Forest Summit 2019 - Connected Corridors

Forest Summit 2019

Tue, August 20, 2019

8:00 am – 5:00 pm

The Upper Rio Grande is home to some of the most intact wildlife corridors in the nation, but  development threatens to disrupt many of those important pathways. Since bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer and other wildlife species don’t recognize manmade borders, the only way to protect migration corridors is to make sure all land planners, private landowners and community members work together.

Such cross-jurisdictional collaboration was precisely the focus of the third Upper Rio Grande Wildlife Corridors Summit held in Taos, New Mexico on August 20th.  More than 160 people gathered to report on the latest science, share best practices, review national forest plans and celebrate legislative initiatives.  The group included a diverse array of state and federal planners, elected officials, tribal leaders, traditional land users and private landowners.   It was organized by National Wildlife Federation on behalf of the Upper Rio Grande Wildlife Initiative to protect habitat connectivity in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

“Working with diverse stakeholders is critical in order to protect our wildlife habitats and ensure healthy migration,” assistant U.S. House Speaker Ben Ray Luján told the gathering. “When one in five animal and plant species in the United States are at risk of extinction… the importance of robust, protected wildlife corridors cannot be understated.”

Lujan’s colleague in the House, Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM), later re-emphasized the necessity of collaboration. “We can all agree that it is of the utmost importance that we all come together to protect our ecosystem and defend our wildlife.”

Both lawmakers pledged to push for national legislation to help protect migration corridors across the nation.  Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico has introduced the “Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act” which would offer incentives to protect corridors on public, tribal and private lands.  “There’s a groundswell right now at the state level for wildlife corridors.  It’s happening in eastern states, western states, red states and blue states,” said Udall staffer Caitlin Keating-Bitonti.  She said the federal bill would also create a federal database about migration corridors for biologists and lawmakers to use. “In order to make excellent decisions about where wildlife will continue to thrive, we need the right data to do that.”

Earlier this year, New Mexico became the first state in the nation to pass a wildlife corridors protection act.  New Mexico Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard pledged to recommit herself and the land office to be full partners in protecting wildlife corridors.  “Now the work begins,” she said. “Everyone is leaving this summit energized and ready to collaborate to make wildlife corridors in the Upper Rio Grande and all across New Mexico a top priority.”

Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service spoke at the summit about newly released management plans for three forests in the Upper Rio Grande region.  Dr. Karl Malcolm, regional wildlife ecologist for the southwestern region of the U.S. Forest Service, said “throughout the Southwest, but particularly in northern New Mexico, the community has voiced a strong desire to see wildlife values highlighted in these forest plans.”

The Carson and Santa Fe National Forest plans recommend several special management areas which would protect important migration corridors for pronghorn, elk and several other species. These plans will govern the management of the forest for decades to come. Unfortunately, the Rio Grande National Forest plan does not recognize such special interest areas.  Dan Dallas, supervisor at the Rio Grande, told the audience that both the word and the concept of “connectivity” appeared throughout the plan, even if the plan didn’t single out special areas.

Andrew Black, public lands field director for the National Wildlife Federation and one of the organizers of the summit, said he appreciated the sentiment but said he’s still hoping the Rio Grande plans will be revised.  “Connectivity has to be more than a concept. Ensuring that wildlife has the room to roam across seasons and habitats must be protected by specific management plans, policies and incentives.  I urge the public to let the Forest Service know that the special interest areas that were in the draft management plan should be put into the back into the final plan to provide effective protection for migration corridors. Wildlife is part of who we are as Westerners. It’s critical to protect that.”

Several state wildlife officials spoke with optimism about how they plan to deal with growing threats to migration areas. “Here we have a region where we really have an opportunity, in some time, to get ahead of challenges in the future, to really lay out the landscape for our wildlife and our natural resources in the future,” said Tim Mauck, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. He made his remarks just one day before Colorado Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order which called for state agencies to work together to implement effective migration corridor solutions.

Jim Hirsch, an environmental scientist with the New Mexico Department of Transportation, said his office is working with the state game and fish department to develop a comprehensive plan. “The overall purpose is to identify highway segments that pose a risk to the traveling public and those road segments that hinder wildlife movement and migration.”

Two different groups of stakeholders spoke at the summit about how they would like to be included more often in the discussions of habitat and corridor conservation.  Several tribal wildlife officials said some of the work they have been doing could be a model for state and federal planners. Glenn Harper, range and wildlife division manager at the Pueblo of Santa Ana, said his team has conducted extensive habitat restoration and reintroduced pronghorn and wild turkey after nearby four-lane highways fragmented the original habitat.

Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, said private lands are often the most biologically diverse and provide critical elk and deer winter habitat.  But she cautioned that the prospect of “designating” wildlife corridors makes private landowners nervous. “Most of the time when you’re a landowner or manager and you walk into a room and you see that circle on a map and your ranch is in it, it’s not good news. It’s almost never good news,” she said. “Let’s make it good news.”

In closing remarks, Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation said the summit had provided an excellent opportunity for a diverse array of voices to be heard.  “But the work needs to continue. Attending this summit and participating in this summit is not the end of the work. It’s just the beginning.”