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Op-Ed: Think Twice Before You Pull Those Weeds

Native species furnish food for Monarch butterflies on their long migration to Mexico, and necessary nourishment for thrushes, tanagers, and warblers as they wing their way south

eric stiles
Eric Stiles

As we head into spring, there are a number of bills before the state Legislature designed to improve habitat quality for New Jersey’s wildlife, as well as raise awareness and appreciation of our natural environment and species such as native pollinators.  

One of these measures will assist property owners in helping our native wildlife and pollinators.    

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation. Not surprisingly, more than 30 percent of our land is considered urban, which includes our suburbs and residential yards; office parks with sprawling, manicured lawns; golf courses; and athletic fields.   

Traditional lawns make up a significant portion of the 1.6 million acres of urban development in New Jersey and offer very little value to wildlife and pollinators. Nationally, an area approximately eight times the size of New Jersey is occupied by lawns. They are essentially barren wastelands from the view of our native wildlife, as they provide little help to species needing places to forage and nest, and for cover and protection.   

Many native pollinators across the United States have seen precipitous declines as a result of the impacts of habitat loss, climate change, disturbance, pesticides, disease, and more. The rusty-patched bumblebee was recently listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act; the first federal listing for a bee. Monarch butterfly populations have also declined roughly 80 percent across the country. It’s critical that we use all tools available to protect and conserve these critical species.   

Homeowners attempting to provide food and shelter for native wildlife have long encountered obstacles through municipal ordinances that prohibit vegetation growth above a certain height and characterize wildflowers and taller native grasses as unsightly “weeds.”   

Some so-called weeds, which many are quick to yank from the ground or point out to the landscaper, are critical native plant species that supply resources such as nectar for pollinators, and seeds and berries for birds and other wildlife, as well as needed shelter and nesting habitat.  

That is why New Jersey Audubon is actively supporting legislation that would encourage people to buy and nurture native plants and protect those homeowners from spurious nuisance claims. The bill (S-1151/ A-1069), would protect homeowners who encounter municipal nuisance issues due to their selection and creation of native habitat instead of uniform, heavily watered and fertilized, closely-trimmed lawn.  

Residents would have to enroll in the program, declaring their intent to provide wildlife habitat and plant and nurture native species. If a neighbor objects or municipality issues a complaint, it would be on record that the homeowner is intentionally trying to provide habitat through a detailed and guided plan, rather than being negligent about his or her property. The landowner would then be afforded protections from these claims.  

In addition to removing a barrier to homeowners providing habitat for wildlife, we expect the demand for native plants to increase in the marketplace. Currently, it can be difficult for consumers to locate adequate supplies and varieties of appropriate native plants to purchase.    

Many plants available are nonnative species that at best provide little resources for wildlife and at worst, can become invasive and spread from residential yards into surrounding ecosystems. With more homeowners seeking native-plant alternatives, plant-retailer stocks of native species should eventually increase.

The increased availability of native plants and habitats offering food, water, and shelter in backyards across the state will create a patchwork of refuge and better enable migratory wildlife to survive their journeys.

As a key component of the Atlantic Flyway, New Jersey provides critical habitat for a multitude of bird species — including but not limited to neotropical songbird migrants such as thrushes, tanagers, warblers, and vireos — during their spring and fall migrations. Monarch butterflies depend on late-blooming nectar sources each fall as they migrate through New Jersey on their way to Mexican wintering grounds.

Our resident wildlife will also be afforded a better ability to survive in this densely populated state, and the increased use of native plants will help to reduce water use and chemical inputs. Ultimately, homeowners should be encouraged, rather than discouraged, to offer wildlife habitat and a landscape that requires fewer harmful chemicals. 

New Jersey Audubon appreciates the work of the primary sponsors of this bipartisan bill: Sen. Kip Bateman and Assembly members Jon Bramnick, John Burzichelli, and Nancy Munoz. We strongly support this legislation as an effective and innovative way to remove barriers for increasing the availability and connectivity of wildlife habitat across the state.

Eric Stiles is the president and CEO of New Jersey Audubon.

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