Chernobyl nuclear disaster site becomes a wildlife area, including over a hundred wolves (with updates)

Surprising growth in wildlife populations as land and water naturalizes, though there are some mutations-

Twenty six years ago, on April 26, 1986 reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the now-defunct Soviet Union melted down and an explosion blew open the reactor. It released a cloud of radioactive materials that contaminated most of Europe, but especially the area near the reactor in what is now Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

Two workers died in the explosion and 31 soon afterward from acute radiation poisoning. It has been estimated there might be 50,000 excess deaths due to long term radiation effects. Of course, no doubt in the years since many of these people have died from radiation and many other causes.

Of interest here are the wildlife side-effects of the total evacuation of people from 1,938,100 acres of land thought to be permanently contaminated by radiation. Over 350,000 people were removed.

Immediately afterward much of the wildlife in the area died of radiation, and a nearby 4000 acre pine forest turned red (“the Red Forest”). It, in other words died. That is a lot of radiation. Many thought the area, the exclusion zone, would be a permanent zone of desolation. Perhaps even, it would be a zone that spread.

Today, however, the area has rapidly returned to something like the original forested, riparian, and marshy condition. Though much of wildlife died, once the most intense radiation decayed the wildlife began to survive and reproduce though some species disappeared and some are not vigorous, especially some kinds of bird. In addition to the survival and some recovery of local animals, wildlife migrated into this human free area.

The area around Chernobyl had been greatly abused before the accident. Two world wars were fought on the ground there. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin built collective farms and moved in many thousands of farm workers. The nearby marshes, which were of world wide significance, were partially drained by canals and turned into wildlife barren farm fields.

In the years after the evacuation, beaver began to survive. They had been killed to keep the canals clear. The beaver dammed the canals and streams recreating the marshlands and causing spring floods to cover a much larger part of the area. Of course, the floods help flush out and spread the radiation.

There was no hunting. People were not allowed in and the deer had radiation levels many times the officially declared “safe” level. Within a decade or so, it was noticed that roe deer, fox, moose, bears, feral pigs, lynx, and hundreds of species of birds were in the area, many seeming to thrive. Soon there were reports of an animal feared in Russian folklore, the wolf.

Here is a  video on the return of the wolf to the exclusion zone. It is estimated that the population is about 120. Perhaps one reason why mutations are not obvious in the larger animals is because the wolves weed out the deformed as well as the weak. See “Radioactive Wolves”.  One can glean from the video that the wolves in the area may be treated better than in America where a new round of wolf persecution has been allowed to break out.

In 2008, the Ukraine reintroduced European bison to the zone. Also introduced was Przewalski’s horse, a rare horse, that is thought to be close to the world-wide extinct original horse.

Still there are those who say things are far from well in the area. There are mutations, some obvious and some not. Reptiles and amphibians were hard hit. The re-created forests lack biodiversity. The horses are in decline. Some blame poachers hunting for food. It is not known if people are that foolish, and others blame radiation harming a rare horse that was already inbreed from its brush with extinction.

Beaver populations are going down, but then it is obvious that beaver are a major food source for wolves. Were this not so the marshes would spread even more.

It is fascinating to look at the photos of the exclusion zone on Google Earth.

The restoration gives hope that life will survive and eventually thrive even if we destroy ourselves as a species.

– – – – –

Update: Here is a new article on Chernobyl and wildlife. Chernobyl’s Wildlife Survivors The radioactive fallout zone has turned into a refuge. By Laura Helmuth. Slate Magazine. Posted Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, and in the same issue . . . .
Do Animals in Chernobyl’s Fallout Zone Glow? The scientific debate about Europe’s unlikeliest wildlife sanctuary. By Mary Mycio






  1. Larry Zuckerman Avatar
    Larry Zuckerman

    Reminds of a bit of the DeMilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea – a “no-man’s” land that is thriving with wildlife, including rare species on the upswing like tigers.

    It’s interesting that there is no Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plans or expenditures of Federal money for habitat restoration and species introductions, but rather – just no people.

    Interesting lesson for us all that are tinkering as fish and wildlife managers.

    Larry Zuckerman, Salmon, Idaho

  2. Larry Zuckerman Avatar
    Larry Zuckerman

    Here’s our version of Chernobyl in Colorado, only this one manufactured plutonium and sent radioactive dust for years to Denver suburbs. Once again, no management, no visitors, thriving wildlife.

