How to Save Biodiversity: A Conversation with Dr. Jodi Hilty

Wolverine in forest
Perhaps more than any other creature, the wolverine embodies nature's need for connected ecosystems that allow wildlife to move across the landscape and adapt to change.

Unpacking the Science and Human Dynamics of Landscape Conservation

By Tatum McConnell, Communications Intern

If you’re subscribed to our snail-mail list, this fall’s issue of Vital News should be hitting your mailboxes any day! While writing the “Connection or Extinction” feature for the issue, I caught up over Zoom with Dr. Jodi Hilty, president and chief scientist of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), a frequent Vital Ground partner in our work to protect key habitat corridors for grizzly bears and other wildlife.

We couldn’t fit all of our conversation on biodiversity and connectivity into the Vital News piece, so here’s a bonus Q+A about the science and human dynamics behind landscape-scale conservation, and how we’re moving forward across international borders to ensure the protection of Earth’s incredible diversity of life. We hope Dr. Hilty’s deep knowledge and vision for the future brings you the same sense of optimism that the conversation—and our ongoing work with partners like Y2Y—brings all of us at Vital Ground!

Tatum McConnell: The United Nations Convention on Biodiversity just released their latest report on a set of biodiversity protection goals many countries agreed to, and it shows that we’re making progress, but maybe not quickly enough. Could you tell me more about Y2Y’s role in achieving those goals?

Jodi Hilty headshot
“There’s a lot of countries around the world that really are taking this seriously and moving forward,” says Dr. Jodi Hilty of new conservation goals. (Courtesy of Y2Y)

Jodi Hilty: So the current United Nations convention on biodiversity set a diversity of targets in 2010 that all the ratifying countries were to achieve by 2020. For example, Target 11 talks about area-based conservation, getting to 17 percent terrestrial areas and 10 percent marine areas that are well connected, which is where Y2Y intersects with Vital Ground. Y2Y is an organization that’s looking to change the paradigm from protected areas of conservation to large landscape conservation, and that connectivity piece that we work with you all on is absolutely essential.

TM: What’s the international outlook on conservation progress?

JH: In 2010, all the countries in the world ratified the Convention for Biological Diversity—except for Somalia, because they didn’t have a government, and the United States. In terms of habitat protection, the US was at about 12 percent and Canada was about 11 percent. Canada has been putting in a lot of new protected areas in recent years so that’s probably shifted some. And of course, the US has degazetted or eliminated more parts than ever in the history of any administration. So it’s probably gone a little bit backwards. Those numbers are always in flux, but relatively speaking they’re low. Countries like Bhutan have 53 percent and Costa Rica is at 23 percent, so there’s a lot of countries around the world that really are taking this seriously and moving forward in different ways.

At the UN General Assembly, maybe three or four weeks ago, there was a group of global entities, including Y2Y, that pushed for a new mean—an equitable, carbon-neutral, nature-positive future. Right after the UN General Assembly, about 40 different heads of state got together to talk about biodiversity specifically, and [Justin] Trudeau, who is the Prime Minister of Canada, committed to 25 percent by 2025, and 30 percent by 2030, of nature protected, both terrestrial and ocean. And many other countries around the world did as well. There was a great video that came out from the Pakistani President, really pushing nature as being the priority in this century.

So what’s happening is around the world, scientists, heads of state, and conservation practitioners are trying to line up all of these different pieces. It used to be that climate change was in a silo and nature was in a silo. When you look at the next big climate change summit, they’re definitely thinking about nature as one of the tools to help sequester carbon over time in a way that I don’t think has really been as prominent in the past as it will be in the future.

TM: What role has the COVID-19 pandemic played in all of this?

JH: Of course, the pandemic is devastating and horrible, but there’s an opportunity to reset, and to not to go back to what we had pre-pandemic, but to actually make significant changes going forward. People are looking at the pandemic, the kinds of fires we’re seeing in California and Colorado, and all these things together point to the need to do business differently in this world, and for humans to act differently.

