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Montana: Helping Wildlife Make "Connections" on the Landscape

Biologists in Montana and other Rocky Mountain states are looking for ways to identify and maintain connected areas that can help wildlife adjust to changes in climate.

As human influence on the natural landscape increases, climate change causes seasonal ranges and food sources for wildlife to shift, and habitats become more fragmented due to highways and development, scientists need better ways to secure opportunities for wildlife to move between large blocks of protected public land and increase the resiliency of these populations to climate change impacts. 

Grizzy in Yellowstone

A project supported by the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) aims to identify landscape-scale movement opportunities for wildlife species in Montana and Idaho, and adjacent cross-border areas of British Columbia and Alberta. The project is one of the first approved for funding by the newly formed Great Northern LCC, one of 21 collaboratives nationwide that form a network of conservation partnerships working to ensure the sustainability of America’s land, water, wildlife and cultural resources. 

Biologists recognize that the changing climate and other environmental stressors may alter the distribution of foods and ranges within ecosystems -- resulting in significant changes in distribution of species on the landscape and making enabling wildlife to move freely and safely even more important.  This project will provide information biologists need to maintain connectivity between important habitats.

The project provides the scientific foundation for efforts to increase long-term viability of wildlife by increasing opportunities for movement through low-elevation areas and across highways in northwestern Montana and northern Idaho. Successful dispersal of species is important for genetic viability and demographic connectivity, both of which increase species resilience to threats such as climate change, expanded human development, and increasing highway traffic volume and speeds.

"This strategic project will enhance our understanding of species movement and explore opportunities for wildlife to use existing habitat and food sources while minimizing the risk of wildlife collisions with vehicles on highways," said Chris Servheen, project coordinator.  "This improves safety both for people traveling on highways and wildlife who need to cross these highways."

One of the species most likely to benefit from this study is the grizzly bear. Previous research using radio telemetry identified core grizzly habitat along the U.S.-Canada border in Montana and Idaho, as well as strategic corridors that link these core habitats.  The approaches used in this project have already been applied in areas in British Columbia.

Managing wildlife linkage areas involves habitat protection through conservation easements or in some cases, direct purchase of strategic lands for wildlife movement from willing sellers; refinement of timber harvest and road-building protocols in key areas to reduce bear mortality risk; and assistance for private landowners who want to minimize conflicts with wildlife as they move through private lands.

Authors: Leith Edgar, Greg Watson, Matt Kales (USFWS)

This article re-posted from US Fish and Wildlife Service's Open Spaces blog. The USFWS will be posting new stories about climate impacts every day for 50 days. 

Photo: Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. Courtesy Terry Tollesfbol, USFWS


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