Many remarkable long-distance migrations of wildlife occur around the world every year to ensure that animals arrive at the right place at the right time for feeding, mating, and birthing. Meanwhile, shorter-distance movements, such as those of black bears, are less epic but no less important in the quest to find suitable mates, food, and den sites. But what happens when love is in the air, but movement becomes difficult due to habitat fragmentation? The short-term effect may be a missed connection, but in the long-term, it could reduce the genetic diversity that helps keep wildlife populations healthy.
Submerging ourselves in different perspectives ultimately enriches our work, and nothing facilitates that like delving into a good book. As the bears take to their dens for a long winter’s nap, we nestle into armchairs with blankets and a book in our lap. I was curious what my fellow staff members were reading once the workday ceases, so I asked them what’s atop their nightstands. Some are about facets of our natural world and others may be for those times when we need a break from thinking about environmental challenges.
The last time I was in Kenya, I flew home to the U.S. on March 3, 2020, blissfully unaware that the entire world was about to upend itself due to COVID-19. I had been living in Kisumu full-time, finishing my Master of Environmental Management degree, and only expected to spend three months in the U.S. for a short-term consulting gig and graduation. But those few months turned into a long-term move back and I secured a role with the Center for Large Landscape Conservation.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is home to the largest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48 states. But as the numbers of area residents and annual visitors have grown, so has the incidence of wildlife-vehicle collisions. On US Highway 191 through and around Yellowstone National Park, large mammals like elk and deer are hit with increasing frequency and rising traffic volumes make it harder for wildlife to access habitat on either side. To address these problems, a team from the nonprofit Center for Large Landscape Conservation and Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute embarked upon a two-year study to better understand wildlife movement and improve road safety along this busy route.
As our nation’s highways get bigger and busier, wildlife habitat and populations become more fragmented, and wild animals find it increasingly difficult to safely cross roads. The wildlife-vehicle collisions that kill more than one million large mammals each year in the U.S. also cause hundreds of human fatalities and tens of thousands of injuries. To help address this dangerous problem to both wildlife and people, the nonprofit Center for Large Landscape Conservation, Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute, and Dr. David Theobald with Conservation Planning Technologies have published the results of the West-Wide Study to Identify Important Highway Locations for Wildlife Crossings.
The planet is experiencing unprecedented levels of land conversion and habitat loss, often in the most biologically rich ecosystems. Despite the well-known societal and economic benefits of infrastructure, indiscriminate development of roads, railways and canals increasingly threatens biodiversity. Endangered Asian elephants are regularly hit by trains; American bison are struck just outside Yellowstone National Park; and road construction opens the door to runaway deforestation, even deep in the Amazon Rainforest.
Gibbons are arboreal primates critical for maintaining the balance of their forest ecosystem. As seed dispersers, they help to regulate forest regeneration by spreading seeds throughout their habitat, maintaining forest diversity, and supporting other plant and animal species. Gibbons are well adapted to their tree-dwelling lifestyle, moving quickly and gracefully through the forest by swinging from branch to branch using their arms. So, when a gap occurs in the forest canopy, they lose their primary—and safest—mode of transportation.
Millions of collisions occur between drivers and animals on U.S. roads annually. To address this dangerous, expensive, and growing problem, Congress created a national Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program. This new grant program will prevent accidents and connect habitat by investing in measures that allow wildlife to safely cross over or under roads and fish to pass through streams beneath roads. Earlier today, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced a Notice of Funding Opportunity for the program’s first round of competitive grants—nearly $112M for research, planning, design, and construction projects that aim to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve aquatic and terrestrial habitat connectivity.
This past month was a historic one for landscape conservation and connectivity in the United States. Each week in March of this year, the Biden administration rolled out a major new initiative to conserve and restore lands, waters, and wildlife across large regions of the country. The recent slew of announcements demonstrates that our movement to think and act on conservation at the landscape level has come of age.
While roads in our communities help connect us, they can also divide us by fragmenting landscapes. But now is an exciting time to be involved in conservation and transportation ecology–or the study and reduction of impacts of roads and other linear infrastructure on wildlife and nature; there are unprecedented funding opportunities and new state and federal policies to help implement projects to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve habitat connectivity. Land trusts can and do play a major role in these efforts.