On the path to protection

Dec 19, 2018

By Center for Western Priorities

How we can conserve wildlife corridors to safeguard the West’s wildlif

Mule deer in Wyoming | Bureau of Land Management Flickr

The West has long been lionized for its wide open spaces, vast rangelands, and rugged forests. But growing development is threatening that iconic Western vision. We lose a football field of natural land every two and half minutes to highways, subdivisions, and oil and gas well pads, squeezing wildlife into smaller, more fragmented pockets of land. As animals struggle to complete their annual migrations, Western states, and increasingly the federal government, are exploring ways to give wildlife the space they need to move and thrive. But with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s and Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt’s track records of expanding oil and gas development and gutting wildlife safeguards‚ like the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act‚ protecting wildlife isn’t exactly rising to the top of the administration’s agenda. Our Western wildlife need a comprehensive “wildlife corridor” policy to ensure they can keep migrating for generations to come.

Wildlife need room to roam

“Wildlife corridors” are large, intact chains of connected habitat‚ largely public land‚ that allow animals to continue following historic migrations and help them overcome the many barriers they face along the way. Big game species like elk, pronghorn, and mule deer traverse hundreds of miles between their summer and winter ranges each year, navigating by instinct and memory. Perhaps the most famous of these migrations is that of the pronghorn of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. While radio-collaring and tracking the herd, scientists discovered that the animals had to pass through a bottleneck only 100 yards wide and losing that key connection could halt the migration altogether. Following this research, the Path of the Pronghorn became the first and only designated “wildlife corridor” in the United States, covering 125 miles from Grand Teton National Park to Wyoming’s Green River Valley. Celebrated by scientists, wildlife corridors are a tool for mitigating biodiversity loss and species extinction associated with climate change. They safeguard not only animals, but plants, watersheds, and even outdoor recreation areas.

Pronghorn | BLM Flickr

Wildlife don’t know political boundaries

We govern ourselves through cities, counties, and states, drawing lines to match those borders. But wildlife don’t know political boundaries. The boundaries they do know are physical: fences, roadways, houses, and oil rigs. Animals are at risk of being trapped beneath barbed wire, hit by cars, and pushed out by sound and light pollution. All of this development has not only led to mortality, but a shift in where wildlife live. Wolverine, lynx, and pronghorn of the Northern Rockies are utilizing smaller ranges than they occupied historically. And it has been shown that wildlife are shifting their ranges approximately 10 miles farther north every decade. As Joel Berger, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said: “Death by 1,000 cuts has already eliminated so many migration routes, including in the West and including in Wyoming.”

States are beginning to address the issue

As animals struggle to reach food, shelter, and breeding sites, protecting wildlife corridors has become a clear solution. “America needs more tools to protect plants and animals,” said Leda Huta, Executive Director of the Endangered Species Coalition. “Wildlife corridors are a no-brainer. They’re a life-saving measure.” With the right policy tools, wildlife corridors and landscape connectivity can be protected. States across the West are moving in the right direction. In 2007, the Western Governors Association unanimously approved an initiative to conserve wildlife corridors and crucial habitat in the West. Wyoming, led by an avid group of mule deer sportsmen, recently passed a bill to sell special license plates dedicated to wildlife conservation, with funds earmarked for signage, game fences and wildlife crossings above and below highways. Like Wyoming, New Mexico is coordinating with its Department of Transportation on wildlife safety, trying to reduce the number of animal-related collisions, including creating a wildlife safety awareness day.

GPS-tagged bighorn sheep in R√≠o Grande del Norte National Monument, New Mexico | BLM Photo Courtesy of Steven W. Martin Photography

Interior Secretary Zinke is taking action on wildlife corridors‚ while also gutting critical wildlife protections

Secretary Ryan Zinke claims to be a supporter of wildlife and a champion for big game species. Recently he issued a Secretarial Order focused on supporting migration corridors and “improving habitat quality in Western big-game winter range.” He used the order to delay lease sales along the Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration in Wyoming, but those lease deferrals were met with skepticism from the hunting and angling community, who expressed concerns that they didn’t have enough teeth. “It’s important to note that these deferrals aren’t permanent and these stipulations only mitigate impacts, they don’t prevent them,” said Brien Webster of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Plus, many of the provisions Secretary Zinke outlined in his Secretarial Order were already in the Obama administration’s BLM 2.0 Planning Rule, which the Trump administration axed early on. Further, by curtailing protections for the iconic sage-grouse and unleashing massive oil and gas lease sales in important wildlife habitat, the Trump administration has already shown that when wildlife and drilling meet, drilling will always be this administration’s first priority.

What could a comprehensive system of national wildlife corridors look like?

“With roughly one in five animal and plant species in the U.S. at risk of extinction due to habitat loss and fragmentation, one of the simplest yet most effective things we can do is to provide them ample opportunity to move across lands and waters,” said Representative Don Beyer. Many scientists and experts, including Harvard’s E.O Wilson, are placing their hope in a national network of wildlife corridors. Establishing a robust and comprehensive system requires a three-pronged policy approach:

  1. Data and research: Before wildlife corridors can be protected, we need to map migrations. Using GPS-collars, researchers (from the government and/or universities) can track animals and identify sensitive habitat areas. Making the results of this research publicly-accessible would allow public and private entities to factor wildlife patterns into their decision-making.
  2. An overarching system of protection: Creating a national “wildlife corridor” designation would grant federal agencies the authority to designate wildlife corridors on public lands, then coordinate across state and political boundaries to protect them.
  3. Smart management plans: Designing and implementing management plans that integrate the concept of “landscape connectivity” and limit oil and gas development in key areas is essential for maintaining wildlife corridors. These management plans should employ tools such as wildlife-friendly fencing and safe road crossings through overpasses and culverts.

Senator Tom Udall and Representative Don Beyer recently introduced the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act, which does all of the above and more. Modeled after the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act would create a similar national framework for wildlife corridors. The bill would integrate migration habitat protection into U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management plans, provide funding for state initiatives and tax incentives to landowners who voluntarily take conservation measures on their private lands.

Wildlife friendly fencing, where the bottom most wire is smooth instead of barbed, can help pronghorn travel safely underneath. | BLM Flickr

Humans are still discovering the impacts our actions have on wildlife. Housing and energy development, highways, and climate change are making it harder for animals to live in and migrate to their historic ranges. States and the federal government are exploring ways to give wildlife a hand, but more needs to be done. Wildlife need a national system of “wildlife corridors” to help them navigate political and jurisdictional barriers. Wildlife corridors create landscape connectivity and a future where wildlife can roam free.


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