Florida Power & Light Company (FPL), the Sunshine State’s largest power utility, employs all the people you might expect: electricians, lineworkers, mechanical engineers — and a few you might not. For over 40 years, the company has kept a team of wildlife biologists on staff. Their task? Monitoring the giant carnivorous reptiles that reside in one of the state’s nuclear power plants.
What sounds like a low-budget creature feature is actually a wildly successful conservation story. It goes like this: In 1975, the shy and reclusive American crocodile was facing extinction. Over-hunting and habitat decline caused by encroaching development had pushed its numbers to a record low. By 1975, when it was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, there were only 200 to 300 left.
Three years later, in 1978, workers at the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Homestead, Florida happened upon something that must have made them gasp: a crocodile nest along one of the plant’s 5,900-acre “cooling canals.” Rather than drive the crocs away — perhaps the easiest solution — FPL hired a team of biologists and implemented a Crocodile Management Plan. Its goal was unconventional: provide a suitable habitat for the crocs within the workings of the nuclear power plant, allowing both to coexist.
Over the course of the next 30 years, FPL’s wildlife biologists monitored nests, tagged hatchlings and generally created a hospitable environment for the reptiles. As it turned out, the plant’s cooling canals provided an ideal habitat: drained earth that never floods on which to lay eggs directly adjacent to water. Over the years, more and more crocs made the cooling canals home. By 1985, the nests at Turkey Point were responsible for 10 percent of American crocodile hatchlings in South Florida. In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded the American crocodile’s status from endangered to threatened, singling out FPL for its efforts.
The program continues to this day. To date, biologists have tagged some 7,000 babies born at the plant. In 2021, there were a record-setting 565 crocodile hatchlings at the Turkey Point facility.
Turkey Point’s efforts are an example of what is known in the conservation world as “reconciliation ecology.” Rather than create separate areas where nature or animals can thrive in isolation from humans, reconciliation ecology suggests that we can blend the rich natural world with the world of human activity. Michael Rosenzweig, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, was a leading force in establishing this concept. The author of Win-Win Ecology: How the Earth’s Species can Survive in the Midst of Human Enterprise, Rosenzweig has pointed out that although human encroachment has typically been considered a threat to biodiversity, the notion that the world must be either “holy” or “profane,” ecologically speaking, is simply not true.
“In addition to its primary value as a conservation tool, reconciliation ecology offers a valuable social byproduct,” writes Rosenzweig in his first chapter. “It promises to reduce the endless bickering and legal wrangling that characterize environmental issues today.”
Dr. Madhusudan Katti, an associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University, was inspired by Rosenzweig when he did his postdoc at Arizona State. Katti has now been in the field of reconciliation ecology for two decades and teaches classes on the subject. “To me it’s finding solutions to reconciling human development with biodiversity conservation,” Katti says.
This common ground between development and conservation can be consciously planned, like FPL managing a crocodile habitat at a nuclear power plant or the state-sponsored vertical gardens and commercial farms on high-rise buildings in Singapore. Other examples include the restoration of the coral reef around an undersea restaurant in Eilat, Israel, or recent legislation in New York City requiring patterned glass on high-rise buildings, making windows more visible to migratory birds. Other planned examples of reconciliation ecology can be more individually scaled: a rooftop garden in an urban setting, modifying your garden to earn a “backyard bird habitat” certification from the Audubon Society, or even just mowing your lawn less often.
“Urban lawns are among the largest crops in the U.S. in terms of acreage,” Katti says. “And they are mowed constantly. Research by one of my colleagues shows that mowing once every three weeks rather than every week can make a big difference in terms of allowing flowering plants to grow.” Allowing these flowers — including dandelions — to grow even for two to three weeks increases insect diversity, including pollinators. (Pollinators play a critical role in the food supply — a full two-thirds of the world’s crop species require pollination.) “So, lazy gardening is good for the environment,” Katti says.
But there are countless examples of “accidental” incidents of reconciliation ecology, as well. One of Katti’s favorites is the kit fox of California’s San Joaquin Valley. “The kit fox was one of the very first species listed on the Endangered Species Act,” Katti says. Its decline was caused by habitat loss through agricultural and industrial development, as well as the extermination of the gray wolf population, which led to an increase in coyotes. So kit foxes adapted and moved to new habitats. One of these was the city of Bakersfield, California.
“Bakersfield, surrounded by oil pumps, would be the last place you’d expect to find an endangered species,” Katti says. But researchers think kit foxes have migrated to Bakersfield because they actually have more protection there from predators like coyotes and bobcats. “The kit foxes have figured out that if they can tolerate the human disturbance and live with people, then they are safer from all these other predators,” he says.
Living in the city has led to some interesting behavioral changes. In the wild, for instance, a female kit fox gives birth to her young and raises them by herself in a den. But in the city, researchers have observed multiple females raising their litters together in the same den. “It’s like a form of cooperative breeding,” Katti says. “That wouldn’t happen in the wild.”
Other examples of “accidental” reconciliation ecology might include the increase in the number of pileated woodpeckers on the edge of cities in North Carolina, where tree canopy has increased in recent years; and the Slender Loris, a nocturnal squirrel-sized primate that has somehow survived in Bangalore, one of the world’s fastest growing cities.
Reconciliation Ecology isn’t just we humans welcoming animals like crocodiles and foxes into our environments, though. It’s also living with nature in a way that most Western societies haven’t done since the Enlightenment. “In recent years, there’s been a recognition that the ‘fortress conservation’ model — keeping nature separated from humans and not thinking of or valuing human-inhabited landscapes — those ideas are outdated,” says Katti.
In fact, in Katti’s classes on reconciliation ecology, he embraces the notion of reconnecting people with their land if they have been unjustly separated from it. “The term reconciliation also applies to all the colonial legacies where both nature and people have been harmed,” Katti says. “For Indigenous communities, the harm done to ecosystems, it’s happened together. So you can talk about addressing both. That’s where a lot of my thinking is at the moment.”
A hopeful version of this sort of reconciliation is happening in California where colleagues of Katti’s who are tribal members are re-introducing “tribal burns” in some areas. Controlled burns have been a part of many Indigenous cultures for millenia, both as a way to prevent devastating forest fires, but also to encourage the growth of certain plants like hazel that are used for basket-weaving and other crafts.
“The notion that people don’t belong there and ‘let nature take care of itself’ doesn’t really work,” Katti says. “That’s the legacy of Western European Enlightenment thinking — a divide between human and nature. That is a real faulty view of nature. People have been part of the ecosystem forever.”
That said, reconciliation ecology is not without complexities. In 2016, a Florida journalist reported that high levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope, had been discovered in Biscayne Bay — leakage from the Turkey Point nuclear power plant. A Tallahassee judge had already ordered the utility and the state to clean up the plant’s cooling canals, which had caused an underground saltwater plume to leak into local drinking water supplies. Both contaminants point to the potential messiness of reconciliation ecology, and the difficulties of coexistence between wildlife and human development. There’s the threat of unanticipated zoonotic diseases, and the negative ramifications of development, namely toxic pollution.
That said, what choice do we have? In Win-Win Ecology, Rosenzweig estimates that only five percent of the world’s terrestrial habitat remains in something approximating a natural state. And, as Katti points out, climate change is shifting climate zones so the plants and animals that certain natural parks were meant to protect or conserve will no longer be viable in those habitats.
“That is still a fundamentally static view of nature, that you are going to put a fence around it and protect it and it will stay that way forever,” Katti notes. “The reality is nature is more dynamic. We need to allow for migration and we have to think how to make the entire landscape hospitable to biodiversity and to people. All of that, to me, is reconciliation ecology.”