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Moving Conservation to the Landscape Scale

Parks, like Yellowstone National Park, and wildlife reserves, are the traditional models for conserving large tracts of land. But as the effects of climate change and development encroaches, it’s now clear that even large, protected tracts aren’t protection enough to help preserve biodiversity. As Nature pointed out in a recent editorial:
“…for better or worse, parks cannot be completely isolated in space… . Yellowstone is surrounded by national forests, ranches, game refuges and other natural lands that are ten times the size of the park itself, as well as by the spawning tendrils of residential development.”
Conservation biologists have discovered that keystone species affect biodiversity in a big way. Since the early 1990s, renowned conservation biologists Michael Soulé, Reed Noss, John Terborgh, and others saw the limitations of protected areas and called for parks to be connected to one another by unbroken corridors of nature. The idea of corridors was controversial when it was first introduced because, “It represents a move away from classic protected-area conservation to recognizing that protected areas will not adequately protect our biodiversity in the long-term,” said Jodi Hilty, author of Corridor Ecology and North America Program Director at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “It also represents a move to multi-jurisdictional conservation and the need for cooperation including often across private lands.” These ideas have now been developed, implemented, and adopted by virtually all conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs) throughout the world. Corridors provide areas where large species can move unimpeded. As species are challenged by climate change, large tracts of land provide a larger gene pool. Hilty explained, “Climate change in some ways represents that ecosystems are not static. Species distributions are changing. What existed within an ecosystem, will not necessarily all move together representing a decoupling of species and possible new species interactions and ‘new assemblages’ of species as you will in the future. Movement and connectivity are suggested by many papers to be one of the key tools to helping species survive during this time of climate change.” According to Soulé and Noss, national parks and wildlife refuges are only the beginning. Connectivity must be continental in scale, preserving entire ecosystems: mountain forests, grasslands, tundra, and savanna. In Continental Conservation, a book edited by Soulé and Terborgh, they examine the three Cs: Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores. Effective conservation requires all three. “There is sometimes a misunderstanding about the ranking of connectivity or ecological corridors versus the protection of large areas we call parks or reserves or core areas. Some people in the conservation movement have worried that we can’t start talking about connectivity because we don’t have enough protected areas or national parks. This is the point,” Soulé emphasized. “The point is that we know from 34 years of science that we need both. They aren’t alternatives and they aren’t competitive. The main reason we need both because without both a way for creatures to move in a landscape at least the larger ones will perish eventually from disease and loss of genetic variability and climate change,” he added. “In the face of these natural process there has to be the capacity of the landscape to allow movement, to facilitate movement of many kinds including migration dispersal and foraging. Not much will survive unless things can move.” Carnivores and other keystone species play a significant role in the health of an ecosystem. Soulé explained, “The real issue is not carnivores; it’s really keystone species or interactive species. Though many large predators are keystone species—a species that is essential for the functioning and maintenance of the diversity of the system—and if you remove it it’s like removing the keystone of an arch, it collapses the whole system.” “We didn’t realize until the last 20 years, it really wasn’t understood that large animals and some plants including certain kinds of trees are essential and if you remove them the whole system unravels,” Soulé added. Several initiatives are already working to connect large areas. NPR reported that:
“Two distinct elephant populations near Mount Kenya have been united with the opening of Africa's first dedicated elephant underpass. The elephants, who had been separated for years by human development, can now safely cross under a major regional highway. The $250,000 underpass is a key element in the larger effort to create a corridor linking 2,000 elephants on Mount Kenya's highlands with 7,500 in the forests and plains below.”
Last year the Department of Interior created the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, which focuses on-the-ground strategic conservation efforts at the landscape level to combat climate change. The cooperative also proposes to foster collaboration between federal and state agencies and NGOs. But coordinating federal and state agencies and private-land owners can be challenging. “Patience, team building, and demonstration that the pooled and hopefully new resources ultimately help all stakeholders,” Hilty said. The ultimate goal is that agencies and landowners will see the inherent value in wildlife heritage on their lands and work together to develop strategies for supporting healthy and resilient ecosystems.