America’s Rivers Could Be the Pathways Animals Need to Adapt to Climate Change

As the world warms, a network of wildlife corridors along U.S. rivers could give animals isolated in wildlife refuges the ability to migrate safely.

A bull elk crosses the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: Flickr)

Oct 7, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

When the United States started turning the country’s most beautiful scenery into national parks—what some considered the country’s “best idea”—there wasn’t a lot of thought as to how these protected lands would function for the species living there. The landscapes were breathtaking, and thanks to John Muir, Ulysses S. Grant, and Teddy Roosevelt, they were preserved.

But now, ever-encroaching development just outside park boundaries is leaving wolves, elk, deer, bears, and many other species with smaller and smaller territories to roam. And when catastrophic events such as wildfires hit these “safe havens,” animals can be trapped, incapable of migrating away from danger owing to new highways, fences, cities, and other man-made obstacles in their way.

With climate change already impacting their habitats, animals are looking to move north, or up in elevation to escape the heat—but in a lot of cases, we haven’t given them the routes to do so, says Alexander Fremier, a professor at Washington State University’s School of the Environment.

“It’s easy to look back with the knowledge we have now and question it,” Fremier says. “Don’t get me wrong, the national parks are incredible, but they weren’t thinking about preserving the large-scale ecological systems together.”

If animals can’t move, they’ll die. So, Fremier plans to give them a route: American rivers.

He and his team of researchers call it the Riparian Connectivity Network, and they think it could be a way to connect the country’s protected parks, wildernesses, and wildlife refuges by creating a system of wildlife-friendly corridors along the nation’s river system.

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The move would be a one-two punch: Protect wildlife and improve water quality in the process.

“There’s already a large movement out there to restore water quality in many of the country’s rivers,” Fremier said. And there’s federal legislation to back that up.

In a study published in the November edition of the journal Biological Conservation, Fremier finds that between the Clean Water Act (which regulates pollutants allowed in U.S. waters), the Endangered Species Act (which monitors water quality in endangered species’ habitats), and state-level protection laws, many of the safeguards necessary to set up his planned corridors are already in place.

“What we found was there is already bias in protection standards toward riparian and water habitat compared to terrestrial lands,” Fremier said. One example is the lengths Washington state has gone to protect its salmon, removing more than 200 fish migration barriers and protecting 348 miles of stream habitat.

In California, ESA protections have kept water and therefore wildlife in the San Joaquin River Delta in hopes of protecting the endangered Delta smelt fish—a vital food source for large fish species.

Fremier thinks if these types of protections were granted to larger land parcels along these riverbanks, animals running out of room in one protected wildlife refuge could traverse the banks of a river and migrate to new safe, open space.

With 95 percent of the nation’s federally protected lands connected by a river or stream network, it could be the most efficient way to connect them.

Still, the obstacles of creating such a network are plentiful.

What could work in the West—where the federal government owns a majority of the land—could be a bit more difficult in the Midwest, where most land is privately owned.

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“To really have an impact in that part of the country, the network would have to involve working with landowners and creating conservation easements,” where landowners set aside portions of their property—sometimes financially incentivized—to ensure the land stays undeveloped, Fremier said.

Additionally, creating a river-based network corridor would have to take into account when it was best to avoid rivers altogether for wildlife safety, avoiding urban-based centers built on riverfronts, for example.

“We can’t just be funneling wildlife down these corridors into Sacramento, or Portland, or straight into a five-lane highway,” Fremier said. “Each corridor would have to be adjusted to fit with the landscape.”

It would also need to be ascertained which animals would benefit from river-based, typically wooded corridors and which ones would be at a disadvantage. Take the pronghorn antelope, for example. The lightning-quick species relies on open terrain to use its speed to avoid predators, and it avoids traveling in heavily wooded landscapes.

“There’s a lot to look at, and a lot of complex issues here, but we need to figure out if this is an actual, workable solution, not just an academic paper solution,” Fremier said.

The team is planning to test its Riparian Connectivity Network at Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area, a ranchland-dominated region that includes a state highway and two rivers, the Snake and the Salmon. It separates the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in eastern Oregon from central Idaho’s national forests—home of the largest free-roaming elk herd in North America.

Study coauthor and Washington State Ph.D. student Amanda Stahl is researching how implementing such a system would impact migration patterns of the elk, wolves, bears, and wildcats in the region.

“Before we can go about coordinating a national riparian conservation network, we need to figure out a methodology to implement it on a small, localized scale,” she said. “We also need to come up with baseline estimates of how wide protected corridors need to be to facilitate connectivity, and how to get private landowners on board with the project.”