Linking Landscapes for Grizzlies and other Wild Communities
The importance of maintaining wildlife linkage in the northern Rocky Mountains is an issue recognized by federal, state and county agencies and governments, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), the Western Governors’ Association, conservation organizations, and many others.
Maintaining wildlife linkage is becoming increasingly important and increasing difficult because of the human presence on the landscape. From housing developments to commercial sites, from roads to railroads, grizzlies and other wildlife face numerous human barriers. When contiguous blocks of habitat are broken into pieces from human activities, the result is called “habitat fragmentation.”
Habitat fragmentation forces grizzlies and other animals to avoid or limit their use of portions of their habitat, and seek sustenance in less favorable habitats. This can result in reduced reproduction by displaced bears, higher mortality rates owing to food stress or lower security, and smaller populations due to reduced carrying capacity of remaining habitat.
Some bears may choose to continue foraging within close proximity to human developments and, subsequently, suffer much higher mortality rates (Mace and Waller 1998). Human caused mortality remains the largest single cause of bear mortality, even in highly protected and managed populations.
For wildlife biologists and other scientists, it has become evident that the grizzly and many other species cannot be sustained solely by remaining inside the boundaries of existing protected habitat areas. In fact, some of those supposedly secure areas are already losing native species, especially carnivores and other large mammals. Quite simply, for wild communities to endure there has to be the potential for animals and plants to disperse and move long distances. Linkage areas may well determine whether or not wild creatures can adapt to change or even survive.
To be effective, linkage areas should provide food, shelter, and security for foraging and movement across the landscape between already protected areas like national parks, national forests, and designated wilderness areas.
Linkage areas will help restore and maintain the habitat connectivity between the large blocks of public land in the northern Rockies region, and foster wildlife movements between ecosystems across a permeable landscape. Intact linkage areas allow grizzlies and other wildlife to disperse to new ranges and exchange genes between populations.
Vital Ground is actively identifying where grizzly/wildlife movement opportunities still exist in the northern Rockies; prioritizing project opportunities (“best first”); working with local community leaders to explain wildlife issues and how they can participate in ways that will enhance the value of linkage zones to wildlife; stressing the issues of rural nature, local interest, and maintenance of property values that are associated with maintaining the open space that linkage zones require; working with community groups to build understanding and support; and working with county commissioners as other local support is established.