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Pokémon Go sites pose threat to endangered wildlife

Kenneth Pettigrew, a Pokemon Go player, has organized with other players to clean up the restoration site from litter since it became a popular Pokemon Go site. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times

Pokémon Go players flocking to some beachfont sites in Rogers Park could endanger local wildlife, and the sites soon may be removed from the game at the request of concerned residents.

Several “Pokéstops” have been placed near the Loyola Dunes Restoration site — and in the popular smartphone game, Pokéstops attract rare Pokémon to an area.

With them, however, come hundreds of gamers who frequent the dunes each night to catch them.

Phillip Davis, a member of the Loyola Dunes Restoration Group, said he worries the increased foot traffic could be too much for some of the lot’s endangered species to handle.

“The wildlife here isn’t super fragile, so they can take a little bit of wear,” Davis said. “But we don’t think they can take hundreds of people every night until the weather gets cold. That would do permanent or at least long-term damage to what we’re trying to do out here.”

The Loyola Dunes Restoration Project began in 2003 as an effort to restore the section of beach to its native wilderness. Since then, the dunes have slowly reformed and native plant species are gradually returning, according to Davis, who now fears this progress could be undone by hordes of Pokémon Go players.

Phillip David, a member of the Loyola Dunes Restoration Group, said he worries that the hundreds of Pokémon Go players who frequent the dunes every night could cause long-term damage to the area’s wildlife. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times
Phillip David, a member of the Loyola Dunes Restoration Group, said he worries that the hundreds of Pokémon Go players who frequent the dunes every night could cause long-term damage to the area’s wildlife. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times

While many players of the game have actively worked to protect the dunes from potential damage, some left behind trash or vandalized signs with Pokémon-related messages, Davis said.

The main Pokéspot causing problems is at the center of the dune’s grassy area. It sometimes draws gamers away from the path and into areas where some endangered wildlife lives.

That spot is named after “Buddha Rising,” a sculpture that was part of an art installation in 2013. It isn’t there anymore, but “emerging Buddha” still exists in the game’s data. Davis said if this stop were either removed or relocated to the edge of the dunes, it would prevent gamers from unknowingly trampling the wildlife.

“My feeling is if we can get this stop closed down pretty quickly within the next week or so, everything will be OK and there won’t be any permanent damage,” he said.

Between the Loyola Dunes Restoration group and concerned Pokémon Go players, at least two dozen requests to have the stops removed have been filed in the last two weeks, Davis said. The Chicago Park District also contacted Niantic, the game’s developer.

“The Loyola dune habitat is the site of many state endangered plants,” Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, director of communications for the Chicago Park District, said in a statement. “Unknowingly, these gamers can trample and destroy habitat protected under state and federal law by the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.”

Signs have been vandalized at the Loyola Dunes since it became a Pokémon Go hotspot after the mobile game came out. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times
Signs have been vandalized at the Loyola Dunes since it became a Pokémon Go hotspot after the mobile game came out. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times

Players of the game looking to protect the dunes and save the Pokéstops from being removed have placed signs around the lot asking visitors to stay on the designated paths to avoid trampling wildlife.

Others, like Rogers Park resident Kenneth Pettigrew, have taken an active role. After realizing there was a problem with the Pokéstops last week, Pettigrew has organized nightly cleanup crews to remove the litter. He has also worked to spread awareness of the restoration project among players by posting in online Pokémon Go Chicago groups and speaking with players at the site.

“We’re working to ultimately establish a kind of culture that cares about cleaning up after ourselves, and makes that the expected behavior within the Pokémon Go community,” Pettigrew said.

Inspired by Pettigrew’s efforts, Pokémon Go player Nikki Diaz visited the dunes Wednesday with a garbage bag to clean up the area while hunting for Pokémon. The problem, Diaz noted, already seems to be getting better.

“There are a lot people who come out here to play, so if everybody pitched in a little bit of help, it would be a perfectly clean beach and we wouldn’t have so many issues,” Diaz said.

Pokémon Go players catch rare Pokémon at Pratt Pier, home to the Loyola Dunes Restoration project. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times
Pokémon Go players catch rare Pokémon at Pratt Pier, home to the Loyola Dunes Restoration project. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times