Forest planning for wildlife corridors

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.





21 thoughts on “Forest planning for wildlife corridors”

  1. Seems most of the emphasis on wildlife corridors involves major (impressive) annual movement patterns of some big game, namely winter-to-summer range corridors over long distances. In contrast, less impressive, more local, corridors among ungulate seasonal ranges receive much less attention. Bighorn sheep ranges and their connecting corridors seem to be the extreme case of neglect. Bighorn are habitat specialists. Quality herds may have 6 or more seasonal ranges with their connecting corridors. However, for several reasons, very many herds have lost some or most of their seasonal ranges and, with past drastic herd losses, herd memories of pristine patterns of movement are gone. Restoration of these high quality year-round range patterns is inhibited by existing poor habitat. Many bighorn herds exist at the lower-elevation perimeters of Forest Service lands, where they use other, often private, lands and have a high probability of contacting domestic sheep with serious disease consequences. We are neglecting the possibility for restoring seasonal ranges and connecting corridors to get our bighorn back into the interiors of many Forests. This will require long-term Forest Service/state coordination in studying herds and developing highly focused, strategic, sequential habitat management projects.

  2. My first thought was that perhaps the State of Colorado doesn’t have them all figured out yet.

    Before I retired, I was involved in discussions about a Colorado-wide system of corridors. If I remember correctly, the State was developing models (I thought the effort might be overthinking and we (CO and land trusts) would be missing opportunities while all that was going on and getting figured out. In fact I remember our RF and a bunch of us talking specifically about connections between forests that might be good for wildlife and folks to traverse. My impression was that this might be one of those cases in which the perfect is the enemy of the basic, mediated through overanalysis. However, my memory and knowledge is greatly less than perfect on this.

    Here is the link to what Colorado Parks and Wildlife currently says “The Colorado Park and Wildlife is working in partnership with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department to implement a pilot project to build a “Decision Support System” (DSS) to identify crucial habitats and corridors on our states’ border. This project is being implemented under the auspices of the Western Governors’ Association.”

    It doesn’t give a date.
    Here’s what the Western Governor’s Association policy statement from 2018 says :

    1. Western Governors believe that federal land management agencies should support state
    and tribal efforts to identify key wildlife migration corridors and habitat in the West and
    engage in early and substantive consultation with Governors prior to the promulgation of
    any policy pertaining to the management of wildlife corridors and habitat.
    2. Western Governors urge federal land management agencies and non-governmental
    organizations – in coordination with state fish and wildlife agencies – to work with private
    landowners and local communities to identify monetary and non-monetary incentives to
    encourage voluntary corridor and habitat conservation efforts. Western Governors
    encourage dialogue among relevant partners in the West to identify collaborative solutions
    to wildlife corridor and habitat conservation across land ownerships.
    3. Western Governors commend the considerable efforts already underway to increase
    coordination between state fish and wildlife agencies and state departments of
    transportation to integrate consideration of wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity into
    transportation infrastructure planning and development. The Governors also support
    development of best practices to expand state agency coordination.
    4. Western Governors urge DOI and the U.S. Department of Transportation to cooperate in a
    similar manner on projects under their jurisdiction and support intra-state efforts when
    5. Western Governors believe that any federal efforts to identify, regulate, or conserve wildlife
    migration corridors through administrative or legislative action must rely upon
    coordination and consultation with states and should advance collaborative, locally driven
    initiatives to conserve key wildlife corridors and habitat. Governors further encourage
    Congress and the Administration to support collaborative and locally developed initiatives
    through financial and technical assistance. ”

    So… I wonder whether the Rio Grande is really “missing in action” or whether they are hesitant to develop their own corridors?

    Another way to look at this is if that’s the only concern the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance has with the plan, the RG is doing pretty well.. Given the concerns on the Flathead, the Pisgah-Nantahala and other recent plans.

    • (Rest assured it’s not the only concern with the Rio Grande revision.)

      Obviously, the western governors want the states to lead on everything, especially wildlife. But the Forest Service has a legal obligation to provide both functional connectivity and conditions that will provide for viable populations of migratory species. That means there are going to be times when the Forest Service can’t wait for states to lead. I’ve been glad to see the WGA efforts to highlight the need for connectivity and support tools to help with connectivity planning, but I tend to agree with you that remaining habitat connectivity is being lost so rapidly and it is some important to wildlife (especially with climate change-induced movement needs) that waiting for a state’s best answer is going to have some serious costs. The Forest Service must lead when it has an opportunity (whether states are ready or not), and forest plan revision is where it may be both an obligation and an opportunity to reduce further losses. This is a reason states should be involved in forest plan revisions.

