Western Governors to Focus on Wildlife Corridors

Western Governors to Focus on Wildlife Corridors

At the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association (WGA), in Jackson, Wyoming, at the end of June, action was taken to preserve wildlife corridors, in the face of population growth and development, reports the Wildlife Management Institute. The governors approved a wildlife corridors initiative report that offered a series of recommendations, including identification of important corridors and the critical habitats they connect, collaborative planning to keep the corridors intact and a standardized mapping and data-collection system to be used across the region. In addition, the Western Wildlife Habitat Council was formed to focus on the issues.

The process to assess the impacts to wildlife and their habitats began in February 2007, when the western governors approved the Protecting Wildlife Migration Corridors and Crucial Wildlife Habitat in the West policy resolution (07-01). The resolution instructed the WGA to develop and conduct a process to, "identify key wildlife migration corridors and crucial wildlife habitats in the West and make recommendations on needed policy options and tools for preserving those landscapes." The WGA then created the wildlife corridors initiative and convened five working groups to focus on oil and gas development, energy, transportation infrastructure, land use, and climate change as well as a science committee to advise the process. The regionwide collaborative effort was designed to gather the input from a broad group of individuals and to provide both scientific and policy recommendations to the governors.

Overall, the initiative is based on the recognition that large intact and functioning ecosystems, healthy fish and wildlife populations, and abundant public access to natural landscapes that define the West and that, in their own right, draw people to the region. The wildlife corridors initiative report specifically cites the economic importance of hunting, fishing and wildlife-associated recreation to small rural communities throughout the West.

"Wildlife is a critical part of our western heritage and we need to ensure through our individual and collective actions that we are preserving wildlife for future generations," stated Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal, who initiated the program as WGA chairman. "We must learn to better manage and utilize the resources available to us, in order to minimize impacts to wildlife that we want to continue to see roaming across our prairies, deserts and mountains."

Western states have seen substantial human population growth in recent years; five of the nation's six most rapidly growing states are in the West. Issues ranging from transportation infrastructure, energy development and climate change threaten the unique landscapes and the fish and wildlife that depend on them. Adequate access to seasonal habitats and room for dispersal to allow for intermixing populations and genetic diversity are essential to sustain wildlife.

As noted in the report: "Large, open spaces have long been emblematic of the West, but our burgeoning network of highways, canals, urbanization, energy development, and other land uses now threaten to fragment our grand landscapes, cutting off pathways linking crucial habitats and reducing the ecological value of the remaining crucial habitats."

However, migration corridors and crucial wildlife habitats do not fall neatly within human-created boundaries. The West is a mix of land-ownership patterns, and management decisions across these patterns and across state or even international borders invariably impact wildlife populations. Addressing the ownership and geopolitical complex is a priority of the collaborative work envisioned by the western governors' approach.

There were several overarching themes that came out of all of the wildlife corridors initiative working groups reports. Cooperation among government agencies was a key element, as was ensuring that states be positioned to lead in the identification of wildlife corridors and crucial habitat. The report also outlines the importance of science-based information throughout all levels of government-planning processes regarding critical wildlife areas. Every working group also identified the need for long-term, sustained funding to achieve wildlife-conservation objectives.

"The West will continue to experience phenomenal growth. This need not occur at the expense of crucial wildlife habitats and corridors?but only if people plan growth appropriately," notes the science committee within the report. "Such planning requires that crucial habitats and wildlife corridors are identified early in the planning process and are considered in a spatially explicit way as energy exploration, urbanization, highways and other infrastructure projects are designed. Considering wildlife late in the planning process is expensive and unlikely to provide a good outcome for wildlife." (jas)

July 14, 2008