So you see countries fast forwarding and committing to significant reductions in carbon emissions, de-investments from oil and gas, and pushing innovative green energy at a much faster pace than they did pre-pandemic. I’m sure you’re not really seeing that in the states so much, but it is happening.

Tom Udall, who’s a New Mexico senator, he’s pushing for 25 [percent nature protection] by ‘25. And I believe that the Biden campaign has also accepted that as part of their party platform, even moving to “30 by ‘30”. I think that’s a pretty exciting opportunity, and it’s going to have to include public lands and private lands together moving forward.

TM: When we’re talking about protecting certain percentages of habitat, how does Y2Y or conservation science more broadly determine what habitat should be protected? What’s the scientific process to determine what’s going to make the biggest impact?

Photo of Montana prairie and fence
“In the US, we preserve a lot of rock and ice mountains,” says Dr. Hilty. “We do a very poor job of preserving things like sagebrush sea and Midwest grasslands.”

JH: So there’s lots of ways at the global level, one thing the Convention for Biological Diversity does is require that every country has an NBSAP, a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. Every country does that their own way, but in general we’d think about representation of different ecosystem types.

In the US, we preserve a lot of rock and ice mountains and we do a very poor job of preserving things like sagebrush sea and Midwest grasslands. From an ecological protection perspective, you’d want to look at representation, redundancy, and connectivity. Now we spend more time in conservation planning, such as looking at where this protected area is relative to others, and increasingly human factors are being considered like cultural and spiritual values, and ecosystem services.

We’re also planning for elements like endangered species or climate change, and even the geology may be considered. For example, we might talk about saving the sage and look at the geology as a way to pick the places that will become climate robust over time. Or we might look for scarce geological features like cliff bands that are offering climate refugia through time and space that are important to protect.

Another way to do it is to look back at where the major climate refugia were in different interglacial periods. We can also employ conductivity mapping to look at connectedness and adapt that to also look at climate change. Overall trying to answer where is it in time and space as the climate is shifting? And do we need to think differently about those places?

TM: So when you’re protecting habitat, how do you balance the needs of different species? For example, a snowshoe hare might need lots of dense cover while some bird species need more mature forests. How does that go into conservation planning for habitat corridors and protecting biodiversity?

JH: I think again it goes back to that representativeness question and also bringing in ecology. You want to have a representation of different kinds of ecosystems and you also want ecosystems that are robust and big enough to allow for natural processes to happen. Some critters might prefer early seral stages of a forest. Others prefer old growth. Animals like caribou, which are now gone from the lower 48 states as of two summers ago, can’t survive without old growth forests.

In the ideal world, and we’re very far from the ideal world, you’d have protected areas that are big enough that a big forest fire could go through and these old growth dependent species would still have enough room to thrive and sustain themselves as the forest goes through various seral stages.

Unfortunately, so many of our protected areas are too small to operate at the scale that these ecological processes operate at, or at the scale of something like a wolverine. I think there’s just three or four wolverine in Grand Teton National Park and that’s all there ever will be because they require so much space. For species like the wolverine, we really have to think about conservation at the Y2Y scale because that’s the scale that matters to support a population. Glacier National Park was one of the first efforts with this when it was made into the world’s first International Peace Park through the Man and Biosphere Program.

So we can start to think about how the Crown of the Continent has a fair amount of protected land but it’s isolated from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and isolated from the central Rockies, and all of that is disconnected from the Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho. So how do we connect these different chunks of wildland?

In Y2Y and Vital Ground’s case, we focus on our logos, the grizzly bear, because research from Montana State University says if you get it right for grizzly bears, you get right for a lot of other critters. We still might have to think about some specific animals, but if we get connectivity right for the grizzly bear, it’s probably going to work for things like wolverine, mountain lions and other animals that need to move at that scale.

