Stitching habitat together across public and private lands

by Cally Carswell

In October 1983, ahead of an unusually harsh winter, groups of pronghorn in south-central Wyoming began what should have been a routine journey to their sage-freckled winter range on the Red Rim near Rawlins.

But a newly completed, five-foot-tall, 28-mile-long woven wire fence blocked the way. Rancher Taylor Lawrence said he'd erected it around the Red Rim to keep the pronghorn from competing with his cattle for forage, though some suspected his motive lay beneath the soil in unmined coal seams; wildlife can be an obstacle to development. Whatever his reason, it worked: Pronghorn have many athletic talents, but jumping isn't one of them. And when they can't scoot under a fence, they rarely try to go around it. Soon, some 1,500 of them were crowded behind the barrier.

By December, when Lawrence relented and opened the fence to let the animals through, an estimated 700 had died. Video footage of their carcasses bedded down against the fence made national news. A court case over the legality of the fence -- which enclosed both public and private land -- went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered Lawrence to take it down for good.

The incident is a dramatic example of a common problem: Private lands and their owners are not always hospitable to wide-ranging wildlife. And protected public swatches simply aren't enough to support animals on the move. The "Path of the Pronghorn" -- the route that a few hundred pronghorn travel between their fawning grounds in Grand Teton National Park and their winter range near Pinedale, Wyo. -- crosses only a few short stretches of private land. Still, fencing and subdivisions are among the key threats to the corridor's continuity. If the development squeeze gets too tight, pronghorn could stop making the trip altogether.

"In the greater Yellowstone area, almost every species spends a key piece of their life cycle on private land," says Luke Lynch, Wyoming state director of the Conservation Fund. "You've got the high, dramatic lands protected, but that's not what wildlife need for year-round survival." Bison stray beyond Yellowstone National Park in the spring to calve and graze on lower-elevation private land. Mule deer, elk and pronghorn often winter on valley floors and other privately held low-lying areas. Many pathways between core habitats for grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions also lie on private land. And it's not just far-roaming species that rely on private property: The vast majority of the species protected by the Endangered Species Act are at least partly dependent on it for habitat.

In some places, environmentalists or public agencies have identified important corridors, and then worked to enlist landowners in protecting them. But from the Mexican border to the Crown of the Continent, where the U.S. and Canadian Rockies meet, a growing number of landowners are showing their own initiative, banding together to protect working land from development, and to link migration and dispersal routes across jurisdictional boundaries. Many conservationists say that the future of large-landscape conservation lies in these efforts.

"It's only going to come about through partnership, by stitching things together at the local level," says Joel Berger, a University of Montana professor and Wildlife Conservation Society scientist whose work was instrumental in protecting the Path of the Pronghorn. In the U.S., says Berger, the best opportunity to stitch together the pieces of a vast and intact ecosystem is in the Northern Rockies. "Because we have space, low population and a lot of public land, the complexities that go with private lands and higher human densities are lacking."

Among the landowners leading the charge are Brian and Kathleen Bean, a San Francisco-based couple who, in the late 1990s, set out to become "conservation buyers" -- landowners, usually well-heeled, who purchase property primarily to protect it. The Beans settled on 24,000 acres in the foothills of the Pioneer Mountains in central Idaho, a place they call the Lava Lake Ranch. Between their private acreage and grazing leases on public and private land for their sheep operation, the area they steward is just shy of 900,000 acres.

When the Beans bought the land, they commissioned biological assessments to better understand its condition and inhabitants, using what they learned to develop a grazing protocol. They've since implemented a monitoring program to track the impact of grazing, and they've been leaders among livestock producers in developing non-lethal methods to reduce wolf predation on livestock. But over the years, their vision for the landscape -- which has faced relatively little development pressure -- outgrew even their 900,000 acres. "We're really proud of the restoration work," says Tess O'Sullivan, who heads the ranch's scientific research arm. "But those things will never be enough."

The Beans, O'Sullivan and Mike Stevens, another member of the ranch's leadership team, wanted to find a way to get more local landowners involved in conservation. "We knew that our neighbors loved this place, and so do we. But we didn't have an iconic way to identify it," says Brian Bean. They zeroed in on the groups of pronghorn that pass through the ranch every spring and fall. "Here are these pronghorn, and nobody knows where they go," says Bean, who helped fund a migration study in 2008 with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National Park Service, a local landowners group called the Pioneers Alliance and Idaho Fish and Game. "I just kept my fingers crossed that something interesting would come of it."

