow amphibians to persist.
Because habitat destruction and alteration are going to be an inevitable consequence of growing human populations, minimizing the impact of these changes on wildlife when possible would be a step in the right direction. Although habitat preservation and conservation are certainly a major goal for maintaining biodiversity for the long haul, this will not be possible in all habitats, which is where smart management will come in. Things may get worse before they get better, but there are signs that we are going to get smarter about the way we alter habitat. (Europe is already a lot smarter since their resources are scarcer.) Golf course managers, in my experience, are people who love nature and the outdoors (as well as golf!), and they seemed interested in learning about the results of our research. Most people are willing to make simple changes; they just need to know what strategies work.