Endangered Species, Wildlife Corridors, and Climate Change in the US West

Jodi A. Hilty; Aerin L. Jacob; Kim G. Trotter; Maya J. Hilty; and Hilary C. Young

Status of Conservation in the Western United States

The American West is blessed with an impressive amount of protected and public land. Most of the approximately 127 million hectares (313 million acres) of public protected areas in the United States, totaling 12% of total US lands, are found in the West. Additionally, private land easements and acquisitions conserve another 2 million hectares (5 million acres). Easements sometimes, but not always, enhance biodiversity conservation (Aycrigg et al. 2016a; Jenkins et al. 2018). Continued declining wildlife populations and increasing proposals to list species on the Endangered Species Act are evidence that further conservation is needed. Globally, the United States is lagging behind international standards set by the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Biodiversity Targets (the United States is one of a few countries that did not ratify this convention). Among other convention targets, it stipulates that by 2020 the terrestrial and inland water areas under protection in signatory countries should be increased by at least 17% in “effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures” (Convention on Biological Diversity 2011). The status of protected areas in the West has worsened in recent years with more US “degazetting,” or reducing conservation status, of protected areas (Wade 2019).

Representation of ecosystems is a key factor in how effectively protected areas conserve biodiversity, and it contributes to increased resilience of species and systems in the face of climate change. Protected areas in the western United States have disproportionate representation of high-elevation areas with low-productivity soils compared to other systems such as wetlands, valleys, and prairies with higher productivity (Aycrigg et al. 2013, 2016b; Pimm et al. 2018). Historically, aesthetics and recreation—not biodiversity conservation—tended to be the reason western lands were protected. As we learn more about species’ needs and movements, we know that while protected areas are vital, they are often too small to adequately conserve a broad range of species and ecological processes. Large-landscape, multijurisdictional conservation and shifts to ecological networks or connected systems of protected areas are necessary for long-term protection of biodiversity (Damschen et al. 2019).

A changing climate means that species and ecological communities must be able to shift across the landscape; this becomes more challenging given the amount of human development and activities creating barriers to movement and ultimately increasing the risk of extinction. Average temperatures have increased nearly 1.1°C (2°F) since 1895 and are projected to rise another 1.1°C to 2.2°C (2°F to 4°F) over the next few decades (Mattson et al. 1995). In the West, climate changes exacerbate droughts, wildfires, and pest outbreaks; these factors and tree diseases are causing widespread tree die-off in Washington and Oregon (Mattson et al. 1995) and other places across the West. The effects of climate change on biodiversity are being clearly documented—including substantial species’ range shifts, community shifts toward more warm-adapted species, phenological changes in populations (e.g., earlier breeding seasons), and changes that disrupt interactions among interdependent species (Mattson et al. 1995). Furthermore, the rate of warming over the next hundred years is predicted to be 2.5-5.8 times greater than the past hundred years (Hansen et al. 2014). Hansen et al. (2014) found that 30% of the area within protected-area-centered ecosystems, such as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, across the United States will experience climates unsuitable for current biomes by 2030. By 2090, 40% of such areas will be affected. Up to 96% of current protected areas in the Rocky Mountains and southwestern regions of the United States will have unsuitable climates for current biomes by 2090.

Exacerbating the problem, climate change increases human demands on natural resources such as land and water; extensive human impacts on either can impair ecosystem function and resilience. Anthropogenic climate change and land-system change are at increasing risk of crossing thresholds that may or may not be reversible. And while freshwater use is still considered safe at global levels (Steffen et al. 2015), reduced water supply across the West is predicted to have far-reaching ecological and socioeconomic consequences (Mattson et al. 1995).

