Connecting Wild Places
Our natural and political landscapes are rapidly changing. Climate change is affecting ecosystems across the planet, and people, plants and wildlife are beginning to feel the pressures that come from a changing environment. Prolonged droughts, severe storms, growing deserts, deforestation, habitat loss and the resulting increase in stresses on wildlife are projected to become the norm in the future. While the impacts on humans will be significant, the impact on wildlife will be exponentially more detrimental.
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's 2011 Special Animals list, the majority of our wildlife need help: 88% of amphibians, 87% of native fish, two out of three mammals, and nearly half of all birds and reptiles are "at risk". This decline of wildlife is indicative of the failing health of the ecosystems that all life on Earth depends on.
As climate changes, it’s important that, as citizens, we fight to ensure that protected and connected wild places exist. Protecting and Connecting Wild Places is crucial for the survival of wildlife and is key to climate adaption. California’s 53 wilderness areas, 25 national and 270 state parks and beaches and 18 national forests offer a tremendous opportunity to provide a well-connected landscape, especially in the Pacific Northwest.
Old growth and late mature forests provide rare and extremely valuable habitat. The largest oldest trees store the greatest amounts of carbon and play a major role in regulating the Earth’s climate. Northern California forests are some of the most carbon dense forests on the planet, a majority of which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which are under constant threat of extraction.
Wilderness areas, mostly high elevation, and parks offer islands of protected refuge for wildlife. Roadless Areas, rivers and ridges that contain our lower elevation cool carbon dense forests provide crucial refugia and habitat connectivity between these core areas. Habitat linkages are passageways allowing wildlife to move freely to search for food, find a mate, migrate, to keep genetic diversity strong and to seek refuge in response to a warming climate. A majority of wildlife corridors, managed by the USFS remain unacknowledged, unprotected and open to multiple threats such as logging, grazing and road building.
What Is Causing Extinction?
The main reason for the current global mass extinction rate is habitat loss. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have produced a wellspring of research and documentation on the decline of species. Scientists estimate that globally over 1 million species are at risk of extinction. In the United States, it is estimated to be 1 in 5 animal and plant species and, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, well over half of California’s fish, amphibians and mammals and nearly half of all birds and reptiles are “at-risk.” Nearly an equal amount of research has gone into strategies to save species. There are dozens of professionally crafted collaborative plans, however, they do not enact change in policy, regulation or law.
Climate change demands political change. It is time to enact policy and implement climate adaption strategies. Our leaders in office and in forest, fish and wildlife management need to make a major shift in policy and practice to conserve our quality of life, wildlife and wild places.
What Can Be Done?
Due to the current climate and biodiversity crisis, there has been a surge of policy promoting the need to establish and protect wildlife corridors. Habitat protection and connectivity allows for species to migrate freely across large distances and is key to their survival. To adequately address landscape connectivity, politicians must cross aisles. This can be done.
In 2019, New Mexico, Oregon and New Hampshire passed landmark wildlife corridor legislation and California could do the same. In February, Wildlife corridors and connectivity: Wildlife and Biodiversity Protection and Movement Act of 2020 (SB-1372) was introduced in the California legislature and has progressed to the Committee of Transportation.
This bill would require the Department of Fish and Wildlife to investigate, study, and identify impacts to wildlife corridors from state infrastructure projects, including transportation and water and large-scale development projects. It would prioritize wildlife movement and habitat data development in areas of the state that are most essential as habitat linkages. Enacting the Wildlife and Biodiversity Protection and Movement Act of 2020 would require the state to build off of existing programs and plans, including the State Wildlife Action Plan, to proactively protect and enhance wildlife corridors and design infrastructure to maximize wildlife connectivity.
Nationally, the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act of 2019 (S.1499) was introduced in the Senate in 2019. The purposes of the act is to: establish National Wildlife Corridors to provide for the protection and restoration of certain native fish, wildlife, and plant species; to provide long-term habitat connectivity for native species migration, dispersal, adaptation to climate and environmental change, and genetic exchange; help restore wildlife movements that have been disrupted by habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, or obstruction; facilitate coordinated landscape- and seascape-scale connectivity planning and management across jurisdictions; and to support State, Tribal, local, voluntary private landowner and federal agency decision makers in the planning and development of National Wildlife Corridors.
The globally significant forests of Northern California offer an amazing opportunity to establish an interconnected intact landscape by protecting and connecting wildlife habitat and mid-elevation older forests. Connecting wild places will stave off extinction, while providing landscape connectivity, whether it is through intact habitat or road crossings, and will benefit people, plants and animals. Positive action for the good of nature is possible across political party lines. We are living proof that when we are faced with a crisis we can, and must, unite to make change.