Wildlife corridors can mean life or death

Connectivity dominates our daily lives. Roadways, bike lanes, aisles in the grocery store — all of the infrastructure that makes our lives just a little easier and safer and connects our lives, routines and errands alike. It’s easy to take our movement from point A to point B for granted, but these pathways are as essential as they are easy to overlook.

Connectivity is also essential for wildlife. For most wildlife, though, these pathways are becoming more and more impeded because of manmade structures — from sprawling suburbs on our coasts to roads and highways in the desert southwest.  For wildlife, a lack of connectivity can mean life or death. It can mean starvation, traversing high-traffic roadways, or isolation and limited access to mating partners. Ultimately, a loss of connectivity can mean death or extinction for populations of wildlife.

I come from a place where wildlife is part of our identity. We cherish it and work to protect it. The Upper Rio Grande watershed in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is considered one of the most connected wildlife corridors in our country but it, too, faces challenges.  New protections will be possible now that New Mexico has become the first state ever to make The Wildlife Corridors Act the law of the land. The act calls for the study of wildlife patterns as they embark on journeys and migrate through the Upper Rio Grande and the rest of New Mexico in search of better weather, food, water, mates and  hospitable habitat for their young.

If you look at a land ownership map you will see that New Mexico is a checkerboard of federal, state, private and tribal land. The act will bring land owners and managers to the table — a necessity because wildlife don’t recognize boundaries — to assess the need for over and under passes for wildlife crossings, to encourage that new development consider wildlife migration routes, and to then prevent new development in identified corridors. Highways, fences and other industrial development are the most common threats to wildlife corridors. And sometimes those threats affect our safety as well — over 1,500 animals were hit and killed in collisions with vehicles on New Mexico highways and freeways in 2018.

Amid these threats, climate change is also creating new challenges for wildlife. Climate change is shifting the habitat of numerous species, and creating new demand for migration corridors and habitats in entirely new places. A recent UN study shows that 1 million animals are in danger of extinction, and the reason is human caused climate change. Our action, and subsequent inaction, has put us here — but we can, and must, take steps to get us out of this predicament and do our part to curb the potential for extinction.

As New Mexico’s commissioner of public lands, I am mandated by our state’s Constitution to be a steward of state trust land to assure their protection for future generations. I am also charged with using those lands to raise revenue to fund our state’s needs through agricultural leases, oil and gas development, renewable energy projects, business and commercial development, and outdoor recreation.

Now, some may say prioritizing wildlife corridors could be detrimental to new potential revenue sources. The way I see it, wildlife protection is an integral part of any sustainable land management plan. I envision a future where all land management decisions are made whilst considering the entire picture and the generations that will come long after those decisions are made.

But this work can’t be done in isolation. Because migrating species don’t recognize state borders, land managers in all states need to adopt similar protections for corridors. I urge my colleagues around the country to follow our lead.  It’s possible to have responsible oil and gas development that raises a billion dollars a year for our public schools and universities. It’s possible to build a renewable energy future that diversifies our economy and lessens our reliance on extraction. It’s possible to protect our beautiful natural landscapes and utilize them for hiking, climbing, biking, fishing and hunting. And — we can do all of this while protecting distinct wildlife corridors that assure safe migration, access to food, water, shelter and mates — for all animals. 

Stephanie Garcia Richard is the New Mexico commissioner of public lands.

Energy and Environment