Endangered Species in the West

The US Endangered Species Act (ESA), arguably the world’s strongest wildlife legislation, has significantly influenced western conservation of lands and species. The ESA has a broad scope of influence, primarily enabling protection of species through (1) prohibiting the “taking” of any species or (2) ensuring that no actions are allowed that would jeopardize the listed species or destruction or modification of critical habitat. Relatively few species have gone extinct under the law, and the majority of listed species improve in status over time, which is remarkable considering the severely declining status of most species at their time of listing (Schwartz 2008). Significant problems with the ESA exist, however, including that less than 2% of listed species have recovered to the point of delisting, and at least ten times more species likely qualify for listing than are actually listed (Evans et al. 2016). There are also lengthy delays in listing (Schwartz 2008) and limited data to assess the effectiveness of recovery tools (Gibbs and Currie 2012). In addition, the ESA faces significant political opposition, and in 2019, the United States substantially weakened the law by making it harder to list species and limiting protections to species listed as threatened, including by considering economic impacts in listing (Friedman 2019). Among the concerns about the ESA, two issues have particularly increased frustrations about its implementation in the West.

First is the controversy around whether to delist wolves (Canis lupus) and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos). Wolves have become emblematic of the ESA after multiple decades of battles among scientists, conservationists, and politicians debating the merits of continued listing (Ellison 2017). The issue became so heated that Montana Democratic Senator Tester and Idaho Republican Congressman Simpson attained a legislative delisting of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by adding a rider to the budget bill (Byron 2011), effectively undermining the ESA.

Second, the increasing incorporation of climate change into listings, which some see as a one-way listing since wildlife managers have little control over global climate change. Climate change is becoming more of a pivotal factor in species listings, and the ESA provides protection to species likely to become endangered in the “foreseeable future” (Government Publishing Office 1973), but this language is vague and climate change threats require earlier, more proactive action to prevent the decline of species (Government Publishing Office 1973; Robbins 2015). For instance, a recent proposed listing of wolverine (Gulo gulo) found in parts of western mountain ranges was mostly focused on the threat of climate change owing to their dependency on snow cover; this induced considerable debate on the scope and capacity of the act, which is already underfunded (Schwartz 2008). The continued trend of biodiversity loss is further evidence of the need for more comprehensive biodiversity conservation in the West and across the country. The number of species listed as endangered is increasing, and many more species are petitioned for listing. As many as one-third of the best-known groups of US plant and animal species have been found to be vulnerable, with one in five at a high risk of extinction (Stein et al. 2000). The threats to individual species of habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive species, chemical pollution, and climate change continue to compound. For instance, cheatgrass, an invasive species, is estimated to cover more than 40 million hectares (100 million acres) of the Great Basin in the West, leading to total loss of sagebrush in some areas and seriously threatening species like the greater sage grouse (Western Governors’ Association 2008). The ESA does not address the large numbers of gradually declining species in the United States and is simply inadequate for conserving species and their habitats.

Species Conservation at the State Level: Funding and State Wildlife Action Plans

Conservation measures prior to ESA listings have been inconsistent among states, but most states are moving toward preemptive conservation actions to prevent ESA listings. Aside from ESA-listed species, the states are fully responsible for managing their own wildlife through state fish and wildlife agencies. But concerns exist that while the ESA operates at a federal level, states lack sufficient laws and policies to achieve identified ESA recovery outcomes (Camacho et al. 2017; Goble et al. 1999). For instance, legislation and listing decisions in many states do not apply to plants, have no provisions to designate or protect critical habitat, do not require wildlife management agencies to engage in recovery planning, and may not be based on the best available science. Furthermore, few states require interagency consultation or allow citizens to petition for listing or delisting of species. It is promising that some states have complementary legislation, but they rely on the ESA’s more comprehensive structure of statutes and regulations. Although interagency collaboration to protect and recover at-risk species is required, together these limitations mean that devolution of federal authority for ESA species protection ought to be viewed with caution.

One incentive to maintain healthy wildlife populations is that wildlife- and wildland-associated recreation and tourism can bring significant revenue to rural regions; in the contiguous western states, people spent an estimated $33.6 billion on hunting, fishing, or wildlife watching in 2006 (Western Governors’ Association 2008).

