Turn Your Backyard into a Wildlife Sanctuary

By Lara Brenner

As spring arrives (in fits and starts), it’s time to start thinking about your garden, yard, or windowsill and how you can use it to benefit local wildlife. There are plenty of threatened species native to Minnesota that could use your help, and with a few simple changes you can turn any space into a wildlife haven–even if you don’t have a backyard. This article lists several small but important steps you can make to protect Minnesota’s wildlife.

Amphibians

Frog Jill Heyer

Photo Credit: Jill Heyer

THE PROBLEM:

Amphibian species (in Minnesota, mainly frogs, toads and salamanders) are something of a “canary in the coal mine” for environmental problems, as their reliance on clean, available water makes them vulnerable to pollution. Since 1980, amphibian populations around the world have been crashing, causing immeasurable effects on the ecosystems in which they live.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

Photo Credit: Ryan McGuire

Photo Credit: Ryan McGuire

1. Build a pond or wetland in your backyard

Amphibians thrive in a moist habitat, so building your own pond or marsh is a great way to encourage them to colonize your backyard. Frogs and toads eat mosquitoes, which provides an all-natural method of pest control.

Learn how to construct a low-maintenance garden marsh here.

2. Volunteer to “Frog Watch”

Amphibians have long been the beneficiaries of citizen science projects in which members of the public collect a bulk of the data. In 1995, for example, a group of high school students in LeSueur, Minnesota noticed that a large proportion of frogs in a local lake had physical deformities, sparking a state-wide study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

You too can become an amphibian citizen scientist by training as an accredited FrogWatch volunteer through the American Zoological Association. Once trained online, you can monitor wetlands and submit data that will be used in frog conservation science.

3. Avoid pesticides or harmful fertilizers

This goes for all wildlife, but amphibians are particularly susceptible to the effects of harsh chemicals because of their porous skin. By avoiding pesticides and fertilizers and providing shelter, water, and food sources for amphibians, your backyard could become Certified Wildlife Habitat!

See also: Tyrone Hayes, scientist who found that the herbicide atrazine caused cancer in frogs.

4. Make a Toad Abode

If you don’t have the space or time to construct a full wetland, a making a home for a toad out of an old clay flowerpot is an easy craft you can do with kids!

5. Protect our wetlands

Conserving large stretches of marsh, bog, and swampland will be crucial if we want to give our native amphibians any chance of survival. Not only do wetlands provide perfect habitat for frogs, toads and salamanders, but they also provide a whole score of ecosystem services, like flood control, water purification, groundwater replenishment, and climate change mitigation. It’s easy to get involved with wetland protection through the Sierra Club.

Monarchs

monarch2

Taken from SierraClub.org

THE PROBLEM:

Once as common a sight in urban areas as grey squirrels and crows, Monarch butterflies have experienced a 90% decline in their population in the last 20 years. Monarchs feed exclusively on milkweed, a plant that is well-adapted to growing between corn stalks. However, due to increased use of the pesticide RoundUp on genetically-modified corn, milkweed has been nearly eradicated from the Midwestern farms where most monarchs breed.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

1. Plant milkweed

Any plants that produce nectar will attract all kinds of interesting and beneficial wildlife to your backyard, but planting a few milkweed bushes could make the difference for dozens of Monarchs. Most species of milkweed have beautiful flowers as well, and can be a nice addition to a native planting area in your yard.

Photo Credit: Sam Wheeler

Photo Credit: Sam Wheeler

2. Support Roadsides for Wildlife

There are over 260,000 acres of roadside space with potential for revegetation in Minnesota. Talk to your local road authorities about allowing native grasses to grow along highways – should be an easy sell since it involves 100% less mowing for them!

3. Tell big agricultural companies to withdraw harmful herbicides from the market.

Join a protest, sign a petition, talk to your legislators – anything you can do to impress upon decision-makers the importance of the Monarch butterfly will help protect their populations.

4. Buy non-GMO corn

Since RoundUp can only be used on genetically modified corn, the best way to ensure you aren’t harming Monarchs with your purchases is to buy verified non-GMO corn at the grocery store. Your buying decisions are a direct way to tell farmers what is important to you in the way food is produced.

Bees

Photo Credit: James Pritchet

Photo Credit: James Pritchet

THE PROBLEM:

You have probably heard about the big mystery of the vanishing bees, or Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Although scientists still don’t know exactly what’s causing CCD, beekeepers and researchers blame it on a combination of disease, climate change, pesticides and habitat loss. Honeybees are the most prolific pollinators in North America, and are responsible for $15 billion of agricultural revenue in the United States. Bees also support the reproduction of hundreds of species of plants in almost every ecosystem.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

1. Become a beekeeper!

Not as time-consuming (or dangerous) as it seems, hosting your own colony of bees is a great way to give native vegetation in your immediate area an instant boost. Joining a beekeeping club or association is a great way to get started and connect with experts who can help you keep a healthy hive. Aside from the ecosystem benefits your bees will provide, you can harvest honey and wax as a personal benefit.

Nervous about stings? If it’s any reassurance, studies have found that bee venom has anti-inflammatory agents that can help with a variety of painful diseases, like arthritis. Of course, bee keeping is not for everyone, such as those with allergies.

Check out this list of beekeeping classes in Minnesota for more information.

Photo Credit: Ryan McGuire

Photo Credit: Ryan McGuire

2. Plant attractive flowers

A great way to indirectly support bee populations is to plant nectar-giving flowers that act as a food source. Bees like blue, purple, and yellow flowers that are shallow for easily accessible nectar. Check out this website for more information on bee-positive plantings.

3. Go No-Mow

Though your neighbors may feel differently, bees LOVE dandelions and clover, so leaving your lawn untrimmed is an easy way to help out bees. An all natural-prairie lawn is best, but if you are attached to your Kentucky Bluegrass even allowing a small patch to grow wild can be helpful. Learn more about native lawn maintenance at the U of M’s extension website.

4. Buy local honey

Supporting local beekeepers sends a strong message that bees are important to you! You can buy local honey at any co-op or farmer’s market, and your purchasing decisions may indirectly increase the number of bees you see in your area.

Finally, pesticides hurt all insects and amphibians. Avoid them and garden organically wherever possible.

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