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Fighting extinction through wildlife corridors

Fighting extinction through wildlife corridors
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More than 1 billion animals are feared dead as a result of Australian wildfires, and globally, biodiversity is crashing, with 1 million species facing extinction. Given this threat to wildlife, habitat connectivity — the ability for lands and waters to facilitate species movement — is more important than ever.

That’s why we’re working to preserve and enhance wildlife corridors, which act like the hallways in our homes. Hallways enable us to move from one room to another, with each room serving a specific purpose. Corridors similarly help wildlife move between areas of the landscape that offer different benefits, such as food, water, mates, or places to escape from threats such as wildfires. Maintaining connectivity is critical to fighting the extinction crisis. 

This isn’t just about saving biodiversity. Corridors are one of the most crucial ways to build human and wildlife resilience to climate change impacts, including wildfires. Wildlife needs to be able to access established habitat strongholds and new areas as ecosystems shift. Our own ability to withstand the impacts of climate change partly relies on the buffers that healthy landscapes provide. Healthy landscapes support healthy people.

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With the consequences of climate change becoming all too real, Americans must work together to ensure that wildlife are able to safely move between increasingly fragmented habitats. 

What’s at stake? Millions of animals and billions of dollars.

Each year, over one-third of Americans spend more than $150 billion to participate in wildlife-related recreation. Many of those dollars are spent in local communities that rely on outdoor industry tourism. Whether we participate in these activities or depend on the income they generate, we all benefit from our nation’s wildlife.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife found that almost 90 percent of deer migrated between winter and summer, and nearly all used the exact same migration corridors — some traveling 50 miles each year. Without planning and collective action, roads that cut through these migration routes sever the ancient paths that deer and other animals have relied on for generations.

Linking habitats is critical. When roadways and habitat corridors intersect, both wildlife and people suffer. An estimated 1-2 million large animals are killed by motorists every year in the U.S. In addition, annual collisions between motorists and wildlife cause more than 200 human deaths and over 26,000 injuries costing Americans more than $8 billion. 

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To help wildlife cross habitat hallways, politicians need to cross aisles.

In 2019, our states of New Mexico, Oregon and New Hampshire did just that by passing landmark wildlife corridor legislation. As the sponsors of these three bills, we are grateful to our citizens, fellow legislators and governors for supporting and passing them. Each exemplifies the range of policy solutions that legislation has to offer, from action plans, partnerships and mapping efforts, to accessing new funding opportunities. While each of our states has crafted bills that target our own unique landscapes, wildlife and communities, collectively these legislative wins address the needs of wildlife whose hallways take them across state lines. 

New Hampshire’s bill received bipartisan sponsorship. In Oregon, the wildlife corridors bill received unanimous support in both chambers.

We know this works. In New Mexico, a system of fencing and electrified mats is funneling animals — including deer, bears, cougars and bobcats — to underpasses spanning interstates, highways and local roads, preventing wildlife-vehicle collisions and making roads safer for both people and wildlife.

In Oregon, a wildlife crossing near Lava Butte that is used by mule deer and black bears has resulted in an 85 percent reduction in wildlife-vehicle collisions. In the Northeast, including New Hampshire, volunteers have served as crossing brigades to shepherd salamanders, frogs and toads across roads to reach vernal pools to breed, and underpasses have even been built for salamanders. As a result, nearly 50,000 amphibians have been kept out of harm’s way. 

Roads have fragmented habitat at unprecedented rates, but smart policies and innovative on-the-ground solutions can reconnect habitat corridors and help safeguard our nation’s wildlife. 

To our peers in other state legislatures: this issue matters because it affects us all. Connected landscapes and our natural heritage are at risk, along with people’s livelihoods and the health of our communities. Championing legislation that supports wildlife connectivity and addresses the barrier effect that roads have on wildlife is a proven, practical and attainable solution, with support from constituents of all parties and perspectives.

Just as the nation requires interstate roads to connect people, animals need interstate corridors to provide them with safe passage to critical habitats. Protecting wildlife is a national priority and we need all states on board. We hope that other legislatures will join ours in this important campaign.

Mimi Stewart is a state Senate Majority Whip (D-N.M.). David Watters is a state senator (D-N.H.) and he chairs the Senate Capital Budget and Transportation Committees. Ken Helm is a state representative (D-Ore.) and he chairs the House Committee on Water.