Part Six

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

Jodi Hilty, Aerin Jacob, Kim Trotter, Maya Hilty, and Hilary Young

Status of Conservation in the Western US

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-land protected areas in the US, totaling 12 percent of total US lands, are found in the West  (Figure 1). Additionally, private land easements and acquisitions conserve another 2 million hectares (5 million acres).  These sometimes, but not always, enhance biodiversity conservation (Aycrigg et al. 2016; Jenkins et al. 2015). Continued declining wildlife populations and increasing proposals to list species on the Endangered Species Act are evidence that further conservation is needed. Globally, the US is also lagging behind international standards set by the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Biodiversity (the US is one of a few non-signatory countries) which, among other targets, guides signatory countries to achieve 17 percent connected protected lands by 2020.

Representation of ecosystems is a key factor in how effectively protected areas conserve biodiversity, and contributes to increased resilience of species and systems in the face of climate change. Protected areas in the western US 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; Aycrigg et al. 2016; Pimm et al. 2018). 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 many species and ecological processes.  Large landscape, multi-jurisdictional conservation and shifts to ecological networks or connected systems of protected areas are necessary for long-term meaningful protection.

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 1.1-2.2 °C (2-4 °F) over the next few decades (Mattson et al. 2014). 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. 2014), and other places across the west. The effects of climate change on biodiversity are already being documented—including substantial species’ range shifts, community shifts toward more warm-adapted species, phenological changes in populations (e.g., shorter breeding seasons), and changes that disrupt interactions among interdependent species (Mattson et al. 2014). Furthermore, the rate of warming over the next 100 years is predicted to be 2.5-5.8 times greater than the last 100 years (Hansen et al. 2014). Hansen et al. (2014) found that 30 percent of the area within protected-area centered ecosystems across the US will experience climates unsuitable for current biomes by 2030 and 40 percent by 2090; up to 96 percent of current protected areas in the Rocky Mountains and southwestern regions of the US 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 impact of either can impair ecosystem function and resilience. Anthropogenic climate change and land-system change are at increasing risk of crossing ‘planetary boundaries’, 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. 2014).

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Endangered Species in the West

The U.S. 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 critical habitat and requiring recovery plans that recommend specific actions, time frames, and effectiveness-evaluation criteria. 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). However, significant problems with the ESA exist, including that less than 2 percent of listed species have recovered to the point of delisting, and at least 10 times more species likely qualify for listing than are actually listed (Evans et al. 2016), 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 at the time of writing this chapter, Congress is considering changes that would weaken it. Among the concerns about the ESA, two issues have particularly increased frustrations about its implementation in the West.

First, the controversy around whether or not 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 Montanan Democratic Senator Tester and Idaho Republican Senator 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” (GPO 2018), but this language is vague and climate change threats require earlier, more proactive action to prevent the decline of species (Robbins 2015; GPO 2018). 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 due 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. Numbers of species listed as endangered are increasing and many more 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 over 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 (WGA 2008). The ESA, though undoubtedly valuable, does not address the large numbers of gradually declining species in the US and is simply inadequate for conserving species and their habitats.

Species Conservation at the State Level: Funding and SWAPs

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. However, 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 statues and regulations. Although interagency collaboration to protect and recover species at-risk 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 (WGA 2008).

Traditionally, funding for state wildlife agencies largely has come from two sources, hunting and fishing licenses and the Pittman Robertson Act of 1937, and the Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950, which allocates money to states gathered from taxes on fishing and hunting outdoor gear. The resulting perceived dependency of wildlife agencies on hunters and fisher people has led agencies to prioritize conservation of game species over all others (Jacobson, Decker, and Organ 2010, Organ et al. 2012). With such focus, populations of game species have remained generally healthy over the past 40 or 50 years — nevertheless, it is increasingly apparent that more focus is needed on the approximately 85 percent of animal species that are neither game nor ESA-listed (and thus managed federally). Many populations of non-game 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 non-game funding, in 2000 Congress created the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program (SWG) to provide funding to preventatively conserve at-risk species. Annual appropriations from the SWG, which must be matched by non-federal funding sources, have fluctuated between $50 and $100 million—averaging $60-65 million—which most stakeholders believe is drastically inadequate. It is estimated that the program provides less than five percent 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. The 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 the state wildlife agency (Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 2012). Creating and updating these plans is an accomplishment 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 and their habitats and 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 superior development of its SWAP (Lerner, Cochran, and Michalak 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 (e.g., in relation to threats, Carwardine et al. 2012) and setting reachable goals (Lerner, Cochran, and Michalak 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 2011-16 the number of hunters across the US dropped by 2.2 million (U.S. Department of Interior et al. 2016). As a result of the 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. However, Congress has failed both to allocate funds to conservation despite the Fund’s purpose, and just secured permanent reauthorization of the fund in February 2019 (Land and Water Fund Coalition 2019). Securing adequate resources will continue to be a challenge for western state agencies.

