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Back in the 1600s, what is now the urban metropolis of Montreal was a vast forest teeming with wildlife—including deer, moose, and beaver—whose presence was partly what enabled humans to thrive there. Today, though, few nonhuman species can cross—much less inhabit—this concrete island. Even far outside the city itself, forests and wetlands are giving way to suburban sprawl. The same is true in fast-growing cities around the world.
Gonzalez, who is tall and reedy and speaks with an accent from his native England, has spent the better part of a decade studying how his Canadian home appears from the viewpoint of other animals. Since 2011, he and members of his McGill lab have been assembling maps of “how each creature perceives the landscape”—which patches of land a bear, a nuthatch, a marten, or a frog can and cannot use.
Gonzalez, like most ecologists, believes keeping landscapes connected, and reconnecting isolated fragments, is crucial to safeguarding the planet’s biodiversity. Over the past few decades, a “connectivity” movement has been building momentum, slowly and quietly. The most audacious and high-profile North American project is the 25-year-old Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, or Y2Y, an effort to protect the ecological health of a vast, rugged slice of the United States and Canada. In Europe, Natura 2000 is a network of protected areas stretching across roughly 18 percent of the EU.
The movement is beginning to gain the attention of lawmakers, too. A group of six northeastern U.S. governors and five eastern Canadian premiers recently signed a resolution recognizing the importance of landscape connectivity. This fall, a working group will meet to discuss how to prevent further forest fragmentation on a regional scale.
But while many efforts to link natural areas and create “corridors” for animal movement focus on large swaths of land, and the large mammals, such as bears and wolves, that use them, Gonzalez is concerned about areas more densely populated by humans—cities, suburbs, exurban expanses of advancing asphalt. He argues that protecting and restoring linked areas of green space, around and even within cities such as Montreal, is key to saving species from extinction, to enhancing the quality of urban life for humans, and to improving our understanding of how the natural world is shifting around us.
In an effort to move connectivity to the core of urban and regional land-use planning, his lab has built a computer model that uses data on species movement, climate change, and future patterns of development to show which areas are most crucial to conserve or restore.
As a steady spring rain fell outside a café near McGill, Gonzalez sipped a cappuccino and opened his laptop to a map of the St. Lawrence Lowlands, a network of forested areas surrounding Montreal, between the Appalachian and Laurentian mountain ranges. The map was colored in varying shades of gray, with a series of red and yellow splotches, some of which formed a band to the city’s northeast. The colored patches on this particular map represented the most important habitat for the ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)—a migratory warbler that breeds in eastern North America and spends winters in Central America and as far south as Venezuela.