Wildlife Corridors: Can They Stave Off Extinctions? We built roads through their homes...

Dear EarthTalk: What are “wildlife corridors” and how do they help preserve wildlife and biodiversity?

—J.J. Harrison, Hilo, HI

Wildlife corridors are stretches of land that connect otherwise fragmented pieces of wildlife habitat. Since many mammals and birds require large ranges of undeveloped land in order to survive, linking smaller habitats together is key to maintaining strong populations. Ecologists consider wildlife corridors crucial because they increase the total amount of habitat available for species while counteracting the fragmentation that has resulted from human activity.

This Montana tunnel allows elk and other wildlife to cross the highway safely – and makes it safer for drivers as well. Credit: photogramma1, flickrCC

First espoused by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson in the 1960s and later by environmentalists considered on the fringe, the wildlife corridor concept has since become an institutionalized technique for managing at-risk wildlife populations. The benefits—including greater biodiversity, larger wildlife populations, wider ranges of food sources and shelter, and increased long-term genetic viability due to population interbreeding—are now well known and undisputed by wildlife professionals. Corridor projects have sprung up from coast to coast, in some cases implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself in the name of protecting threatened and endangered species.

Environmental advocacy groups are also engaged in the creation and expansion of wildlife corridors throughout North America and beyond. The Bozeman, Montana-based American Wildlands, for instance, runs the Corridors of Life project, which uses scientific modeling to locate the best potential public and private lands for conversion to wildlife corridors throughout the Northern Rocky Mountains. According to executive director Rob Ament, the group is working with the government, as well as with private landowners, to protect parcels of land it deems key to conserving viable populations of wild animals.

Meanwhile, the Richmond, Vermont-based Wildlands Project is also committed to the establishment of a connected system of wild areas. Since its founding in 1991, the group has commissioned several scientific studies on the viability of creating wildlife corridors and restoring populations of wolves and other ailing species in different parts of North America.

The wildlife corridor concept is not limited to North America. Central American nations have come together with leading conservation organizations including the World Resources Institute and the Wildlife Conservation Society to create the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor—also known as El Paseo Pantera (“The Panther’s Path”)—to link key wildlife habitat from Mexico to Panama. Many conservationists feel that this project is an important experiment “because it is taking place in poor tropical countries where the greatest diversity of life exists but where biodiversity is also under the greatest threat,” says preeminent Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, who hopes that someday the concept can expand to South America, Asia and Africa.