"This is a change in the way we do conservation," says Yvette Converse of the Fish and Wildlife Service. She directs the Great Northern LCC, almost half of which is located in British Columbia and which includes federal, state and tribal organizations as well as nonprofits. Among its efforts is the "Washington Connected Landscapes Project," which is identifying habitat linkages in the Columbia Plateau ecoregion. Converse credits Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with "pulling together a coordinated response" and adds, "I've never seen a message that is so consistent coming from the top. It's clear there's a big picture going on here."
It's too early to tell if LCCs will be effective. Though they are "a great initiative," says Paul Beier, they "may limit themselves to helping managers describe and think about connectivity without going the last step" to actually conserving and managing the lands. Coordinated information is one thing; coordinated decision-making is quite another.
Last year, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., introduced legislation that recommended state mapping of important habitat linkage areas. Holt's bill did not make it out of the House, but he plans to reintroduce it. Of course, the law would be a top-down directive, and as such might not exactly inspire recalcitrant states to identify corridors on their land. And since the bill lacks accountability, it wouldn't solve the core problem, as articulated by Rob Ament, senior conservationist with the Center for Large Landscape Connectivity in Bozeman, Mont.: "How do we get an actual designation for those key, connecting landscapes?"
Local partnerships like the one that created the Path of the Pronghorn could protect other wildlife movement routes. But in many cases, the boundaries of the routes are less clear, the species at stake are less beloved, and opponents have more to lose from corridor protection. Ament and Kenyon Fields envision a truly binding national corridors bill, which they see as a natural successor to the 1964 Wilderness Act. Both top-down and bottom-up approaches may be necessary to establish meaningful wildlife corridor policy.
Meanwhile, animals and the larger environment do their thing, and don't necessarily follow our guidelines. This spring, an estimated 30-40 percent of the herd that uses the Path of the Pronghorn did not make it all the way to Jackson Hole. Mark Gocke of Wyoming Game and Fish says deep snow at a juncture of their route seems to have slowed down pregnant females, and he wonders if they stopped and gave birth before they could complete their journey. Most of them probably survived, but Gocke wonders whether the fawns that didn't complete the trip "will learn to migrate." The existence of or lack of protections on their migration route had nothing to do with the impact of this snowfall on the pronghorn -- proving once again that nature has a will of its own.
Mary Ellen Hannibal's book, The Spine of the Continent, about large landscape connectivity, climate change, and the West, will be published in fall 2012. She is currently an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.