Traditionally, funding for state wildlife agencies largely has come from three sources: hunting and fishing licenses, the Pittman Robertson Act of 1937, and the Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950. The two acts allocate money to states gathered from taxes on fishing and hunting outdoor gear. The resulting perceived dependency of wildlife agencies on hunters and anglers has led agencies to prioritize conservation of game species over all others (Jacobson et al. 2010; Organ et al. 2012). With such focus, populations of game species have remained generally healthy over the past forty or fifty years—nevertheless, it is increasingly apparent that more focus is needed on the approximately 85% of animal species that are neither game nor listed on the ESA (and thus managed federally). Many populations of nongame species have declined and lack consistently funded efforts to conserve them (Lerner et al. 2006).

As a result of the recognition that states need more financial resources and especially nongame funding, in 2000 Congress created the State Wildlife Grant (SWG) and Tribal Wildlife Grant (TWG) Programs to provide funding to proactively protect at-risk species. Annual appropriations from the SWG, which must be matched by nonfederal funding sources, have fluctuated between $50 and $100 million—averaging $60 to $65 million—which most stakeholders believe is drastically inadequate. It is estimated that the program provides less than 5% of what is necessary to conserve all species identified by the states as being the most in need (Stein et al. 2018).

Nonetheless, an important accomplishment in advancing conservation at the state level was the development of individual state wildlife action plans (SWAPs), which were completed by 2005 under the State Wildlife Grants. SWAPs include information on species distribution and abundance, descriptions of key habitats of species in decline, identification of threats, conservation actions to protect identified species of greatest conservation need and their habitats, monitoring programs for at-risk species, and plans to coordinate use of the SWAPs outside of state wildlife agencies (Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 2012). Creating and updating these plans are accomplishments because SWAPs were the first assessment of their type and breadth done by many states, including centralizing available wildlife information within one agency. The most recent plans identified 12,000 species nationwide in need of conservation action (Stein et al. 2018).

Although creating SWAPs was widely heralded as an achievement, many states had insufficient resources to complete the plans thoroughly, so the quality and structure of SWAPs across the West are highly inconsistent. A 2006 review of all SWAPs found that states generally did well in assessing the status of species, their habitats, and the current threats. The majority of western states mapped focal areas (and a few mapped larger priority habitats) to support species of greatest conservation need. Oregon’s plan was particularly strong, and both Wyoming and New Mexico developed sophisticated tools for mapping habitat quality. California, though initially lacking maps, created a formal steering committee to ensure that its SWAP was of a high caliber (Lerner et al. 2006).

Moving from assessments to action strategies is where many SWAPs have fallen short. Most states created lists of hundreds of conservation actions instead of prioritizing actions (see, e.g., in relation to threats, Carwardine et al. 2012) and setting reachable goals (Lerner et al. 2006). Further, many states have yet to address funding, resource, and expertise challenges. Other challenges include inadequate incorporation of climate change into conservation planning and inconsistencies among states. When viewed together, western SWAPs do not form a cohesive regional strategy. Additionally, regional cooperation across state boundaries is insufficient to maintain landscape-scale ecological processes and wide-ranging, at-risk species (Meretsky et al. 2012).

Funding for state wildlife agencies across the West is in decline. Despite diverse efforts to increase hunting and fishing, participation is declining in most states; in turn, this contributes to large fluctuations in the annual revenue available for conservation. From 2011 to 2016, the number of hunters across the United States dropped by 2.2 million (US Department of the Interior 2016). In response to the resulting funding gap, bipartisan supporters proposed the new Recovering America’s Wildlife Act to Congress. This act would use existing revenue from energy development and would appropriate $1.3 billion annually to implement three-quarters of every state’s wildlife action plan (Stein et al. 2018). The Land and Water Conservation Fund, developed with offshore oil and gas royalties, has also provided significant funds to protect biodiversity and habitat in the West via targeted land purchases. While Congress secured permanent reauthorization of the fund in February 2019 (Land and Water Fund Coalition 2019), full funding is not guaranteed. Further, the fund now requires that acquired lands provide public access, which can reduce benefits to biodiversity and habitat protection and discourage landowners from participating. Securing adequate resources will continue to be a challenge for western state agencies.

