Western governors look to conserve key wildlife corridors,habitat

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Western governors look to conserve key wildlife corridors,habitat

A ram grazes along the roadside. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)
A ram grazes along the roadside. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Missoula Current  by Laura Lundquist,  February 14, 2019


With a unanimous resolution, governors have underlined their support  for policies and projects that allow wildlife to more easily traverse  the forests and prairies of the West.

This week, the 11-state Western Governors’ Association passed a resolution encouraging federal and state agencies to work together to identify and  protect regions that wildlife use as migratory corridors.

Emphasizing a collaborative approach at every level, the resolution  required that any federal effort “must rely upon coordination and  consultation with states and should advance collaborative, locally  driven initiatives to conserve key wildlife corridors and habitat.”

Several conservation groups cheered the governors’ action,  particularly those that have been working to preserve less-developed  areas that can serve as corridors to everything from butterflies to  bears.

“This is a win-win for Western states because conserving corridors is  not only good for protecting our wildlife heritage in the West, but  it’s also good for improving drivers’ safety. In Montana and Wyoming,  wildlife collisions are not an insignificant issue,” said Matt Skroch of  the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, biologists have been discovering that  several animal species, once thought to be more localized, actually have  lengthy migration routes that they try to use every year.

For example, biologists learned that pronghorn antelope in northeastern Montana migrate hundreds of miles each year, navigating railroad tracks, oil  fields and highways, while in Wyoming, antelope travel 100 miles between  Grand Teton National Park and Pinedale.

“We are in the age of discovery as far as understanding how these  large animals utilize landscapes on a seasonal basis. The reason why is  it’s only within the last decade that researchers have had access to and  have been able afford the technology required to track the migrations,”  Skroch said.

Sadly, many animals don’t survive the journey, because they’re struck  on roads and railroad tracks or are otherwise injured by people. But  that’s what the WGA resolution wants to change.

The governors want the state wildlife agencies to work with tribal  and federal agencies to learn which species go where. Then the wildlife  agencies need to work with landowners and transportation agencies to  conserve habitat and construct wildlife-crossing structures across  roads. Bozeman-based Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative has  promoted the construction of more than 100 such crossings in the U.S.  and Canada.

“Anything that brings agencies of all kinds together is helpful,”  said Kim Trotter, Y2Y’s program director. “These are resources that  often fall under the jurisdiction of one agency but are often negatively  affected by the mandate of another agency. So, as much as we can  encourage coordination between local, state and federal agencies, the  better. That’s what this resolution is saying.”

A wildlife crossing near Pinedale, Wyoming. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
A wildlife crossing near Pinedale, Wyoming. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Gary Tabor, director of the Bozeman-based Center for Large Landscape  Conservation, said the resolution couldn’t come at a better time,  especially with the recent United Nations report that predicted the  impending loss of a million species due to human causes.

“A 2018 study looked at the whole world and found species are moving  less, by almost 50 percent, which means they can’t complete their life  cycle. Which means when we lose these migrations, we are losing these  species. The fact that the governors are saying ‘we want to maintain  this movement ecology’ – it’s a big deal,” Tabor said.

It’s not the first time the WGA has backed wildlife corridor preservation; they’ve been working on the issue since at least 2007. But resolutions last for about three years and then have to be reconsidered as new governors are elected.

Tabor said the fact that this issue has received continual support speaks to the states’ understanding of its importance.

“It got unanimous support a decade ago. It was the only time that  Brian Schweitzer, Sarah Palin and Arnold Schwartzenegger agreed on  anything,” Tabor said. “Now it’s great to see that the North Dakota  governor (Doug Burgum) is championing the idea once again. In a time  when there’s bad news on the environment, this is positive news. It’s  also positive that states are doing this in a bipartisan way.”

The resolution can also play a powerful political role because the federal Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act is set to expire in 2020. States depend on the law’s funding to be able  to build underpasses and expensive overpasses that wildlife need to  avoid speeding traffic.

As the tug-of-war between the stripped-down Trump budget and the  eventual congressional package plays out, members of Congress are more  likely to pass a new transportation bill and allocate more funding  because of the resolution.

“A united WGA gives the states more credibility and has more political power than some of us,” Trotter said.

State legislatures are also stepping up. California and New Hampshire  passed the first state wildlife corridor acts, and in just the past two  months, Oregon and New Mexico joined them. Meanwhile Colorado and  Washington are considering passing their own acts.

But the issue of animal migration is a worldwide one, so the World  Conservation Congress will discuss solutions next year in France and  foreign nations are enacting their own protections.

“This kind of corridor stuff has been growing exponentially around  the world,” Tabor said. “I’m glad our governors are on board, but they  aren’t the first. These things are on the global agenda now.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.