It did: The researchers discovered an unusual west-to-northeast migration route, stretching from summer range in the southern Pioneer Mountains to winter range near the Idaho National Laboratory, that those few hundred pronghorn appear to follow as religiously as their cousins in Wyoming do. The route skirts the Lava Lake Ranch and covers an average 85 miles one-way. A few thousand pronghorn winter near the lab, and researchers are now studying how they disperse come springtime.

"It gave us something special," says Brian Bean. "I was really excited about it. If I'm excited, other folks may be excited, too." The effect it's had is a little hard to pinpoint. But both Bean and O'Sullivan say the Pioneers Alliance -- which aims to protect working land in the area -- gained momentum in the wake of the corridor discovery. "(It) helps people understand the connection to their neighbors," O'Sullivan says. Though the corridor isn't solely to thank, she says, "more interested landowners are participating (in the alliance) and seeing the benefit of conservation easements and other collaborative programs." Some easements have been put in place west of the Lava Lake Ranch to protect both sage grouse and pronghorn habitat.

The growing alliance is cast in the mold of a couple of longstanding landowner-led cooperative conservation groups: the Malpai Borderlands Group on the Arizona-New Mexico border and western Montana's Blackfoot Challenge. When the latter formally incorporated in 1993, some local rangeland was riddled with invasive species, which wasn't good for cattle businesses, and residential development threatened to tranform the valley's agricultural character. Blackfoot Challenge landowners were the first to participate in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program that allows the purchase of conservation easements on private land with federal Land and Water Conservation Fund money -- a vital tool for many similar groups today. The Challenge has completed extensive riparian and rangeland restoration in collaboration with public-land managers, and has shielded about 50 percent of the private land in the Blackfoot Valley from development, bringing total protected public and private acreage there to 1.2 million acres.

Giving wildlife a boost was never the group's primary goal. But, says Seth Wilson, a biologist who coordinates the Challenge's wildlife committee, "If you protect it, wildlife will thrive." Riparian restoration improves habitat, and keeping road densities low allows animals to move. And the Challenge's big-picture goal -- keeping 1.5 million working and wild acres as intact as possible -- represents the type of landscape-scale effort conservationists say is increasingly necessary to buffer wildlife against habitat loss and the uncertainties of a warming world. It's helped inspire similar efforts in valleys near and far, making grand visions such as the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor -- a loosely organized effort to protect habitat connectivity throughout the Rocky Mountains -- seem a little bit more possible.

Yet these success stories present new challenges. In the Blackfoot Valley, for example, recolonizing grizzly bears found easy meals in ranch boneyards, and helped themselves to feed, garbage and calves, too. The Challenge used public and private grants to implement a livestock carcass-removal program and installed electric fencing around calving areas and beehives to discourage bears. Not all the landowners are participating, but enough have bought in so that between 2003 and 2010 grizzly conflicts dropped by 96 percent. More recently, when wolves reappeared, the Challenge hired range riders to reduce predation and has worked with ranchers to remove weak cattle, discouraging easy kills. But wolves still prey on cows, and Wilson says many landowners remain angry about wolf reintroduction.

"Can you co-exist with large carnivores at a socially acceptable level?" asks Wilson. "That's what we're trying to achieve. (But) we have a lot more to learn about how to fit people and wolves into these agricultural landscapes." And if grizzly populations continue to rise, he says, carcass collection and fences may not be enough to stave off conflict.

It's easier to learn to cohabitate with species like pronghorn. And few landowners have proven as hostile to the quick-footed ungulates as Taylor Lawrence. Though pronghorn still have trouble navigating the congested ranchettes near Pinedale, says Berger, "for the Path of the Pronghorn, we've gotten pretty far." The Conservation Fund recently secured a suite of easements on a ranch that one of the migration route's three natural bottlenecks passes through. And at no cost to landowners, the Wyoming Land Trust installed 82 miles of wildlife-friendly fencing on private land. Getting there wasn't easy, though; many locals feared that a corridor designation on public land "would morph into something that would constrain property rights," says Berger. Some worried that wolves or brucellosis-infected elk and bison would use the corridor, heightening human-wildlife conflict. "We kept asking ourselves, 'What if we can't get buy-in from Sublette County or landowners?' " Berger says. "We just hit a point and said, 'Let's get 92 percent of it protected and hopefully the other 8 percent will come along." Those pieces are slowly falling into place, he says: "We got lucky."

Cally Carswell is High Country News' assistant editor.

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