Wildlife populations across the West are under threat
The American West is home to sprawling landscapes and ecosystems where wildlife roams. Diverse and healthy wildlife populations support biodiversity, are more resilient to climate change, and are crucial to Western livelihoods and culture. The presence of wildlife helps drive Western economies, and supports hunting and fishing. Migration corridors, which connect landscapes across the West, are key to promoting robust wildlife populations. However, wildlife habitat is threatened across the West by oil and gas development, loss of natural habitat, climate change, and decreasing ecosystem connectivity.
Recent research shows that the habitat for sage-grouse–an indicator species whose populations are used to monitor the health of the sagebrush ecosystem–is diminishing rapidly due to climate change and climate-related impacts like wildfire and the spread of invasive species. Sage grouse populations have also been negatively impacted by oil and gas development on public land, which further exacerbates climate change.
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. The areas that these species use to traverse the West are known as migration corridors, and they are in desperate need of protection. These migration routes connect Western landscapes, crossing private, state, and federal land, creating a unique challenge and opportunity. As climate change causes species to shift their ranges, it is increasingly important to protect connected landscapes in order to preserve migration corridors.
In 2022, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a policy identifying and prioritizing habitat connectivity on America’s public lands. The policy directs BLM state offices to explicitly consider how wildlife, fish, and plant habitats are connected as part of its land use planning process. The new policy will lead to a geospatial database that identifies lands and waters that priority species need to move between habitats, especially as those habitats shift with a changing climate.
But energy development and climate change are disrupting these critical corridors before they can be mapped and adequately protected. One study analyzed mule deer migration near active oil and gas development in Wyoming and found that the new wells resulted in a 39 percent reduction in migration. There was no evidence that mule deer acclimatized to the development, and both small and large-scale projects impacted their migration in a similar way.
In the face of rapidly expanding human development, there is an urgent need for stakeholder coordination and multi-faceted policy action to protect habitats and migration corridors for the species that rely on them.