The 2012 Planning Rule requires that forest plan revisions address wildlife habitat connectivity. In fact it is one of the “dominant ecological characteristics” that must occur with the “natural range of variation” in order to meet the substantive regulatory requirement for “ecological integrity” and the NFMA statutory requirement for “plant and animal diversity.” The Rio Grande National Forest doesn’t seem to want to take this seriously in its revised forest plan, as recounted here:
“At the federal level, New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and others have proposed a Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act to create more tools for protecting migration routes. Our neighbors in New Mexico passed a state wildlife corridors act earlier this year. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has emphasized the need to ratchet up awareness and protection of corridors. And even former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued an order to conserve big-game migration corridors and winter range.
“Hence, with all of this activity agitating for increased concern and elevated action to protect wildlife corridors, the new management plan just announced by the Rio Grande National Forest is astonishingly tone deaf. Our national forest neighbors to the east finalized their long-awaited 20-year vision and ignored widespread calls for action to elevate wildlife corridors.
“It’s a disappointing example of compartmentalization taken to the extreme. Immediately adjacent across the state line in New Mexico, the Carson National Forest unveiled its draft plan and highlighted extraordinary wildlife values there around San Antonio Mountain with a dedicated Wildlife Management Area. But it’s as though an administrative wall exists at the state line.”
“Having the Interior Department and state wildlife agencies and elected officials and some national forests all calling for action to protect wildlife corridors isn’t enough if one critical player, like the Rio Grande National Forest, is missing in action.”
It only takes one bad actor to ruin a wildlife corridor. That is a reason why connectivity was given such a high profile in national forest planning for diversity (I was there). The Rio Grand is currently taking objections to its final revised plan, which will be reviewed by someone at the regional level to determine if the Forest is meeting its connectivity/diversity obligations. However, this is a cross-regional problem (Region 2 and Region 3), which is why the national office of the Forest Service needs to look at why forests in two regions can’t get their acts together on what conditions are needed for connectivity.
Maybe they should also take a look at a recent example in Region 4. This is a case where a state-recognized wildlife corridor led to changes in a trail project on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
“The now-scrapped trail could have interfered specifically with the Red Desert-to-Hoback mule deer migration corridor, which was the first route designated by the state of Wyoming. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 deer pass through the narrow bottleneck at the Fremont Lake outflow, according to a 2016 assessment of the migration path.”
‘The “desired future conditions” — a U.S. Forest Service equivalent for zoning — for where the trail would have gone are “developed and administrative sites” and “special use/recreation.” Those classifications would have allowed for new trails, and the Bridger-Teton’s forest plan easily predates the discovery of the migration route, which wasn’t until 2013. Outside of those processes, the forest sought input before proceeding with the plans.”
It’s great that the project decision is considering this new information and the new state designation. I hope the Forest also recognizes the implications for any future projects in this area where it looks like they have decided that the desired condition is now something else. The discovery of the migration route should have led to another look at the forest plan desired condition, and a plan amendment if they are deciding that it is no longer appropriate based on this new information.