      Greg points out that the national forests may be small players in a particular linkage area. Nevertheless their decision should be based on an assessment of the broader connectivity needs, and their leadership can focus the discussion on how to collaboratively manage multiple jurisdictions towards desired connectivity. (It could help get a crossing structure on the agenda for I-90).

      He also mentions a possible conflict with travel planning. Travel planning must be consistent with the forest plan, and its desired conditions for connectivity. When a forest plan is revised, the travel plan must be made consistent with it, not the other way around. Trails being planned in areas now deemed important for connectivity may not be appropriate.

  3. I don’t care for what is happening in the Custer-Gallatin Forest planning. While a wildlife connectivity corridor has been identified (two key linkage areas), it could come at a great recreational cost. I believe the areas to be a minor area of connectivity, not a major migration corridor as the example in Wyoming. The two areas are separated by several roads, many miles of private land and Interstate 90. The only proposed management edict would be to not build any new trails within these 2 areas, however this would be detrimental to completion of the 2006 Travel Plan and also place new trail reroutes for sustainability under a microscope, leaving the Forest open to more litigation (and trails that would erode into perpetuity). I feel that they should drop the proposed edict for no new trails even though it could be interpreted by some that the forest could be labeled as “missing in action”, and instead examine how key linkage area trails are presently managed. Simply cutting back the access season for hiking and biking on key trails in key linkage areas could suffice to satisfy compliance. I feel the present trails are not a hindrance to wildlife movement, and the few new trails needed to provide recreational trail matrix completion could be managed easily. Admittedly the biggest hindrance to wildlife is Interstate 90. So I see a few problems ahead for some wildlife corridor situations.

    • Providing a corridor on the Custer/Gallatin Forest, across I-90, is needed for a host of wildlife species, and it is not just a seasonal issue that can be dealt with by seasonal trail closures. Providing for “compliance” with the rules often neglects the wildlife realities and limiting factors on the ground.

      • Sure. I agree. But I think that the problems aren’t in the Custer-Gallatin, but on the ground between the forest boundaries. It’s at least a 9 mile gap from one key linkage area to another, with I-90, numerous subdivisions, hundreds of homes and minor roads, and even the eastern portion of Bozeman in the way. While you could tell me that “no new trails” in the key linkage area will make a difference for wildlife migration, I’m not buying it. It’s an astoundingly large, complex area to monitor and I believe that the potential benefits to wildlife are impossible to measure. I simply think that the travel plan and a few new trails should be finished.

  4. Great post. Another place this happened was Eastern Sierras where the Inyo plan lumped with Sierra and Sequoia instead of with Hunboldt-T. That may have been timing of H-T being done earlier I don’t recall. Certainly this illustrates the challenges of running a national forest planning program with any kind of efficiency. I personally believe 5-6 year forest plans are one of the agency’s most glaring failures, but perhaps one it was set up for. I agree with you that the FS could play a lead role in putting true ecology over political boundaries, however I also think there is merit in some cases to allowing the states to drive the bus, and if they don’t always agree on wildlife priorities then that is a reality. I like how this blog has balanced perspectives.

    • Okey Dokey Smokey,

      Some of us wanted to do a planning rule that led to plans that could be completed expeditiously, but that was not politically feasible. I worked on the 2012 to some degree, and I don’t remember that even being a goal. More=better in terms of analysis, but does that work in practice?

      • I remember improved efficiency being front and center when we developed the 2012 regulations (though maybe less so than in 05/08), and it is mentioned a couple of times in the Preamble. The expectation (including for budgeting) was a three-year process from the initial public notification for participation in the assessment. The Francis Marion and Flathead actually came pretty close to that (the Flathead in part because they were “restarting” revision from a few years prior). But that is expecting perfection, luck and/or a disinterested public, which is usually not going to be the case (see Nez Perce-Clearwater, Sierra/Sequoia and/or Nantahala-Pisgah).

        • I actually don’t remember efficiency being mentioned very often; I do remember a great deal more analysis being added. Expecting three years and putting it in the preamble doesn’t seem very realistic (they’re going to do more stuff in less time). It’s been m/l 7 years since the 2012 Rule and if the FS finishes 3 per year, say, then it will be many years before all the forests revise.

          And if long term completion forests like the NPC SS and NP keep using the funding that will push everyone else back even further.