Species Conservation at the Regional Level:
The Western Governors’ Association and Case Studies

Notable efforts to advance regional species conservation in the western United States have stemmed from the Western Governors’ Association (WGA). The WGA is a tool for bipartisan policy development and information exchange, representing the governors of nineteen western states (as well as three territories in the Pacific). The WGA passed policy resolutions in 2015 and 2017 on species conservation that fueled the Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative. This initiative encourages voluntary conservation (outside the ESA) through identifying sensitive species early and establishing frameworks to incentivize proactive conservation. It promotes landscape-scale conservation efforts to prevent endangered species listings and, importantly, tries to build bipartisan support for its recommendations. Through the initiative, the WGA has hosted workshops and provided a forum to share information about best practices in state species management. In 2018, the WGA also created the Western Working Lands Forum to examine challenges of cross-boundary management of wildlife. The forum produced a comprehensive list of the top invasive species in the West, which together pose some of the most significant threats to the region’s biodiversity.

Other conservation efforts have arisen in response to the circumstances of particular regions. A classic example of regional efforts to preserve species in the West was the massive effort to conserve two subspecies of sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). In the early 2000s, sage grouse populations were in severe decline, having decreased from historic numbers by an estimated 69% to 99% (Belton and Jackson-Smith 2010) and only occupying just over half of their historical range through the western United States and Canada (Aldridge et al. 2008). Fragmentation of the sagebrush steppe habitat was increasing because of oil and gas development, agriculture, and urban expansion, and invasive cheatgrass was replacing the native sagebrush depended upon by sage grouse. Around 2010, sage grouse were being considered for protection under the ESA, but a strong desire to keep them from being listed by states and businesses resulted in a unique collaboration among diverse groups—including federal and state agencies, private landowners, and energy companies—to devise a conservation approach that would eliminate the need for listing. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service (USFS) increased protection on millions of hectares of land managed for multiple use, while more than sixty local groups across the West were created to implement sage grouse management plans. To avoid further restrictions on economic activities that would occur in the event of an ESA listing, energy companies and local communities supported the effort. The recovery of sage grouse—an indicator of the overall health of sagebrush habitat—is intertwined with the health of many other species. Although sage grouse protections have degenerated under the Trump administration, the effort remains a good example of a multipartner plan advancing to keep a species from being listed. It encompassed principles of conservation on a landscape scale, began to incorporate concerns about climate change threats to the persistence of sage grouse (Schrag et al. 2011), and targeted a single species while ultimately benefitting a range of species.

Another continuing conservation effort in the West for which success has broad implications is the restoration of large carnivores, including gray wolves (Canis lupus) and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos). Populations of these animals collapsed following European settlement of the West, and both were among the first species listed under the ESA. By the early twentieth century, government control programs had driven gray wolves to extinction throughout the Lower 48. Upon reintroduction in 1995-1996, populations expanded quickly thanks to heightened legal protections in both Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Worth noting, the Nez Perce tribe successfully led the reintroduction of wolves in Idaho despite a lack of support from the state because of the tribe’s ceded wildlife rights in treaty with the federal government. By 2009, the northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf population exceeded the initial target of three hundred wolves in the recovery area by fivefold (Bergstrom et al. 2009), with individuals traveling into Colorado, Oregon, and Utah (Wayne and Hedrick 2011). Gray wolf recovery succeeded despite strong opposition in many rural communities—although there was also strong public and scientific support for reintroduction—and attitudes toward wolves have generally improved over time (George et al. 2016). Opposition to wolves still exists, but efforts to ensure long-term persistence of wolves continue, and current population sizes are relatively robust.

