Corridors key to protecting species, conservationists say

By Julia John

Panelists applaud E.O. Wilson onstage during the talk at the Congressional Auditorium. ©Peter Hershey

From monarchs to grizzlies, America’s wildlife is dwindling due to climate change and habitat destruction, conservationists said at a conference this week in Washington, and wildlife corridors are crucial to preserving the country’s imperiled species.

“Habitat loss is the largest factor,” said Bruce Stein, associate vice president with the National Wildlife Federation, noting that a fifth of American species are threatened with extinction and a third are vulnerable. “Much of the remaining habitat is fragmented, disconnecting natural populations.”

The United States is home to five of the world’s longest-distance migrators — moose (Alces alces), elk (Cervus canadensi), mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), bison (Bison bison) and pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) — and wildlife corridors are helping them evade man-made obstructions, said Jon Beckmann, connectivity initiative coordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society. A Wyoming overpass resulted in an 85 percent drop in vehicle collisions with pronghorn, he said.

“It is a question of whether we collectively have the will to prioritize the rest of life and our species by protecting biodiversity,” said Greg Costello, executive director of Wildlands Networks.

The event took place Tuesday at the Capitol Visitor Center on the inaugural Half-Earth Day, a concept promoted by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson to curb global extinctions by setting aside at least half the earth’s surface as nature reserves.

An estimated 10 million species inhabit the earth, four-fifths of them still undiscovered, Wilson told the gathering, but they’re vanishing at up to 1,000 times the rate they were before humans came around. This mass extinction represents a crisis as severe as climate change, he said, and while wild areas remain, they’re disappearing as human populations expand.

“We need to map areas of the world and begin taking steps to preserve the largest possible numbers of species, opening reserve lands,” said Wilson, university research professor emeritus at Harvard University, speaking to a packed auditorium.

In the U.S., wildlife corridors would promote the half-earth vision by augmenting protected areas and connecting vast swaths of critical habitat, Wilson said. They’d allow animals to migrate, disperse, access resources, reproduce and maintain healthy populations across the country as climate change shifts their ranges northward.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia, called for legislation to enhance U.S. wildlife corridors.

“We have to get back to bipartisanship on science and policy,” Udall said.

Gary Tabor, founder and executive director of the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, described biodiversity loss as “a health crisis.”

“Protected areas are the organs — the heart and lungs — of nature,” he said. “Connectivity conservation is the circulatory system of nature, and we haven’t done a great job of protecting it.”

Past conservation models relied on national parks and other ecosystem protections, Tabor said, but 21st century efforts should focus on “conserving nature’s vital functions” by joining protected landscapes through a network of corridors, including more than 500 wildlife underpasses that already link fragmented ecosystems throughout the country.

“Wildlife corridors pay for themselves over time,” said Ron Sutherland, conservation scientist with Wildlands Network, discussing ongoing efforts to reconnect natural areas through the Florida Wildlife Corridor and the Eastern Wildway, a broader corridor enabling species to roam freely between eastern Canada and the Gulf of Mexico.

“We know what we need to do about connectivity,” Sutherland said. “Let’s get it done.”

Julia John is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at jjohn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article.

Read more of Julia's articles here.