    • Larry Harrell – “. While browsing these forests on Google Maps, I ran across this interesting view. The vegetation patterns look a lot like mechanized planting.”

      I believe I know exactly what this is. In areas of the southwest (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado & Utah) a holistic approach to maintaining the dryland area ranchlands has been practiced for many years. It’s called sub-soiling contour plowing or Keyline Disk Plowing. It’s used to water harvest major runoffs and prevent gully washing which became intense after years of mismanagement and other things like Beaver removal etc. Here is an example of what they practice down on the Circle Ranch within the Big Bend area of southwest Texas. This ranch has been successful in the increase of Big Horn Sheep and Texas southern plains Elk. The later animal is considered invasive by the biologists of Texas and the State has an irresponsible erradication program this Circle Ranch has been fighting against. The blind nonsense narrative is that Elk hurt and crowd out the Big Horn Sheep and Circle Ranch has proven that a lie.

      Anyway, the keyline subsoil plowing helps spread out wide monsoonal thunderstorm downpour runoffs over a vast area of ancient floddplains which no longer flood, but rather channelize into deep canyon erosion cuts into the land scape. They also use a design of small spreader dams which block floodwaters from going into the deep gully erosion cuts and fanning it out over the Keyline plowed landscape. The method is mechanical (requires some machinery) and probably goes against the all things natural mandate promoted by environmental groups, but it’s been effective in restoration of native grasses, wildflowers and other plants on dry plains which through decades past bad management turned into nothing more than bare soil and Creosote Brush habitat. Interestingly the Circle Ranch has proven that all kinds of plants can live with Creosote Brush which has been given the reputation of killing off anything else around it theough root exudates from their rootsystems. Not true!

      Here is what a Yeomans Subsoiling Plow looks like.×768.jpg

      You will note the roller behind. Some rollers have been designed using biomimicry to replicate bison herd hoof imprints on the landscape.

      Here is a short 7+ minute video of Christopher Gill of Circle Ranch discussing how they turned a dry bare ground gully washing floodplain into a meadow of native green plants again

      Here is a longer version 21 minutes on how the landscape is restored with this method

      So I would suspect that the area has been some time in the past keline plowed, but just a guess.

  5. To be honest, I couldn’t really tell if they were trees. The plants are smaller than trees and look like shrubs, but they must be Juniper or Cypress from their compact shape. The rows are definitely in a keyline contour pattern, but I cannot understand why trees would be planted within such furrows.


    I guess we should take leadership where we can find it (and hope the Forest Service follows).

    “The City of Santa Fe voted unanimously Oct. 30 to pass a resolution supporting the protection of wildlife corridors in the upper Rio Grande Basin, as well as supporting pending legislation to protect wildlife corridors nationwide.
    The City becomes the 10th jurisdiction in New Mexico to support such a resolution,…
    The resolution encourages the U.S. Forest Service to adopt and establish management areas that provide wildlife with habitat connectivity as part of its forest plan revision,…”

      • Based on what I read here, they are asking for management areas, which last only as long as a forest plan. But I assume their wish would be for perpetuity.

        Maybe you are getting at “how” to “manage” (your term) or “protect” (term used by the reporter) these areas. And maybe your implication is that they would need active vegetation management? I would guess that minimal development would usually be the best option (as development tends to create barriers), depending perhaps on the needs of a particular species. Managing vegetation for its natural range of variation (required for all NFS lands) seems like it would work in most cases (and the management area should not be suitable for timber production).

        • Jon, yes, I meant managing the corridors based on the appropriate management activities for the sites. This might tax an already taxed organization.

          Managing vegetation for its natural range of variation? Agreed. The management area should not be suitable for timber production? Disagree — creating and maintaining optimum corridor conditions my require timber harvesting. Stewardship contracting might work.

  7. Here’s the 3 most important criteria for timber suitability (§61.2 of the Planning Handbook):
    3. A flow of timber can be planned and scheduled on a reasonably predictable basis.
    4. Regeneration of the stand is intended.
    5. Timber production is compatible with the desired conditions or objectives for the land designed to fulfill the requirements of 36 CFR 219.8 to 219.10.

    I think the burden is on the FS to show that timber production (“regulated crop of trees”) is compatible with these requirements. It may depend on the type of forest, but I think suitability would be the exception. Also in part because the desired conditions for connectivity should have something to do with the reducing amount of human activity. I would also ask the question this way – do we want timber targets to drive what happens in these areas?


Leave a Comment