Wildlife corridors can mean life or death

Deer on roadway
Deer on roadway

 Published in The Hill, August 18, 2019

Connectivity  dominates our daily lives. Roadways, bike lanes, aisles in the grocery  store — all of the infrastructure that makes our lives just a little  easier and safer and connects our lives, routines and errands alike.  It’s easy to take our movement from point A to point B for granted, but  these pathways are as essential as they are easy to overlook.

Connectivity  is also essential for wildlife. For most wildlife, though, these  pathways are becoming more and more impeded because of manmade  structures — from sprawling suburbs on our coasts to roads and highways  in the desert southwest.  For wildlife, a lack of connectivity can mean  life or death. It can mean starvation, traversing high-traffic roadways,  or isolation and limited access to mating partners. Ultimately, a loss  of connectivity can mean death or extinction for populations of  wildlife.

I come from a place where wildlife is part of our  identity. We cherish it and work to protect it. The Upper Rio Grande  watershed in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is considered one  of the most connected wildlife corridors in our country but it, too,  faces challenges.  New protections will be possible now that New Mexico  has become the first state ever to make The Wildlife Corridors Act the  law of the land. The act calls for the study of wildlife patterns as  they embark on journeys and migrate through the Upper Rio Grande and the  rest of New Mexico in search of better weather, food, water, mates and   hospitable habitat for their young.

If  you look at a land ownership map you will see that New Mexico is a  checkerboard of federal, state, private and tribal land. The act will  bring land owners and managers to the table — a necessity because  wildlife don’t recognize boundaries — to assess the need for over and  under passes for wildlife crossings, to encourage that new development  consider wildlife migration routes, and to then prevent new development  in identified corridors. Highways, fences and other industrial  development are the most common threats to wildlife corridors. And  sometimes those threats affect our safety as well — over 1,500 animals  were hit and killed in collisions with vehicles on New Mexico highways  and freeways in 2018.

Amid these threats, climate change is also  creating new challenges for wildlife. Climate change is shifting the  habitat of numerous species, and creating new demand for migration  corridors and habitats in entirely new places. A recent UN study shows  that 1 million animals are in danger of extinction, and the reason is  human caused climate change. Our action, and subsequent inaction, has  put us here — but we can, and must, take steps to get us out of this  predicament and do our part to curb the potential for extinction.

As  New Mexico’s commissioner of public lands, I am mandated by our state’s  Constitution to be a steward of state trust land to assure their  protection for future generations. I am also charged with using those  lands to raise revenue to fund our state’s needs through agricultural  leases, oil and gas development, renewable energy projects, business and  commercial development, and outdoor recreation.

Now, some may say  prioritizing wildlife corridors could be detrimental to new potential  revenue sources. The way I see it, wildlife protection is an integral  part of any sustainable land management plan. I envision a future where  all land management decisions are made whilst considering the entire  picture and the generations that will come long after those decisions  are made.

But this work can’t be done in isolation. Because  migrating species don’t recognize state borders, land managers in all  states need to adopt similar protections for corridors. I urge my  colleagues around the country to follow our lead.  It’s possible to have  responsible oil and gas development that raises a billion dollars a  year for our public schools and universities. It’s possible to build a  renewable energy future that diversifies our economy and lessens our  reliance on extraction. It’s possible to protect our beautiful natural  landscapes and utilize them for hiking, climbing, biking, fishing and  hunting. And — we can do all of this while protecting distinct wildlife  corridors that assure safe migration, access to food, water, shelter and  mates — for all animals. 

Stephanie Garcia Richard is the New Mexico commissioner of public lands.