New Proposal to ReWild the US

Figure 2 in A.K. Fremier et al. 2015.

The proposed wildlife network will be pieced together from existing protection policies and incentives for conservation easements. Reprinted from Figure 2 in A.K. Fremier et al. 2015.

Grizzly bears can meander in and out of Yellowstone and pronghorns enjoy corridors near Grand Teton, but a new study wants to take it a step further. It will require unprecedented coordination among landowners and governments, but researchers at Washington State University have just demonstrated that a nationwide wildlife network is possible. The answer, they say, comes from our waterways.

Using Rivers to Restore Wild Channels

Grizzly bear sow & cub with radio neckband in Yellowstone National Park. Image By John Good/NPS via Wikimedia Commons.

Grizzly bear sow and cub with radio neckband in Yellowstone National Park. Image By John Good/NPS via Wikimedia Commons.

Published yesterday in in the journal Biological Conservation, the authors’ proposal is rather straightforward. To build a wildlife network, we simply need to use our riparian zones — our rivers, streams and wetlands — to connect existing parks, forests and refuges.

The benefits to wildlife are clear. The authors argue that our current network of waterways is perfectly suited to give a variety of creatures access to water and food, escape from predators, places to nest — and importantly, the ability to move between parks and wilderness areas. Indeed, by connecting these patches of land, and reversing some of the fragmentation that has plagued the country, animals will also have the ability to escape wildfires, floods or similar disturbances.

But we shouldn’t overlook the potential rewards for people either. Since many of the proposed pathways will require restoration, such efforts can lead to cleaner water, flood control, and increased access to recreation while enjoying some stunning scenery.

Conservation Is No Walk in the Park

While the concept may be simple, the pursuit is not. And the authors concede that “even an ideal physical solution is promising only to the degree that it can be implemented.” Thus, they pointed to the evidence for their proposed “riparian connectivity network.”

First, many waterways already have a number of protections provided by the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, as well as through individual parks and forests. And these ideas are more bolstered by the fact that existing conservation easements on private lands are typically located near water. Furthermore, when the researchers analyzed land databases for the US, they found that a remarkable 95 percent of protected lands are connected by a river or stream to one or more protected areas.

“From a policy perspective this is a win-win,”co-author Alexander Fremier told reporters. “The legislation already exists. Plus, people already want clean water and protections for endangered species. A riparian connectivity network (RCN) would provide a lot of value to both of these concerns.”

The Hard Work Can Now Begin

An Elk in Yellowstone National Park. Image by By Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons.

An elk in Yellowstone National Park. Image by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons.

“Before we can go about coordinating a national riparian conservation network, we need to figure out a methodology to implement it on a small, localized scale,” noted Amanda Stahl, a WSU Ph.D. candidate. “We also need to come up with baseline estimates of how wide protected corridors need to be to facilitate connectivity and how to get private landowners on board with the project.”

Not to mention the fact that, as the authors so elegantly noted, “federal resource agencies have a checkered history of working together toward a common purpose.” However, only four federal agencies manage the bulk of public lands — the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service — and presumably that will facilitate progress.

“The pieces aren’t all in place but our research does suggest a natural confluence of conservation objectives,” Fremier explained. “Our hope is this paper will help bring the different federal and state players to the table to try to make a national conservation project like this a reality.”

Want to learn more?

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is a joint Canada-U.S. not-for-profit organization that connects and protects habitat from Yellowstone to Yukon so people and nature can thrive.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Path of the Pronghorn Conservation Program helps pronghorn and other animals migrate more easily by improving fencing and removing other impediments to their passage.

The Rewilding Institute works to develop and promote the ideas and strategies to advance continental-scale conservation in North America, particularly the need for large carnivores and a permeable landscape for their movement, and to offer a bold, scientifically-credible, practically achievable, and hopeful vision for the future of wild Nature and human civilization in North America.

WATCH: Yellowstone to Yukon: 20 Years of Progress


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