Joanna Prukop

 

When was the last time you saw a road-killed rabbit, porcupine, deer or other wild animal? Or, when was the last time you saw a report on television of another bear-sighting in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Española or another New Mexico community? Each occurrence of one of these events is indicative of a wildlife habitat connectivity issue. Wild animals use travel corridors to move from one core living area to another in search of their basic survival needs: food, water, shelter and space in which to live and reproduce in their natural environments. These habitat linkages are vital to maintaining healthy, viable populations of all types of wildlife. Over time these important wildlife passageways and corridors in many parts of NM have been cut off or severely restricted for many wildlife species.

 

In our state and across the US, wildlife habitat connectivity has become an increasingly serious concern. At its February 2013 meeting the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council listed wildlife habitat connectivity—because it is especially impacted by the effects of climate change—as one of its top priorities. This council, to which I was appointed in 2010 and reappointed in 2012, is a Federal Advisory Committee set up to advise the secretaries of the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture on important policy issues concerning the future of wildlife conservation and hunting traditions in America. Through its advisory role the council hopes to influence public policy- and management actions on federal public lands and in federal programs involved with wildlife conservation. We are increasingly focusing our attention and advice on wildlife habitat fragmentation, especially on lands managed by the US Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service (NPS), and federal programs managed by the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Services Agency.

 

At the state-, national- and global levels, scientists of many kinds recognize and are trying to interpret the many signs and measurements that indicate our Earth’s climate is changing in ways that impact native plant- and wildlife survival and movement patterns. Wildlife scientists and habitat managers are striving to understand these changes and learn how to help wildlife adapt to shifting habitat conditions. Prevailing drought conditions in NM only increase the need to understand why and how public and private land managers can help mitigate these impacts through on-the-ground management actions. Protecting and restoring wildlife travel corridors that connect pockets of wildlife habitat is an important strategy to support the resilience and adaptability of our native wildlife species.

 

In NM this means state agencies like the Department of Game and Fish and the Department of Transportation being proactively involved in projects to address wildlife corridor conservation. A specific tangible example that citizen involvement clearly helped instigate is the Tijeras Canyon Safe Wildlife Passage project east of Albuquerque. In a statewide assessment, Tijeras Canyon was identified as a high-priority wildlife corridor because it connects habitats in the Sandia and Manzano Mountains, a travel route important to bears, mountain lions, mule deer and other wildlife. Through partnering, the Tijeras Canyon Safe Passage Coalition, made up of organizations, agencies and individuals, works to provide safe crossings for wildlife, while also making travel safer for people.

 

 

Not quite so obvious are the needs that exist in core areas on the millions of acres of public lands that exist in NM, and where they interface with private lands and private land developments. As federal land managers like those in the USFS, BLM and NPS adapt to dealing with new federal policies being implemented to address climate-change impacts, these agencies will need to increase their focus on habitat connectivity issues. Old plans to protect and manage certain key habitats for wildlife may no longer be adequate to protect and restore vital pockets of habitat and the corridors that link them. Existing agency tools, like travel management plans, and agency policies, like those promoting adaptive management practices, will need to be applied with a more sensitive eye toward maintaining habitat viability, resilience and connectivity.

 

In the private sector, important tools and strategies are also available to help address habitat fragmentation and connectivity concerns. Conservation easements and the role of land trusts in NM offer an important opportunity to protect and conserve key habitats and special areas on private lands. While conservation easements can be used to protect important wildlife travel corridors, such as riparian areas along streams and rivers, they also help support rural ways of life important to many communities in our state. State and federal laws and policies (e.g., tax credits) that support the use of conservation easements to maintain and conserve wildlife habitat, open space and agricultural lands will serve an even more important role as the effects of drought and climate change are manifested.

 

In keeping with many, many local cultural, social and economic interests of northern NM, concern for and cooperative actions to protect and restore wildlife habitat connectivity—wildlife corridors—is essential to maintaining what so many New Mexicans enjoy: a diverse and healthy wildlife resource with the freedom to roam NM’s unique landscapes.

 

Joanna Prukop is a wildlife biologist, former cabinet secretary of the NM Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and president of Prukop Consulting, LLC. 505.690.9962, joprukop@earthlink.net