There are over 4 million miles of highways, roads, and other transportation arteries throughout the US and many of them cut through the heart of vital habitat for endangered and threatened species. While key to our mobility, they are often designed without consideration for wildlife movement.
The impacts of these paved paths can be devastating for wildlife. On a basic level, isolated islands of biodiversity are formed that fragment wildlife populations, divide habitats, and degrade ecosystems. At its extreme, human development cuts off entire migration routes and blocks any chance of adapting to changing ecosystems. The results can create genetic bottlenecking, a byproduct of inbreeding that diminishes genetic diversity and makes species more susceptible to extinction.
Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced a bill that would make movement safer and easier for wildlife. The impetus for the bill was the recent UN report that found at least 1 million species are in danger of extinction due to accelerated human activity.
The Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act of 2019, as it’s known, would help stem the tide of declining species and habitats by connecting ecosystems with over crosses, underpasses, and culverts. They would create a system of corridors that connect and extend habitats so that animals can move over large areas, whether it be for daily foraging, seasonal migration, or finding a mate.
“Widespread habitat destruction is leaving scores of animal and plant species both homeless and helpless. We must act now to conserve wildlife corridors that would save species and mitigate against the mass extinction crisis we are rapidly hurtling toward,” said Sen. Udall in a press release. “In New Mexico, our millions of acres of public lands are home to thousands of iconic species that could vanish if we fail to take action that enable species to survive.”
There are approximately 1 – 2 million wildlife vehicle collisions annually. A Federal Highways Administration study found road mortality is one of the leading threats to at least 21 endangered and threaten species. And according to the same study, accidents cost Americans approximately eight billion dollars a year. While the damage is mostly monetary for people, wildlife often end up squished roadkill.
The idea for a unifying wildlife corridors framework is hardly a new. Rep. Beyer sponsor a wildlife corridors bill back in 2016 and, most recently, a similar bill was sponsor by both Sen. Udall and Rep. Beyer in December 2018. Both proposals stalled in the House after being submitted to subcommittees.
Nevertheless, research on places like Banff National Park have shown that building wildlife corridors can be a powerful tool for protecting biodiversity. One study found that the installation of wildlife crossings along stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway reduced collisions on average by 80% over a 24-year period.
Such success has spurred some states to warm up to the idea of animal crossings. The Western Governors Association and several New England states, along with south eastern Canadian provinces, have already drafted agreements that recognize the importance of increasing wildlife connectivity. And at least seven states have proposed legislation that would require Fish and Wildlife departments to identify, study, or install wildlife corridors. In many of them, linking habitats would protect some of our most iconic species like big horn sheep, pronghorn, grizzly bears, wolves, and the Florida panther.
“With roughly one in five animal and plant species in the U.S. at risk of extinction due to habitat loss and fragmentation, one of the simplest yet most effective things we can do is to provide them ample opportunity to move across lands and waters,” said Rep. Beyer. “The U.N. report on accelerating extinctions makes it clear that the window for action to protect the planet’s biodiversity is closing.”
Wildlife corridors are especially useful for connecting national parks, which act as refuges, but are being pushed to their limits as climates change and development erodes what habitat is left. As such, the once vast areas degrade, reducing their ability to sustain the myriad of species and plants that depend on them.
In practice, the bill would grant authority to key federal agencies including the Department of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior, and Transportation to designate wildlife corridors on federal lands. And they would work with state, tribal, and voluntary private stakeholders to identify, build, and manage the corridors on non-federal land. Regional Wildlife Movement Councils will identify and rank non-federal projects and use money from the Wildlife Grant Program to incentivize land owners willing to participate. The goal would be to connect federal and non-federal lands to create an entire system that will traverse the entire country.
A National Coordination Committee will develop a plan for the corridor system and help coordinate efforts between federal and non-federal stakeholders. A Wildlife Stewardship Fund, comprised of donations, will be use to supplement the management of corridors on public lands. On the ground, federal agents will gather data on public lands to help inform decisions and shape policy. Right now, the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment is reviewing the proposal.
Despite the bill’s support among conservation groups and bipartisan sponsors (one republican, Vern Buchanan (R-FL), cosponsored it), it’s unclear whether it’ll pass the House, let alone a Republican lead Senate. In all likelihood, more momentum is needed across the aisle before there’s any further movement. Yet the bill’s sponsors remain resolute.
“The science is clear: human activity is destroying and disrupting the habitats of wildlife around the world. If we don’t change course, entire ecosystems will be lost and entire species will be wiped out forever. It’s already happening,” said Sen. Wyden (D-OR), a cosponsor, in a statement. “The United States needs to do its part in taking better care of our planet and protecting the one million plant and animal species now facing extinction before it’s too late.”