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Washington State University
CAS Connect September 2015

New hope for saving at-risk animals

Wolves, elk, and grizzly bears—some of the largest wild animals in America—are literally dying for more room to roam. But Alexander Fremier, associate professor in the School of the Environment, sees a viable solution on the horizon.

Wolves roam great distances in search of migrating prey. They are shy creatures by nature and tend to avoid living near or passing through human settlements.

Using a new approach with geospatial analysis, Fremier’s research shows a national network of protected river corridors could be used to link numerous isolated wildlife sanctuaries, providing large animals and countless others with the spacious, connected habitats they need to survive and thrive.

Fremier’s work provides a unifying solution to the complex, long-standing problem of connecting wildlife conservation areas and necessary habitats over vast areas.

His analysis, recently published online in the journal Biological Conservation, revealed 95 percent of all federally protected lands are connected by a river or stream network to at least one other protected area.

As he further notes, many of the environmental policies and incentives a national river conservation network would need are already in place. The Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, as well as state-level environmental protection laws, afford riparian areas double the protection of terrestrial lands.

“From a policy perspective this is a win-win,” Fremier said. “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.”

An unprecedented challenge

Although conceptually simple, a nationwide RCN would require unprecedented coordination among governance agencies and private landowners to stretch across the entire country. Currently no federal policy exists for connecting landscapes, even on a small scale.

Riparian corridor six months after project completion, looking downstream. The stabilized bank displays successful revegetation. Photo by Bill Ambrose/USFWS.
Riparian corridor six months after project completion, looking downstream. The stabilized bank displays successful revegetation. Photo by Bill Ambrose/USFWS.

However, as Fremier points out, the vast majority of public lands are managed by only four federal agencies—USDA Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—increasing the potential for inter-agency coordination.

Additionally, policymakers could use regional-scale restoration projects as models for a more robust RCN. Examples include the Yellowstone to Yukon, a project to reconnect the isolated grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park with their cousins to the north, and the Path of the Pronghorn, a decade-long effort to protect pronghorns migrating along a 100-mile corridor to and from Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.

Fremier and his colleagues are focusing on rivers as a means to build interconnectivity between wildlife habitats because the lands around them provide food, water, and cover for traveling animals. Previous research shows mammals will use river corridors to move through inhospitable areas. This is especially critical as conservation areas in national parks, forests, and wilderness are more and more frequently separated by cities, roads, and farmland that make it difficult for at-risk species to find new locations and adapt to the changing world.

“As the climate changes, animals are going to need to move,” Fremier said. “A riparian connectivity network would give many species avenues to go from one wildlife refuge to another.”

“Our idea is to coordinate the restoration and management of riparian areas to build interconnectivity between protected lands across the country,” Fremier said. “Ultimately, rivers should be part of a broader conversation about conservation resilience.”

The next step

Amanda Stahl, a PhD candidate in the School of the Environment and one of Fremier’s colleagues on the project, said the next step in the research will be to develop a better understanding of the environmental conditions that encourage specific species to migrate along river corridors here in the Pacific Northwest.

“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,” she said. “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.”

Elk migrate by the thousands each spring from far-flung winter ranges in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to high-elevation summer ranges near the core of Yellowstone National Park.

One area the WSU-led research team is considering as a trial site is the Wallowa Mountains and Hell’s Canyon ecosystem. The region spreads from eastern Oregon to central Idaho and is connected by the Snake River. It is home to the largest free-roaming elk herd in North America as well as many species of wildcats, bears, and gray wolves.

Stahl said one idea to get private landowners on board is to overlay a computer-generated map of the river system with layers of digital information on the desirable environmental conditions of different animals. Down the road, landowners could be given incentives to satisfy the habitat preferences of different species detailed on the map.

“The pieces aren’t all in place but our research does suggest a natural confluence of conservation objectives,” Fremier said. “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.”