The conservation story for grizzly bears is similar. Grizzlies were eliminated from 95% of their original range between 1850 and 1920, and they further declined by another 52% until 1970 (Mattson et al. 1995). After the 1975 ESA listing, coordinated federal recovery efforts brought the population of grizzly bears in the US Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem above ESA-stated recovery levels (Mace et al. 2012). Recovery efforts were impressive considering the human-bear conflicts, the major barrier that roads pose to habitat connectivity, and the vulnerability of grizzly bears to human development and activities (Weaver et al. 1996). Grizzly bears have made an enormous recovery in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The population was estimated at approximately 135 individuals in the 1970s when the species was listed, and it now exceeds 700. The ESA created a recovery zone, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team to lead what has become one of the most intense and long-term carnivore research efforts in the world, and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee to maintain strong communication and cooperation among the managers as well as to supervise education, research, and management of trash initiatives (Yellowstone National Park 2019). Three factors greatly contributed to the recovery to date. First, almost all of the designated recovery area for grizzly bears is public land. Second, the strong coordination among the public land managers in proactively facilitating the recovery of the animals has been essential. Finally, the volume of data and sophisticated analyses resulted in strong information to understand the needs of bears, to identify hot spots of mortality, and much more. Although these bears are doing significantly better in number, the population has been listed and delisted in recent decades because of concerns about their vulnerability once delisted, specifically related to the impacts of climate change on future grizzly bear survival and to the need for better connectivity across fragmented populations to enable long-term persistence. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population is still completely isolated from more northern populations, and several populations are fragmented along the US and Canadian border. The population of grizzly bears in the Cabinet Yaak region in Montana was as low as ten in the 1990s. The FWS augmented this isolated population from the nearby Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population. Complementing this, a fifteen-year collaboration of nonprofit organizations called the Cabinet Purcell Mountain Corridor Project, facilitated by the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, has secured more than 1295 km2 (>500 mi2) of habitat. This was accomplished through road closures, significantly increasing security in three priority corridors, reducing human-wildlife conflict through education, installing more than 170 electric fences to deter bears from attractants, and more. As a result, the grizzly bear population is now more than sixty individuals, grizzly bear-human conflicts have been significantly reduced, and bears have been observed using some of the protected corridors.

The general trend toward recovery for large carnivore species is encouraging because they tend to be umbrella species whose habitat requirements encompass those of many other species (Steenweg 2016), but see Carroll et al. (2001) for discussion about the benefit of using multiple carnivore focal species. In addition, efforts to protect large carnivores lead to the large-scale conservation strategies that include core protected areas, buffer zones, and connectivity between protected areas that are essential to preserving biodiversity.

Grizzly bear family in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Figure 10.1. Grizzly bear family in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Photo by Jeff Burrell.

Connectivity and Climate Change in the West

Conservation is broader than individual species. It is widely recognized that successful long-term conservation of natural resources in the West needs to be planned and implemented at the large-landscape scale, ensuring a portfolio of diverse protected areas that are connected to create functional ecological networks (Bennett and Mulongoy 2006). In the West, various public and private entities engaged in natural resources conservation have already begun to shift toward large-landscape conservation, including connectivity.

The first organization formed to advocate for conserving representative ecosystems was The Nature Conservancy, which was created in 1951. Since then, the idea of a national conservation system has been repeatedly proposed (Aycrigg et al. 2016b). The absence of a cohesive national conservation plan has been problematic given not only continued habitat loss and fragmentation but also climate change (Meretsky et al. 2012). A key element of a system or network is that protected areas are connected. The concept of wildlife corridors—a means to achieve connectivity—grew in the 1990s and has continued to expand through research, tools, and policies in the West and around the world. Guidelines to create, implement, and manage connectivity are numerous and are increasingly incorporated into regulations and policy (Hilty et al. 2019). Importantly, connectivity is widely recognized as a tool for helping species adapt to a changing climate. Not only do we need large and well-placed protected areas, but because species need to be able to move through space and time, designated areas for connectivity or corridors are also widely recommended as one way to facilitate species adaptation (Heller and Zavaleta 2009).

Reflecting science-based recommendations, the West has experienced a shift toward large-landscape conservation. Because agencies are generally slower to change practices within larger bureaucracies, some of the initial conceptualization of large-landscape conservation in the West originated with nongovernmental organizations. In 1993, the idea of “protecting and connecting habitat from Yellowstone to Yukon for people and nature to thrive” was one of the first western and international large-landscape plans. This idea has been advancing on-the-ground conservation through the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and more than 450 partner organizations for the past twenty-five years (Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative 2014). Today, there are hundreds of efforts that self-identify with large-landscape conservation efforts in the West and beyond (see Network for Landscape Conservation 2020).

