Why linking protected areas is crucial for wildlife movement

Why linking protected areas is crucial
for wildlife movement

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

Why linking protected areas is crucial for wildlife movement

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

By Emily Jerome, Digital Engagement Assistant, National Environmental Treasure

Biodiversity Action Agenda Item 3.3

ESTABLISH A LARGE NETWORK OF PROTECTED AREA: Establish a larger network of interconnected parks and marine protected areas which includes wildlife corridors. Linking protected areas ensures safer movement for wildlife and helps maintain healthy populations and overall ecosystem health.

The long shadow cast by Heart Mountain fell across the Trans-Canada highway as the sun crept closer to the horizon. With the speedometer hovering over 100 km per hour, I entered the Bow Valley and the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies. In a flash of motion, a dark silhouette darted across the highway 80 meters in front of me. A black bear continued to sprint full tilt across the median, momentarily glanced at the oncoming semi-truck and then committed to crossing the next strip of asphalt. Once I saw the bear reach the other side, a wave of relief overcame me. It wasn’t long until the relief gave way to the realization that this won’t be the only time this animal has to make a dangerous crossing.

Black bear hiding in a bush with red berries
Black bear. Jillian Cooper from Getty Images/Canva

For humans, getting around is easy. But for wildlife, it’s a different story.

Say you decide to go on a cross-country road trip. You can simply get on the nearest highway, meet up with the Trans-Canada and drive east to St. Johns, Newfoundland or head west to Victoria, British Columbia. Your journey might include cramming into a car, bus, passenger train or ferry, but you will find your way. For us humans, connecting from point A to point B is generally pretty easy. Now take a moment and imagine that black bear’s perspective while navigating from point A to point B.  The electric fences to climb, the roads and highways to cross, the overflowing hiking trails and the deafening rumbling as steel snakes race along mountainsides. Perhaps now it might become clear that connectivity is something we humans take for granted.

The more cities, provinces and territories become connected, the less connected wildlife populations become. As we build and expand human infrastructure, we fracture wildlife habitats into isolated puzzle pieces. This process is known as fragmentation and it’s one of the leading threats to biodiversity. Roadways, train tracks and housing developments hinders the movement of species seeking food, water, shelter and mates. While movement between the patches is possible, it poses significant challenges and often has deadly consequences. As patches of habitat become smaller and more isolated, there is a higher risk of species extinction.

Bighorn sheep crossing the highway in mountains
Bighorn sheep. Libor Fousek from Getting Images/Canva

Why is connectivity between protected areas important?

Protected areas such as national parks are capable of providing refuge to wildlife species, including bears, wolves and caribou, but the key to long-term conservation of biodiversity is connectivity between protected areas. In July 2020, the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group released the first-ever global guidelines for protecting ecological connectivity. But first, what does “ecological connectivity” even mean? In the report, it’s defined as “the unimpeded movement of species and the flow of natural processes that sustain life.” One of the key messages from the report is that interconnected protected areas are far more effective at conserving biodiversity than disconnected areas. This is especially important considering that wildlife is responding to a changing climate and require ecological connectivity to find new suitable habitat. The guidelines suggest that a coherent global approach is needed to achieve effective ecological connectivity. After all, wildlife movement transcends political boundaries.

How do we achieve ecological connectivity between protected areas?

mountain range

The answer lies in establishing new wildlife corridors and maintaining the integrity of existing wildlife corridors. A wildlife corridor is a stretch of natural habitat that reconnects isolated patches of habitat. Wildlife corridors can include setting aside millions of acres for conservation and constructing animal road crossing structures. Sarah Elmeligi, conservation scientist and author of the recently released book, ‘What Bears Teach us,’ provided an important insight into wildlife corridors at the Y2Y + Whyte Speaker Series. She explained that “without the Town of Canmore, the whole valley is just habitat and there is no corridor… We have created the situation and now we need to find ways for animals to move around town.”

In 2021-2022, the Alberta government will begin construction of a wildlife overpass and highway fencing project east of Banff National Park, at Bow Valley Gap. This is the precise location where the black bear made a mad dash between cars and semi-trucks. The high risk of vehicle-wildlife collision at the Bow Valley Gap indicates that wildlife are frequently using this location as a way to travel from one habitat patch to another. It’s no surprise that the Bow Valley Gap wildlife overpass has been widely supported as similar overpasses constructed throughout Banff National Park have decreased wildlife collision mortality by 80%. It is with great anticipation that this overpass will connect the protected areas on both sides of the highway and heal the fragmentation caused by the Trans-Canada Highway.

Interconnected protected areas and ecological connectivity are not only vital for safeguarding biodiversity, they also ensure the functioning of natural processes that keeps ecosystems healthy, therefore us humans healthy. These natural processes moderate the climate, provide us with high-quality food, and purify our water and air. Just as we need to work to interconnect protected areas to support biodiversity, we need to better understand how we are interconnected with our surrounding ecosystem. This will help us move forward together in ensuring a future of flourishing biodiversity and well-being for humans, wildlife and the environment as a whole.

How can you make biodiversity count?

1. It’s important to show continued support for the construction of the Bow Valley Gap wildlife overpass until its construction is complete. You can show your support here.

2. Visit Globescapes to learn about connectivity initiatives in your area.

3. Listen to our podcast episode of “What the f*** is biodiversity?” with Jeremy Guth, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative board member here or on Spotify.

4. Sign up for our mailing list here to receive seasonal updates on biodiversity.

5. Continue to learn about connectivity and fragmentation solutions and talk about it with friends and family.

Moose and calf walking down road in forest
Kyle Kempf from Getty Images/Canva

About Making Biodiversity Count Series

In February 2019, the Biodiversity Action Agenda, authored by Women for Nature was published. It asks all Canadians to take immediate action on biodiversity loss as there is no recovery from extinction. As a 24-point action agenda, it offers a combination of actions, including low-hanging fruit as well as long-term systemic changes. Follow our blog for regular posts exploring each action.