    Date: December 31, 2012
    Contact: Blake Androff (DOI) 202-208-6416
    Leith Edgar (FWS) 303- 236-4588
    Secretary Salazar, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Announce Expanded Conservation at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge
    Represents Key Step in Establishing Rocky Mountain Greenway as America’s Next Great Urban Park
    GOLDEN, Colo. – Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Colorado and local municipalities today closed on a land exchange that will allow approximately 1,200 acres of important wildlife habitat to be added to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, increasing the refuge’s size by nearly one-third and connecting it with the region’s open space and trail system. Rocky Flats is one of three National Wildlife Refuges in the Denver metropolitan area that provide open space, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation opportunities.

    Today’s closing is an important step in establishing the Rocky Mountain Greenway, an uninterrupted trail and open space network will connect hundreds of miles of trails in the Denver metropolitan area. The Rocky Mountain Greenway, part of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors program, will link the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Rocky Flats and Two Ponds National Wildlife Refuges, Rocky Mountain National Park, and community trail systems.

    “Today’s action will significantly expand one of the cornerstones of Colorado’s open space and trails network and will protect the Front Range’s mountain backdrop as one of the state’s crown jewels,” said Secretary Salazar. “I applaud all the partners who have come together with the state and local communities to connect people to the great outdoors and to take this key step toward realizing the Rocky Mountain Greenway as America’s next great urban park.”

    The land exchange is a part of a larger set of transactions involving private landowners and other public entities that will result in the conservation of habitat and recreation lands. Together, these transactions seek to eliminate development threats to the western edge of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, connect the Refuge’s protected plant and animal habitats to conserved land owned by local government open space programs, and buffer the Refuge near its southern boundary.

    The Governor’s Office, Colorado Attorney General’s Office, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Public Health and Environment, State Board of Land Commissioners, Jefferson and Boulder counties, Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, the City of Boulder, City and County of Broomfield and City of Arvada have worked for over four years to complete this set of transactions that benefits the region’s land and wildlife conservation and transportation needs.

    “This addition to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge will help protect the future of both Colorado’s natural and human resources,” said Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. “The additional land will create more quality open space and wildlife habitat northwest of Denver and will bring nearly $9.5 million to support public schools and the state school trust. We want to thank all the partners involved in this incredibly beneficial investment in Colorado’s future.”

    “Colorado’s public lands and wildlife form the very foundation of what makes our state a great place to live, work and raise a family,” U.S. Senator Mark Udall said. “Expanding the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which I helped create during my time in the U.S. House of Representatives, ensures this important area will remain vibrant for both recreationists and wildlife for years to come.”

    “I commend the collaborative effort by all the parties to come to agreement on this important land exchange,” Rep. Ed Perlmutter said. “Enhancing the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge connects our communities across the region, maintains our open spaces, protects our wildlife and improves recreational opportunities for generations to come.”

    “On behalf of the Colorado Natural Resources Trustees, we are proud of our early efforts to secure original seed money and work out some early land transactions,” said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. “By establishing a framework for federal, state and local governments, this wildlife refuge creates an important link between existing open space in the Denver-metropolitan area.”

    “This type of collaborative partnership between local communities and state and federal governments and private landowners is the best way for conservation to proceed in the 21st Century,” said Noreen Walsh, FWS Mountain-Prairie Regional Director. “Today, we have completed an exchange and a broader set of actions that will expand the Refuge, conserve wildlife habitat and provide a greater network of open space for the people and wildlife on the Front Range.”

    Today’s land closing follows a favorable ruling by the federal district court in Colorado that the Service complied with the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act of 2001 and applicable laws. Last Friday, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals denied an emergency motion to block the land transaction. As part of the refuge expansion, the Service transferred a 300-foot wide strip of land on the eastern boundary of the Refuge to the Jefferson Public Parkway Highway Authority for transportation improvements. The transfer of the Indiana Street transportation corridor is required by the Refuge’s authorizing legislation.

    The land exchange offers the protections of the National Wildlife Refuge System to a large, contiguous and intact tract of xeric tallgrass prairie. Xeric tallgrass prairie only exists on a narrow band of the Colorado Piedmont, east of the mountain front in Colorado. The xeric tallgrass prairie grassland on Rocky Flats and the City of Boulder Open Space nearby to the west are believed to be the largest remaining tracts of this plant community in North America. Additionally, portions of land that the Service will receive include additional riparian habit for the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, a species listed by the federal government as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.

    Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge sits at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The refuge site played an important role in Cold War history as a Department of Energy-operated facility for the production of plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads. The refuge entered U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stewardship in 2007 following the Environmental Protection Agency’s determination that corrective cleanup actions had been completed.

    For additional information on the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, please visit:

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Amazing, Larry!

      Thanks for noticing it, and Happy New Years!

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    This brings tears to my eyes – we are so destructive, I really hate it. :'(

    Happy New Year anyway, and I hope it will bring better things – we’ve had such setbacks that it seems we have to start all over again.

    1. Savebears Avatar

      Actually Ida,

      We may be destructive to ourselves, but it seems that wildlife flourish in these areas we have made uninhabitable to ourselves.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        I hope so! Nature is so resilient. Happy New Year, SB.

        1. Savebears Avatar


          I am finally back home and had the opportunity to travel through the Hanford area on the way home, it is quite amazing how much wildlife I saw there, more than I see in most places.

          Happy New Year Ida, in small steps things will change in the future.

      2. Louise Kane Avatar

        SB I’m not sure the jury is out on that one (wildlife flourishing) yet, as Ralph noted, mutations, deformities etc….its not idea under any circumstances and all the original wildlife was destroyed. This is also one of the few areas where wildlife exists in any numbers because there is little hunting and human poaching.

        1. Savebears Avatar

          There you go again with the hunting and poaching statement Louise. You are going to have to realize as long as man walks the earth, there is going to be hunting and unfortunately, there is going to be poaching.

        2. Mal Adapted Avatar
          Mal Adapted

          The history of the Hanford area is quite different from that of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. It’s in the arid zone of south-central Washington, and was sparsely settled before being requisitioned for plutonium production. As a result, the original shrub-steppe ecosystem was relatively undisturbed. Security called for a large area to be fenced off, but only a small percentage of that area was actually used, with the rest left in its natural state. There is radionuclide contamination, but much of that is concentrated in a few areas or is underground, so the biota experience a low average exposure and few if any obvious impacts.

          Because of that history, native biodiversity still flourishes, and it remains the largest intact piece of shrub-steppe ecosystem in the Columbia basin. If anyone wants to know more, there’s a decent write-up on the story here. You can also visit the FWS webpage for the monument.

          Disclosure:I was a spear carrier in the campaign to secure permanent protection for the lands around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the undammed stretch of the Columbia river called the “Hanford Reach”. When legislative solutions failed, we persuaded President Clinton to declare the Hanford Reach National Monument in 2000. Although I had left the area by then, the way I felt when the declaration was announced is indescribable.

  4. Louise Kane Avatar

    Ralph I saw the radioactive wolves some time ago. A great watch. I wondered if anyone had done any studies on the wildlife to determine how they were surviving in a radioactive environment and if perhaps their survival was predicated on their individual lifespans. Maybe this is why the horses are more affected then the wolves. Does anyone know if there have been any cleanup efforts or what the state of the area is now. I don’t know anything about radioactivity other then it has an amazing shelf life. A rather somber note to start the new yea, ” The restoration gives hope that life will survive and eventually thrive even if we destroy ourselves.”

  5. CodyCoyote Avatar

    I have no doubt that Planet Earth will survive any forseeable apocalypse(s), whether natural or manmade, given time. It has , in fact, done this many times already , by degrees. Animal life will rebound.

    The Great Homo sapiens Primate experiment may be a total write-off, though, lasting but a few thousand years . The final report will be summarized as “Specie: failed. Rendered its own habitat inhospitable in a dramatic way in a very short period of time”. Visiting Xenobiologists will excavate our leavings and call us the Disposable Diaper People who consumed the biomass of the entire land surface and upper ocean of the planet, fouling its air.

  6. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    As Ian McHarg said at a lecture I attended in Portland, Maine the last two paramecium on earth following its destruction by man said “OK, we’ll try again but this time no brains.”

    Ian won numerous awards and his book “Design with Nature” published in the 1960s was a first in architectural landscape design using a more natural approach.