Federal and state agencies in the West also have shifted increasingly toward large-landscape conservation. Particularly momentous was the announcement of the first federally designated corridor, Path of the Pronghorn in Wyoming, with commitments from the National Park Service (NPS), the USFS, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the BLM. The corridor helps to maintain a 270-kilometer (167-mile) migration corridor for pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) that migrate out of Grand Teton National Park to the Red Desert. The announcement was followed in 2007 by the unanimous approval by the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) of a resolution across sixteen western states to protect wildlife corridors and crucial habitat, ultimately approving a report with a series of recommendations and forming the Wildlife Habitat Council (Wildlife Management Institute 2008). The WGA has continued to support this work, including through additional resolutions. Among the substantial impacts of the 2007 resolution is that western states began to map their wildlife corridor and core area priorities (also known as CHATs, or crucial habitat assessment tools). One of the most sophisticated and collaborative efforts occurred in Washington State, when it recognized the importance of thinking beyond its own boundaries and extended its analyses into neighboring jurisdictions (Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group 2010).

Individual federal agencies have begun to fundamentally shift their philosophy to better support connectivity and large-landscape conservation. National Park Service documents such as Advancing the National Park Idea: Second Century Commission Report, Revisiting Leopold, and the Natural Resources Conservation Framework demonstrate a shift at the highest levels of the Service toward managing in the context of larger landscapes and incorporating climate change (National Park Service 2001, 2016; National Park System Advisory Board 2012). While it is beyond the scope of this chapter to review the agencies in detail, the other major federal land managers in the West, including BLM, USFS, and FWS, also led departmental efforts to shift planning and institutional cultures to take on large-landscape conservation, incorporating corridors and climate change into forward looking planning and implementation guidelines. The planning and guidance documents across the collective of federal agencies in the West that manage lands represent an enormous shift in practice that affects land-use planning and, in many cases, also provides a mandate to coordinate beyond the boundaries of individual jurisdictions.

One of the more striking overarching US Department of the Interior initiatives was the creation, though ephemeral owing to changing federal administrations, of landscape conservation cooperatives (Landscape Conservation Cooperative Network 2020). Western cooperatives began to develop and implement—through public and private voluntary partnerships and across large spatial extents—shared conservation priorities such as core area and connectivity conservation in light of climate change. The cooperatives enabled discussions about how to work together across multiple agencies and public and private lands. While federal funding is diminished, many cooperative projects have evolved from these partnerships.

Further demonstration that large-scale multijurisdictional conservation represents the future for the West can be seen in the announcement of the 2018 Secretarial Order No. 3362. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced the order—“Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big-Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors”—for eleven western states to enhance and improve big-game winter range and migration corridors on federal lands. The order implies that such efforts may be multijurisdictional and often large scale, given the long-distance movements of pronghorn, deer, elk, and other species that would fall under this order. As such, it is also fostering conversation and cooperation between state and federal agencies.

Western state agencies charged with managing wildlife have also advanced statewide planning, including wildlife corridors through the aforementioned SWAPs and CHATs. Further, the concept of corridors is working its way into global, national, and western state legislation. California has developed and passed wildlife corridor legislation, which among other things requires the Department of Fish and Wildlife to maintain a database identifying those areas across the state that are important for wildlife connectivity.

Critical private-lands work is also advancing in the West. Housing density near protected areas across the United States increased on average by 741% from 1940 to 2000 (Hansen et al. 2014). Projections estimate that urban expansion around protected areas will expand by 67% from 2001 to 2051 (Martinuzzi et al. 2015), which will reduce natural habitats in the areas surrounding those lands by 12% in the period from 1970 to 2030 (Wade and Theobald 2010). As development surrounds and isolates national parks, parks lose species and potential wildlife corridors become less effective. Furthermore, lands within protected areas are at higher risk of alteration—for example, from fire suppression or by invasive species—in addition to the challenges posed by intensification of edge effects, reduction of the functional size of protected areas, and buffers (Swaty et al. 2011). In terms of large-landscape conservation, targeted private land easements and acquisitions have been critical, securing core habitat areas and helping ensure that connectivity areas remain free from activities that could foreclose movement. As but one example, in 2010, the Nature Conservancy through the Montana Legacy Project finalized the single largest land deal in the United States of more than 125,000 hectares (310,000 acres). This project is securing and restoring significant lands, including a part of the Swan Valley that is important at the landscape level for connectivity throughout the Yellowstone to Yukon region and is used by grizzly bears and many other species.

