It's a pretty sobering reality that no amount of barbed wire, spent fuel rods, PCBs, landmines, live ammo, or coal slag is as dangerous to wild animals as the mere presence of humans.
Prior to 1986, the area surrounding Chernobyl in the Ukraine was an agricultural area populated by about 135,000 people. After an uncontained nuclear power plant accident, however, livestock and crops across a vast area were systematically destroyed, and all of the people within a 2,800 mile area around the nuclear plant were evacuated.
With the removal of humans has come the return of some of Europe's most endangered species, including lwolves, lynx, cranes, beaver, eagles, hawks, wild boar, roe deer, badger, and otters. Populations of human-dependent animals, such as rats, house mice, sparrows and pigeons, have declined.
While some folks may imagine that the Chernobyl site must be filled with two-headed frogs, radioactive fish, and sterile deer, scientists have found relatively few visible wildlife side-effects. Dr. Ron Chesser, a senior research scientist and genetics professor at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) in Aiken, South Carolina notes that "There are no monsters. The Chernobyl zone is actually a very beautiful place with thriving wildlife communities. Without a Geiger-counter, you wouldn't know you were in a highly contaminated place."
Chernobyl is not the only place reclaimed by mother nature in the asbsence of humans. A sampling of a few others:
The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ): The Korean Demilitarized Zone is about 2.5 miles wide and 155 miles long, stretching across the entire length of the Korean Peninsula. It is one of the largest unmanned areas in northeast Asia. Festooned with barbed wire, landmines, tank traps, sensors, automatic artillery, and patrolled by scores of thousands of soldiers with "shoot-to-kill" orders, the Korean DMZ is also home to hawks, eagles, antelope, two kinds of rare cranes, frogs, black bears, and roe deer. The DMZ is also rumored to be home to the last Korean tigers on earth. In total, more than 20,000 migratory fowl utilize the DMZ border area which encompasses a broad cross-section of Korean ecosystems and landscapes.
Military Weapons Production Facilities: Military weapons production facilities in the U.S. have resulted in the creation of several large "no man" zones. In Washington State, for example, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was created as part of the WWII-era Manhattan Project. Today the 586-square mile site is one of the most contaminated spots on earth due to nuclear waste, but it also contains the best undisturbed "shrub-steppe" habitat in the Columbia River basin, and the only undammed stretch of the Columbia River. The healthiest populations of wild chinook salmon on the river system can be found along the Hanford Reach, and more than 200 species of birds and more than 40 rare plants and animals, such as the long-billed curlew, call it home.
- In Colorado, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (which produced and stored vast quantities of chemical weapons) systematically kept out humans for more than 40 years. As a result, the 10-square mile Rocky Flats complex outside of Denver has been described as "a rare biological treasure" -- one of the last remaining Front Range open spaces with natural prairie grassland -- while the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (also just outside of Denver) has thriving colonies of prairie dogs and over 100 overwintering bald eagles, as well as trophy-sized mule deer and impressive populations of ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls and mountain plovers. Both locations, for the record, are now National Wildlife Refuge's.
- In Georgia, a 300-square-mile property along the Savannah River was set aside for nuclear research and development more than 50 years ago. For most of the Cold War this site produced plutonium and tritium for atomic bombs. While a small part of the complex remains heavily contaminated, most of the area was left in pristine condition as a security buffer zone -- an area that today is home to more than 240 species of birds, 100 species of reptiles and amphibians, and nearly 100 species of freshwater fish. Because Savannah River wildlife was left alone to matures, many state record holders have been caught or trapped here, including the largest South Carolina alligator ever caught (13 feet) and the largest South Carolina largemouth bass. Despite jokes about "glowing frogs," University of Georgia's Whit Gibbons says there is no evidence to date of genetic damage to wildlife. "It's a pretty simple formula," he note, "The best protection for the environment is no people."