Species Conservation at the Regional Level: WGA and Case Study/Examples

Notable efforts to advance regional species conservation in the western U.S. have stemmed from the Western Governors’ Association (WGA). The WGA is a tool for bipartisan policy development and information exchange, representing the governors of 19 western states (as well as three territories in the Pacific). The WGA passed 2015 and 2017 Policy Resolutions on species conservation that fueled a 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 percent (Belton and Jackson-Smith 2010) and only occupying just over half of their historical range through the western US and Canada (Aldridge et al. 2008). Fragmentation of the sagebrush steppe habitat was increasing due to 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 U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) increased protection on millions of hectares of land managed for multiple use, while over 60 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 multi-partner 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 carnivore, 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 20thcentury, government control programs had driven gray wolves to extinction throughout the lower 48 states. Upon reintroduction in 1995-1996, populations expanded quickly thanks to heightened legal protections into 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 goal of 300 wolves in the recovery area by fivefold (Bergstrom et al. 2009), with individuals traveling into Oregon, Utah, and Colorado (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 percent of their original range between 1850 and 1920, with a further 52 percent decline until 1970 (Mattson et al. 2014). 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 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). However, grizzly bears still need 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.

Box 10.1 Recovering Grizzly Bears in the Cabinet Purcell Mountains

The population of grizzly bears in the Cabinet Yaak region was as low as 10 in the 1990s. The USFWS decided to augment this isolated population. Likewise, over more than a decade a collaboration of non-profit organizations called the Cabinet Purcell Mountain Corridor project, facilitated by Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, worked to secure more than 500 square miles of habitat. This was accomplished through road closures, the significant increase of security in three priority corridors, the reduction of human-wildlife conflict through education, the installation of more than 170 electric fences to deter bears from attractants and more. As a result, the grizzly bear population is now more than 60 individuals, no grizzly bear-human conflicts were reported last year, and bears have been monitored using some of the protected corridors.

The general trend toward recovery for these 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, Noss, and Paquet 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.

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 conceptualization of conserving representative ecosystems stemmed in 1951 from The Nature Conservancy, which formed to advocate for representative ecosystem protection. Since then, the idea of a national conservation system has been repeatedly proposed (Aycrigg et al. 2016). The absence of a cohesive national conservation plan has been particularly problematic, given not only continued habitat loss and fragmentation but also climate change (Meretsky et al. 2012). One element of a system or network is the idea of connectingprotected areas. 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 given climate change. Not only do we need large and well-placed protected areas, but also because species need to be able to move through space and time, designated areas for connectivity or corridors are widely recommended as one way to facilitate species adaptation (Heller and Zavaleta 2009).

Reflecting science-based recommendations, the West has seen a shift toward large-landscape conservation. Because agencies are generally slower to shift practices within their larger bureaucracies, some of the initial conceptualization of large-landscape conservation in the West originated in the non-governmental organizations arena. The 1993 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. For the last 25 years, this idea has been advancing on-the-ground conservation through the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and more than 300 partner organizations (Y2YCI 2014). Today, there are hundreds of efforts that self-identify with large-landscape conservation efforts in the West and beyond (see membership, landscapeconservation.org).

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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), 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 WGA’s unanimous approval of a resolution across 16 western states to protect wildlife corridors and crucial habitat, ultimately approving a report with a series of recommendations and formed 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, Western Governors’ Association, no date). One of the most sophisticated and collaborative efforts was in Washington State, which recognized the importance of thinking beyond their own boundaries and extended their 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. NPS 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; National Park System Advisory Board 2012; National Park Service 2016). 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 US BLM, FS, 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 jurisdictional property management.

One of the more striking overarching U.S. Department of Interior initiatives was the creation, though ephemeral due to changing federal administrations, of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (https://lccnetwork.org/). 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 multi-jurisdictional conservation represents the future for the West can be seen in the announcement of the 2018 Secretarial Order #3362. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced the Order—“Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big-Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors”— for 11 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 also working its way into global, national, and western state legislation. California had 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 US increased on average by 741 percent from 1940 to 2000 (Hansen et al. 2014). Projections estimate that urban expansion around protected areas will expand by 67 percent from 2001 to 2051 (Martinuzzi et al. 2015), which will reduce natural habitats in the areas surrounding those lands by 12 percent 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 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 bounds 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 percent of the land within 10 km (6 mi) of protected areas across the US was still covered by natural vegetation (Martinuzzi et al. 2015). However, over the past two decades, the western US—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 69 percent since 1996 and continues to grow (WGA 2008). Energy development is occurring rapidly across the West, and Department of Energy forecasts suggest the region is poised to expand by upwards of 40 percent. This, 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.

The impacts of a changing climate means, including 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, disproportionately important for most species. Decades of fire suppression and forest management practices have contributed to the increasing expanse, frequency, and intensity of wildfires (a trend expected to continue with further warming; Schoennagel et al. 2017) and push 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, 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 US west 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 by Jodi Hilty, Aerin Jacob, Kim Trotter, Maya Hilty, and Hilary Young is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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