Conservationists and public agencies work toward reopening blocked wildlife corridors.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Why did the mountain lion, tule elk, kit fox and tiger salamander cross the road? For the same reason the chicken did: to get to the other side.
Even if they make it across intact, wandering fauna face obstacles navigating around Monterey County. In an effort to help them out, local nonprofits and public agencies are collaborating to identify and protect wildlife corridors, which boost species’ chances for survival by connecting habitats fragmented by roads, farms and developments.
“Without wildlife corridors, our conservation areas are really doomed,” says Grey Hayes of the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR). “As habitats become isolated, patch by patch, wildlife species are driven toward extinction.”
Transportation planners, farmers and developers often unwittingly block the paths upon which generations of animals have come to rely. This interrupts predator-prey relationships and makes wildlife more vulnerable to fire, flood, diseases and inbreeding, which can lead to local extinction.
“The idea behind corridors is a connect-the-dots theory,” says Terry Palmisano, senior wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish & Game. “We have all these patches that, left by themselves, don’t have a lot of value for wildlife. But when you link them together, these patches take on a greater value.”
Interest in wildlife corridors is growing in local conservationist circles. In January, the ESNERR’s Coastal Training Program brought scientists, scholars, consultants and planners together to discuss wildlife connectivity in one area of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
In June, another cross-section of professionals tackled the challenge of getting carnivores, ungulates, amphibians and reptiles safely across California highways. Meanwhile, a state bond measure recently allocated nearly $20 billion for transportation improvements, but many of the measures intended to improve motorist safety make road passage harder on wildlife. Fences, sound walls and rail lines may prevent animals from crossing at all, and concrete median barriers can trap them halfway across the road.
Protected wildlife crossings can take the form of specially designed culverts or land bridges. In Canada’s Banff National Park, a combination of underpasses, overpasses and strategic fencing have reduced roadkills by 80 percent and drastically cut the number of animal-vehicle collisions. Proposed wildlife overpasses on Washington’s I-90 and Colorado’s I-70 are gaining momentum, and transportation planners in Southern California have engineered several culverts for animal passage.
But statewide corridor planning has been slow in coming. Unlike Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, California lacks a habitat connectivity plan. Such a plan requires collaboration across departments and jurisdictions, so strategizing is tricky.
“Nobody’s job is to look at the large scale,” Hayes says. “We usually plan at the county level, and [Monterey County officials] have been caught up on all sorts of minutiae with the General Plan debate.”
Funding also presents a hurdle. Some state bonds and private grants are available for land acquisitions, but those aren’t tied to the nascent wildlife corridor effort.
Conservation advocates are backing Assembly Bill 828, which would require the Department of Fish & Game (DFG) and the state’s Wildlife Conservation Board to identify California’s most important wildlife corridors. Despite initial opposition from the California Association of Realtors, the bill passed the House and is now before the Senate.
But the DFG’s Palmisano worries that the bill’s passage might not do much unless it’s tied to cash. “We have a lot of mandates we’ve been given over the years by the Legislature without funding or personnel, and we’re struggling to keep up with them,” she says.
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In the meantime, the DFG has identified several areas in Monterey County where wildlife could use a boost. Salamanders get squished crossing Carmel Valley Road; badgers are killed on Highway 68; and endangered San Joaquin kit foxes are unable to travel between Fort Hunter Liggett and the Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo, Palmisano says. As farmers strip vegetation from riverbanks and surround their lands with eight-foot-high fences to satisfy post-E. coli-scare demands, animals are having a harder time crossing the Salinas Valley from east to west.
The Big Sur Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy have partnered with public agencies in an effort to protect the corridor between Fort Ord and the Santa Lucia Range. The Conservancy is also working to purchase conservation easements in the Arroyo Seco watershed and west of Highway 101.
“Even as the county experiences growth, if we can preserve some of these important areas like the Salinas River, we can help ensure that protected lands remain linked together,” says Christina Fischer of The Nature Conservancy. “I’m very hopeful that we’re going to be able to find solutions. So many of the landowners I talk to understand the importance of wildlife movement across the landscape.”
|THE WEEKLY TALLY||40||
The percent increase in organ donor registrations in California following a statewide media campaign targeting minorities—who make up more than two-thirds of the 20,249 Californians waiting for organs—during April’s Donate Life Month. Source: Department of Motor Vehicles, Donate for Life California.