Conserving crucial connections
Major effort under way to preserve wildlife habitation and corridors

SideStory: The public pulse on preservation

A mule deer is silhouetted against the backdrop of the mountains surrounding Durango recently. An effort is under way in 19 Western states to preserve and maintain wildnerness corridors, also called “wildways,” in the face of enroaching human presence./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

The Sixth Mass Extinction may be just around the corner, according to many biologists. Just like five previous events in the last 250 million years, scientists are forecasting a major die-off where rats, cockroaches and other urban species are expected to take the place of lynx, raptors and sensitive species. Unlike the five other events, human impacts – whether global warming, sprawl, energy development or new highways – are the culprits this time.

However, a major regional effort is currently working to hold off the Sixth Mass Extinction, and Durango is figuring heavily both in terms of involvement and the result. The Western Governors’ Association has undertaken a Wildlife Corridors Initiative in an effort to preserve critical habitat and lighten human pressures on wildlife throughout the West and beyond.

Of all the threats to wildlife, climate change tops the lists, according to conservation groups. Jamie Clark, vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, recently noted that global warming ranks as one of the biggest threats to federal lands and the nation’s wildlife. He added that a report from the Government Accountability Office showed that federal agencies lack the ability to deal with the impacts of climate change on the 600 million acres of federal lands in the United States.

“Global warming is and will continue to contribute to species extinctions, flooding of coastal refuges and massive movements of wildlife populations in search of more hospitable habitat,” he said.

In February of last year, the Western Governors’ Association, which represents 19 states, also reached the same conclusion. By unanimously passing the resolutions, “Protecting Wildlife Migration Corridors and Crucial Wildlife Habitat in the West,” the governors took a first step toward lightening human pressure on animals. After passing the resolution, the Wildlife Corridors Initiative was launched. The multi-state, collaborative effort has worked for the past year to improve understanding of migratory corridors, or wildways, and crucial habitat.

Five separate working groups have worked to better understand the effects of climate change, transportation, land use and energy development on wildlife. Significantly, Durango boasts two representatives on the initiative – Monique DiGiorgio, of the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project, and Erick Aune, director of La Plata County Community Development Services.

“Wildlife corridors are becoming even more important in the context of climate change,” DiGiorgio said. “Weather patterns and climates are shifting, and animals are going to need to move with the changes. And when animals head off on these migrations, they’re going to run into barriers like highways and new development.”


Even without climate change, wildlife is presently facing more challenges than any time before, DiGiorgio said. For the most part, the nation’s wildlife is finding itself with less and more fragmented habitat as human population and impacts soar.

“It’s not just migration,” DiGiorgio added. “Animals often need to move from one area to another to meet their daily and seasonal needs. We’re working to protect these wildlife corridors in the face of many things, whether it’s climate change, oil and gas development or new roads.”

As much as anywhere in the West, the wildlife surrounding Durango is in the bull’s eye. The entire state of Colorado contains 12 priority corridors where animal and human migration are colliding. Five of those wildways are located in Southwest Colorado, and they account for the highest intensity of wildlife-related care accidents in the state. As time passes, collisions between cars and deer, elk, black bears, mountain lions and endangered Canada lynx are becoming increasingly common along Southwest Colorado’s roads and highways.

“Durango is located right in the center of several important habitats and wildlife linkages,” DiGiorgio said. “Really, we’re surrounded by wildlife linkages more than any other place in the state.”

Plus, the pressure is rising as the climate warms, more people make Southwest Colorado their home and increasing energy development dots the local landscape. Higher temperatures throughout the West are sending animals scrambling for higher elevations. But when they get to places like the San Juan Mountains, they are finding a more disturbed and less inviting landscape. “From a global climate change perspective, mountains and higher elevation places are becoming more vital as the planet warms,” DiGiorgio said.

The Western Governors’ Association, Defenders of Wildlife and SREP are not the only ones concerned about wildlife corridors. The Patagonia clothing company recently founded “Freedom to Roam,” an initiative to create migration corridors between protected areas. The collaborative effort recognizes that the climate is changing and wildways are becoming increasingly crucial to the survival of species.

“We want to inspire a broad and deep grassroots awareness of this challenge and mobilize thousands of people to venture into the wildways, to hike and climb and paddle and camp, to bear witness to the wonders of the wildlands and the wildlife within them,” wrote “Patagonia Ambassador” Rick Ridgeway when Freedom to Roam was introduced.

The next step, according to Ridgeway and DiGiorgio, is bringing lawmakers into the discussion. With increasing awareness, change could begin on Capitol Hill, and the Sixth Mass Extinction could be forestalled. For her part, DiGiorgio has high hopes.

“The fact that the Western Governors’ Association has adapted a policy initiative to protect wildlife at the same time as the founding of Freedom to Roam is a major groundswell,” she said. “There’s a confluence of support that’s providing an opportunity to really make some progress on this issue.” •