From bison to birds, the National Park Service rethinks its approach to migratory species


Imagine, if you will, that you’re a Kittlitz’s Murrelet – a tiny seabird, feathered in salt-and-pepper. It’s summer, or what passes for summer in a field of Alaskan glaciers, and you’re relaxing in the lap of luxury: Kenai Fjords National Park, where nobody can shoot you, set their dog after you, or lay a finger on your habitat. You’re living large, or as large as an eight-ounce bird can live.

Then winter hits. Reluctantly you depart Kenai and fly west, to the Bering Sea. Your existence takes a sudden turn for the perilous. Gillnets threaten to snag you as bycatch; giant cargo ships steam across your flight path. You live in perpetual fear of oil spills, like the slick that killed hundreds of your cousins back in 1989. Yikes, you think to yourself. Migration is terrifying.

Okay. Stop being a bird. Now you’re a biologist at Kenai Fjords National Park, and you’re worried sick about why your murrelets have declined by more than 80 percent since 1976. They’re doing just fine inside the park’s borders, but every year fewer return to nest on Kenai’s scree fields. You know something is killing them, but the problem lies far beyond your jurisdiction, so forget about being able to help. You’re just responsible for Kenai Fjords.

Kittlitz's Murrelets are among the hundreds of migratory species that rely on America's national parks. Photo courtesy of Alyson McKnight, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

For scientists concerned about migratory species like the murrelet, the conservation challenge is simple in definition, complex in resolution: Animals move. Parks don’t.

“If you’re managing a park and you’re trying to protect its biodiversity, you have to start thinking outside your park’s borders,” says Steve Cain, senior wildlife biologist at Grand Teton National Park.

That’s the thrust of a new analysis, published by a team of wildlife experts last week in the journal Conservation Biology, that identifies a fundamental problem facing park managers around the country: “The fragmented system of national parks is not sufficient to maintain migratory species or processes.” Park-based migrants not only traverse private property, they also pass through an alphabet soup of public lands – USFWS, BLM, USFS­­ – where management strategies and threats may vary. Fortunately, the paper offers a blueprint for addressing that challenge – one that could substantially change how America’s best idea pursues its mission.

Among the paper’s strongest recommendations is for the “functional (not statutory) expansion of park boundaries” – expanding NPS’ influence without expanding its holdings. In practice, that means more cooperation with other agencies, land trusts and private landowners to secure conservation easements and protect adjacent areas. Under this new model, parks aren’t fortresses of biodiversity – as Elaine Lesline, Chief of the Biological Resource Management Division of NPS, puts it, parks must be “anchors for significant corridors” that span landscapes and are themselves managed by everyone from state governments to local conservation groups.

In a sense, it’s conservation for the austerity era. “I don’t know how much longer we’re going to see the top-down hammer of the government doing conservation,” says Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) senior scientist Joel Berger, the paper’s lead author. “If we don’t engage with private property, we have issues.”

Scientists have long understood that parks, with their inflexible boundaries and narrow conservation mandates, are inadequate for sheltering migrants. In 1893, the geologist Arnold Hague observed that Yellowstone’s boundaries didn’t encompass enough area to protect peripatetic moose, goats and elk. Yet Hague’s warnings went mostly unheeded, and migrants declined over the next century. “It is only a matter of time until the cumulative effects of increasing roads, trucks, heavy machinery, extraction, housing, poaching, people, and habitat alterations truncate a migration corridor,” wrote Berger in 2003, predicting the extirpation of Grand Teton’s pronghorn.

Because of brucellosis concerns, Yellowstone's bison are prevented from migrating out of the park during winter. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Although the pronghorn survived (more on that in a moment), America’s migrant species continue to suffer. Populations of grassland birds like Baird’s Sparrow and Sprague’s Pipit, which summer in parks in the Northern Rockies and Dakotas, are plummeting as their southwestern winter habitat vanishes beneath corn and soybeans. Yellowstone’s bison, which every winter attempt to flee for lower country, are slaughtered or hazed back into the park for fear they’ll spread brucellosis to cattle.

And when migratory species dwindle, the ecological impacts can be severe: The decline of salmon along the Pacific coast means that northwestern streams receive just 6 to 7 percent of the marine-derived nitrogen and phosphorous they once did, starving other aquatic species of valuable nutrients.

To address the crisis, NPS convened an international collection of scientists (who authored the new recommendations) to figure out how the Park Service could better protect migrants, from bats to blue whales. Yet how much can a budget-strapped agency with a fixed jurisdiction really do for high-mileage wanderers? A lot, says Steve Cain. Back in the early 1990’s, Cain was curious about the red-tailed hawks that summered in Grand Teton before disappearing for parts unknown. He started tagging hawks – and discovered, to his surprise, that they flew all the way to Mexico, where they faced potential new threats. (While Mexico, like the U.S., prohibits killing raptors, enforcement there is often lax.)

The experience got him thinking about other species that seasonally occupied Grand Teton – including pronghorns, which had to traverse gas fields, fences and highways during their perilous passage to Wyoming’s Green River Valley. Scientists like Cain and Berger researched the pronghorn’s migration route, WCS conducted outreach, and, in 2008, the National Forest Service established the Path of the Pronghorn – the nation’s first federally designated migration corridor, which limited the construction of fences, roads and other structures that could impede movement along the pronghorn’s 150-mile journey.

The Path’s success is a template for one of the pilot projects described in the paper: an effort to track a suite of migratory grassland birds, like the Chestnut-collared Longspur, that split their time between parks and private lands in the southwest. The tracking should eventually result in an aviation conservation plan that spans numerous jurisdictions. “Parks can build alliances with individual citizens to help keep migrations alive,” says Berger.

Path of the Pronghorn, a 150-mile federally designated corridor, is considered a model for the conservation of migratory species. Photo courtesy of James Leupold, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“No agency can address this responsibility by itself,” says Peter Dratch, lead biologist for the National Wildlife Refuge System’s Inventory and Monitoring initiative. The Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife already house monitoring teams in the same building in Fort Collins, Colo., for coordination’s sake, and the Kittlitz’s Murrelet – remember her? – is among the species the two agencies are tracking together using satellite tags, another pilot project.

But will these studies translate into action? In the analysis, WCS surveyed Park Service personnel to gauge migration knowledge – and while 80 percent of respondents were aware of research to identify migratory routes, just 24 percent could list examples of those pathways being protected.

Still, Berger says that NPS’ willingness to tackle the migratory challenge is a huge first step. “The parks realize they’re not islands unto themselves,” he says. “They have neighbors who play a critical role in helping parks fulfill their mission.” With any luck, inhabiting the mind of a migrating murrelet will someday be a less frightening proposition.

Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Mexico had no prohibitions on killing raptors, when in fact the country does, though regulation can be very lax. This version has been corrected.

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