What is habitat connectivity and why does it matter?

What is your favorite natural area- the one that makes you feel welcomed, calm, and connected? I’m privileged to have my favorite spot right outside my house- a beautiful gulch with a crystal-clear, 6-foot waterfall. Living in the mountains outside of Boulder, CO is sometimes too good to be true. Last night, I watched a herd of mule deer sneak up the ridge behind my home (and subsequently had the opportunity to continue training my dogs to not bark at them). Last fall, I found bobcat tracks in our fenced backyard. I am regularly reminded that the land I live on is in constant motion and is home to much more than humans.

Also right by my house is a very busy road. And on either side of that road are large swaths of Forest Service and Boulder County Open Space land. These lands serve as vital habitat for wildlife.  We have nesting golden eagles, silver foxes, black bears- there’s even been a sighting of the elusive ring-tailed cat! Documented elk and mule deer migration routes spread like waves through my extended “backyard.” And right across the street from my house is Boulder Creek, a virtual wildlife super highway, that provides ample resources to furry passerbys.

All this beautiful land is cut right through the middle by that road right in front of my house. But I get it. People need to get where they need to go. I need to be able to travel into town to lobby our elected officials or get groceries. So the road itself is not ultimately bad, but it certain does cause a degree of fragmentation.

Causes and Solutions

Fences, dams, roads, houses, and shopping malls all stand in the way of wildlife movement and cause fragmentation. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the biggest drivers of species decline and extinction worldwide. The new IBPES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services recently outlined land use changes as one of the biggest reasons that over 1 million species worldwide are currently at risk of extinction. We are currently in the 6th Mass Extinction.

Without the ability to move in the wild, species can’t migrate, find mates, disperse (establish new territories), or sometimes even find food and water. Fragmentation also limits wildlife’s ability to adapt to climate change. As the climate warms, wildlife are actually finding it harder to move to more suitable locations.

The solution is connected habitats. Habitat connectivity is the ability of wildlife (which includes plants, mammals, birds, fish, bugs, and everything in between) to move from one habitat to another in order to fulfill their roles in the natural world.  Wildlife use corridors to move from one area of core habitat to another.

Although all wildlife need to be able to move to some degree, certain species need connectivity more than others. Large carnivores, migratory birds, certain fish, and other wide-ranging species have an especially strong need to move across landscapes and waterscapes. Here are some examples:

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch butterflies need connectivity to make their 3,000-mile migration from the US to Mexico each year. They need places to stop and rest, gather resources, mate, and lay their eggs. Monarchs have been petitioned to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Their populations are seeing drastic declines in certain parts of the county.

In Colorado, you can work with us or partner with a local church or school to plant pollinator gardens. We love seeing kiddos have fun, getting outside, and getting their hands dirty!

We’re also working with the Boulder Pollinator Gardens Project, a coalition that works to connect urban habitats for pollinators. Key areas are  identified and intentionally planted to make sure that pollinators can move in and out of the city using the Boulder Creek corridor.

Canada Lynx

The Canada lynx is another species that needs wide habitat connections.  Lynx, like many other big cats, are often solitary creatures. When they become old enough to leave their mothers, they disperse to different areas and lay claim to territories. A lynx’s home range can be upwards of 20 square miles (that’s almost 13,000 acres!). Lynx need a lot of room to move around. But they also need safe ways to travel.

To learn more about lynx in Colorado, check out the Endangered Species Coalition’s sponsored segment on lynx in our member group’s Wild I-70 Audio Tour. Rocky Mountain Wild created this tour to bring awareness to one of the largest and most dangerous roadways for wildlife. Make sure to check out this fun and educational experience next time you find yourself on I-70 west of Denver!

Gray Wolf

Like the lynx, wolves need lots of space to roam. Wolf territories can range from 50 to 1,000 square miles. Wolves once inhabited all corners of the US, but white settlers drove them to near extinction in the early 1900s. Now, they are slowly recovering; however, US Fish and Wildlife Services recently petition them to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act. But the fact is that they are not recovered yet- they only occupy a small portion of their historic range. And in order for them to fully recovery, they need wildlife corridors to help them disperse. That’s why the Endangered Species Coalition is working hard to make sure they stay listed.

Not Just a Wildlife Issue

Now, you might already be aware that open, natural spaces with room to roam are good for wildlife, but what about humans? Properly functioning ecosystems clean our air and filter our water. They also keep us healthy by giving us outdoor recreation, peace, and freedom.

Healthy ecosystems also mitigate disease. When all the proper players are present, we see a decrease in diseases, like Lyme.  We also see a decrease in chronic wasting disease in deer. Other ecoservices that are provided to us by natural areas and wildlife are waste removal, carbon sequestration, and flood mitigation.

Large open spaces and healthy habitats not only give us recreational opportunities, but also allow wildlife to move. And sharing our backyard will wildlife gives us a sense of awe and appreciation for the wild world. However, many low-income communities around the country don’t have this privilege. Instead of being surrounded by open spaces, low-income communities and communities of color are often surrounded by coal-fired power plants, garbage dumps, and polluting factories. Prioritizing open spaces over development is like putting people over profits.  And wildlife win, too.

The Task Ahead

Connectivity provides us a special challenge, because we can’t just recycle or plant native flowers to help, like we can with other issues. We have to approach this from an institutional angle. We need policies and initiatives from our government officials and land use departments to mitigate the effects of habitat fragmentation. One way you can help is by volunteering with the Endangered Species Coalition. We’re collaborating with local governments to pass resolutions and initiatives to promote wildlife corridors locally. Would you like to see something like that in your hometown? YOU have the power to stand between wildlife and the number one driver of species extinction. And we’re here to help!

Stay Informed!

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