    1. Louise Kane Avatar

      great quote Barb

    2. WM Avatar

      I had the opportunity to work with McHarg’s consulting firm (Wallace McHarg Robert & Todd), while he was still teaching at Penn, on a couple of proposed ski areas in Colorado many years ago. He was a very colorful character, which made him a good marketeer. And, yes, “Design with Nature,” served as a template for considering environmentally responsible accomodation of human land use, while avoiding sensitive areas. A useful tool that came out of the concept, as McHarg envisioned it, was doing spatial overlays of environmental constraints (wildlife corridors, slope-aspect, soils, geology, floodplains) to weight these factors, in decision models identifiying high risk areas that should be avoided or protected. These concepts are still in use today (often incorporated into computer models using optimization algorithms), as resource management plans under FLPMA, and other federal, state and local planning laws were developed. Interesting. The scientists and land managers offered the advice and the decision-makers had the choice of considering or ignoring it.

  7. Leslie Avatar

    Not sure its’ brains that’s the problem…maybe we should distinguish, as they do in Buddhism, between mind and true intelligence.

    I saw this Chernobyl show on PBS several years ago. Very interesting. Some of the most fertile abundant wildlife areas are places where no humans have been allowed such as the DMZ between north and south korea, and U.S. military bases that are bombed and/or contaminated. As they say in Jurassic Park “Life will find a way”

    1. JB Avatar

      Very cool!

  8. Alex Avatar

    This is a nice essay in almost every way except for the title which is somewhat implicitly misleading. The title gives the impression that all is well, in fact wonderful, for wildlife (or at least wolves), inside the Chernobyl zone. But as elaborated in the essay, the empirical data do not support this suggestion. If as a scholar and social scientist one feels obliged to base ones arguments on the usual accepted norms for inclusion in such discussions (i.e. peer reviewed scientific publications), then there are no data to speak of in support of the “wildlife are thriving” hypothesis and plenty of papers from the past decade showing significant negative effects on many components of the biological community. A quick google scholar search will bring up quite a few papers from the Moller+Mousseau research team including a recent paper looking at mammals using footprints in the snow (highlight on the BBC website this week). And there are others.

    It is probably fair to suggest that the wildlife have rebounded somewhat from their decimation immediately following the disaster (assuming they really were decimated) as there do appear to be a few deer, boar, wolves, foxes, etc, in the region based on the presence/absence data reported by local scientists. And the fact that the area is not a giant lunar landscape will surprise many, I am sure.

    But the real issue of importance is not whether the animals have rebounded to some degree following decimation or whether or not there are a few wolves and wild boar managing to eke out a living in the area but rather whether or not there are continuing ongoing impacts on fertility and survival (i.e. fitness) of the individuals and populations in the region now, and whether or not the negative impacts are related to the radioactive contaminants directly or indirectly via some other factor(s). Obviously, this question is of larger societal importance than just Chernobyl given Fukushima, Hanford, and the likelihood of more nuclear accidents in the future, etc.

    Just to be clear, this is not a politically motivated comment related to the good or evil of nuclear energy but rather a call for greater rigor in our discussions of the risks and hazards of associated industrial accidents.

  9. Jeff Avatar

    The White Sand Dunes testing area in southern NM is another example of radioactive wilderness providing habitat to all sorts of critters.

  10. mikepost Avatar

    All this makes a great case for “human exclusion wilderness zones” for wildlife and I dont just mean hunters and loggers, but birders, campers, hikers, watchers, etc.

    I do take exception to Louise’ comment that there are few places where wildlife is abundant and hunting/poaching takes place. I don’t know what her life experience is but the west is full of such places and they are hard to miss if you are actually out there getting dirty in the wild.

    1. WM Avatar


      ++I do take exception to Louise’ comment that there are few places where wildlife is abundant and hunting/poaching takes place.++

      Let’s be candid, here. Louise is an armchair general with opinions colored by what she mostly just reads from selective sources, and does not really experience in the flesh (kind of like jon, and Chicago Mike who takes his nominal trips out West to a few national parks for his commercial purposes), and nothing more.

      1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan


        If you read the details of this new survey on wildlife recreation — hunting, fishing, and watching, you will find that the people in the Mountain West engage in only an average amount — 6% the national average.

        The Pacific states are the lowest in the entire country. Those who live in MI, WI, MN, IL are among the highest.

        1. WM Avatar

          Interesting factiods, Ralph, and it would be very suprising to me, if there is not an explanation distinguishing it, if one were to drill down on the participation statistics. The USFWS/Census Survey was very focused on wildlife/hunting/fishing, almost to the exclusion of other activities, I think.

