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Western governors look to conserve key wildlife corridors, habitat

(Missoula Current photo)

-Laura Lindquist reporting for the Missoula Current

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 Jodi Hilty of Y2Y. “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)

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,” Hilty 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.

Missoula Current

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