TM: We certainly love our grizzly bears and that’s great to hear they’re so effective as a habitat generalist. They also definitely fit the archetype of the charismatic megafauna, the big fuzzy mammals people love, but those species only represent a small percentage of all those on Earth. If we’re concerned with biodiversity on a bigger level how do we get people to care about all the other species, or do we need to? Can we focus on promoting the grizzly bear and let that perpetuate habitat protection for other species as well?

JH: I think a little of both needs to happen. In some cases, people living with grizzly bears might not love them the way other people do. Instead. we might talk about habitat protection for drought abatement, restoration of riparian areas for more consistent water, things like that.

Philip DeManczuk photo of Kodiak brown bear and her cub fishing by a stream.
“If we get connectivity right for the grizzly bear, it’s probably going to work for things like wolverine, mountain lions and other animals that need to move at that scale,” says Dr. Hilty. (Photo by Philip DeManczuk)

Overall, I think storytelling is so important for that human component, getting people connected with lands. If people can identify the birds in their back window, whether they’re living in a city or in a rural area, they’re going to feel more connected. In fact, the research shows that if someone can name 12 birds, they’re more likely to care about conservation.

There’s a lot of outreach education—time on the land—that I think has to be done for people to understand. Whether it’s cryptic like mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, or charismatic like grizzly bears, all those things together operate and form a healthy forest.

TM: Thinking about those different contexts people come to conservation from, I wanted to ask about the tactics Y2Y uses to develop habitat corridors. There are so many stakeholders and parties involved—how do you get people interested in achieving the same goals?

JH: We really think about four things. Public lands, which can be protected through management or designation. Private lands, which can be protected through volunteerism or designation, like easements. Coexistence across both of these: How do you keep the bow hunter alive? How do you keep the rancher in business? How do you keep the school kids safe when they’re walking to school? And finally, we think about roads. With grizzly bears and similar species, if there are more than 100 cars per hour it’s likely to make that road impassible, so we’d think about an underpass or overpass to mitigate that issue.

With those four steps there has to be information. It might be Indigenous, it might be Western science, it might be local communities who are saying this is really important right here. And then there needs to be conversation with interested parties and people who care about the space. What are the problems, the scary points, the showstoppers? And when we’re successful, these parties can come up with a shared vision to move forward.

For example, in the Cabinet-Purcell Mountain Corridor project that we’ve been facilitating for about the last 15 years, there’s something like 60 partner groups, and they’re not always working on the exact same project. But they’ve all agreed on the same big goal, which is let’s get to 100 bears. The questions are: What are the core habitats that are needed? What are the key corridors that are needed? And what are the hotspot issues and conflicts that we all collectively have to address? That’s a lot of different entities talking about these issues over 15 years, and in the US that population of grizzly bears has now gone from 10 to 60 bears. So something’s going right.

TM: To wrap up, looking into the future, what questions about biodiversity or habitat do you still want to see answered? What’s left to learn?

JH: So much! One thing is that we don’t have enough knowledge about the capacity of nature to absorb human activities. If you were to ask any land manager in the US or in Canada, in the Y2Y region right now, where is recreation happening and at what density—for the most part, they actually don’t know.

We’re increasing our knowledge about recreation, but new kinds of recreation are coming up all the time, like electric bikes or drones. Do we need to worry about those? Do we need to manage for those? When, where, why, how? I think we really need to get on top of that.

Additionally, what are the human patterns of development? How might we, as a society, actively manage and change them? Areas of California have become a wall of continuous homes from city to city—is that the future we want for the Y2Y region? Where is the citizenship at, do they want this? What does it look like to have a thriving sustainable community today and into the future with adequate resources for nature and for people?

So these are questions that interface with both biological systems and social systems, and these are just a few examples of the many, many things we don’t know.

Learn more about Vital Ground and Y2Y’s collaborative work in the Cabinet-Purcell Mountain Corridor…

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