          If someone were to ask me why I visit Mt. Rainier NP, North Cascades NP, or the high areas of the Cascades, for example, the primary ones – the first things that come to mind are the landscape mountain scenery, glaciers and the wildflowers. Wildlife watching would be a bit down the list, and that was the focus of the survey. On the other hand if I was living in IL (where all the eye can see from the highest elevations until the curvature of the earth obscures the view is corn fields or Lake Michigan) I think I’d be primarily looking for wildlife in the yard or wherever it could be found.

          As for Western Mountain states, and the locals who live there, who knows? What are these folks doing, if they are not looking at wildlife, fishing/hunting, or the mountains/wildflowers? I expect the way the survey questions were asked might have something to do with it. I do know lack of water affects fishing participation, substantially as compared to the Great Lakes/MN lakes regions.

          And, I still stand my my “armchair general” comment.

          1. WM Avatar

            …stand by my armchair general…

          2. Savebears Avatar


            Would you email me, Ralph has my permission to release my email address to you.

            Ralph, please send my address to WM

    2. Rancher Bob Avatar
      Rancher Bob

      Getting dirty in the wild does seem to be the problem. How many times do we hear on this blog about the lack of abundant wildlife by some when others of us have no problem finding abundant wildlife and I’m not talking national park wildlife.

    3. JB Avatar

      Louise, Mike, WM:

      To a large extent I agree with Mike. Time and again, people have shown the ability to “grow” wildlife populations where we make concerted efforts at protecting and modifying habitat–and importantly, often these areas are hunted or managed for hunting. Here in Ohio, for example, wildlife management efforts have led to increased populations of deer, reestablishment of turkey, and recent recovery of bald eagle, bobcat and numerous other species of concern.

      And yet, isn’t it also true that the few places that house wolves, cougars, bears, coyotes, lynx and wolverine are National Parks, where hunting (and trapping!) is either prohibited or greatly restricted?

    4. Louise Kane Avatar

      You are so wrong about the armchair general issue Wm – You have no idea.

      1. Louise Kane Avatar

        and its such a tired excuse to belittle people who don’t live in your area and to dismiss their ideas relating to conservation.

        1. Rancher Bob Avatar
          Rancher Bob

          How many times has you trucker key board lashed out at someone you don’t agree with? You just pick on those not here to defend themselves.

          1. Louise Kane Avatar

            what are you talking about RB, picking on those not here to defend themselves???? I’m responding to the oft quoted you don’t live here so know nothing about our issues acusation…..

            1. Savebears Avatar


              It really pisses you off when people disagree with your point of view doesn’t it?

            2. Rancher Bob Avatar
              Rancher Bob

              How many times have you belittled someone, called a person names because they have a different view from your own. Most the time that person is not here to defend themselves. At least WM refrains from the vulgar.

  11. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    It doesn’t look good for the horses’ future because they are descended from few and the loss of a number of the adults reduces the genetic viability even further. Add radiation damage onto a not-diverse genome, and the fertility rate will, and has, dropped; and newly born horses are probably weaker still. Even if they survive to adulthood, they might be so weak they become prey to the wolves. Wolves do not normally kill horses, especially wild or feral horses.

    Here is a video of Wild Przewalski’s Horses very near Reactor no. 4 in the year 2010.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      What a shame. Such a beautiful horse.

      The more we try to bring online more nuclear power plants with our evergrowing population’s insatiable power needs, the more I can see this happening. I hope it doesn’t make people shrug and think that in the even of a disaster, things will eventually recover. This area is still uninhabitable and the animals are loaded with radiation. “Thriving” may be an overly optimistic assessment. I still don’t consider nuclear an option.

      Moller and Mousseau have shown that certain species in the area have a higher rate of genetic abnormalities than normal.

      Mutation isn’t the only adverse effect of the radiation. Working in the Red Forest area, James Morris, a USC biologist, has observed some trees with very strange twisted shapes.

  12. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    so was Chernobyl or Holodomor worse disaster for these people and countryside

  13. Dan Avatar

    @ Alex: I understand your point. But, I think your entire perspective is based on somewhat of a culturally constructed false choice. The point is that there is impressive natural succession and biodiversity value, even far greater than existed before the milestone disturbance. It doesn’t really make sense to compare the chernobyl community to one that hasn’t experienced a similar event… (as it is a relatively irreversible situation). So that fact is that it is a miraculous environmental recovery, and your tendency to measure vs. historic baselines is somewhat unfounded by a more rigorous science.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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