While conservation in the West has begun to move beyond the management of individual parcels and toward large-landscape conservation, these efforts are often disjointed where different entities work within their own vision and scope. There remains significant room for improvement.

Forward Looking

Conservation in the West is dynamic. We have seen the recovery of a number of endangered species, yet many populations and species are more at risk than ever. The philosophy of conservation has begun to shift from one of fortress conservation, or conservation of isolated protected areas, to multijurisdictional, large-landscape conservation emphasizing connectivity. This shift is necessary and important to conserve species and ecological processes that often have needs beyond the boundaries of any one protected area. Significant and further efforts will be required to achieve a representative connected ecological network, which would be more effective at keeping species from becoming endangered in the first place. Ecological networks are also likely to be more robust as the climate changes. Ultimately, a West-wide conservation strategy that would enable land and wildlife managers to work together on a unified vision would streamline efforts and break down jurisdictional boundaries that can hamper the ability to achieve the necessary scale of conservation.

The West faces significant challenges going forward. Prior to the late twentieth century, the size of protected areas was not as much of an issue in conserving biodiversity because many parks were surrounded by undeveloped land. In 2001, an average of 64% of the land within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of protected areas across the United States was still covered by natural vegetation (Martinuzzi et al. 2015). Over the past two decades, however, the western United States—which has often been characterized by large open spaces—has undergone significant land-use changes and continues to face pressures such as energy development and urban expansion (Lawler et al. 2014). Natural gas production in the Rocky Mountain states has increased by 69% since 1996 and continues to grow (Western Governors’ Association 2008). Energy development is occurring rapidly across the West, and Department of Energy forecasts suggest the region is poised to expand by upward of 40%. This growth, as well as increasing human populations and expanding development, will challenge conservation as the collection of human activities foreclose opportunities for maintaining a connected and protected network that could secure the conservation of biodiversity now and in the future.

Natural resource extraction reduces and fragments habitat across the West.
Figure 10.2. Natural resource extraction reduces and fragments habitat across the West. Photo taken in Wyoming by Jodi Hilty.

The impact of a changing climate means that the problems of wildfires, flood events, and a lack of available water will likely only grow more acute. How these problems are addressed could have significant impacts on conservation. Because so much of the West is arid, riparian areas adjacent to creeks and rivers are corridors of life and disproportionately important for most species. Decades of fire suppression and other forest management practices have contributed to the increasing expanse, frequency, and intensity of wildfires (a trend expected to continue with further warming; see Schoennagel et al. 2017) and have pushed limited federal and state fire budgets. There are no easy answers. Experts, however, recommend shifting away from fire suppression, widespread forest thinning, and restoring to historical conditions in favor of prescribing fire to begin moving toward future conditions and “firesmart” community planning (Schoennagel et al. 2017).

Because this is a time of change, one thing is certain. We need continued monitoring, evaluation, and applied science to help guide conservation priorities. How do we create protected area networks in the West that are robust in the face of climate and land-use changes? What tools and approaches can help us work across the myriad private lands that may be important for the future of conservation in the West? And if we move toward an ecosystem-based conservation focus, what species may still need special attention if we are to conserve them in the long term? Conducting this research and monitoring, and advancing on-the-ground conservation in the western United States, will take a significant allocation of resources, commitment, and flexibility during this time of rapid and uncertain change.


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The Environmental Politics and Policy of Western Public Lands Copyright © 2020 by Jodi A. Hilty; Aerin L. Jacob; Kim G. Trotter; Maya J. Hilty; and Hilary C. Young is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.