Monday, February 10, 2020

What Conservation Corridors & Habitat Connectivity Could Mean For PA Wildlife, Biodiversity

By Anthony Bastian, Sally Ann Sims and Deborah Woodard, Pennsylvania Habitat Connectivity

With the introduction of House Resolution 670 by Rep. Mary Jo Daley, (D-Montgomery), Pennsylvania has joined a variety of other states passing, or considering legislation promoting ecological connectivity to protect biodiversity.   
This approach considers ecosystems rather than bounded set asides to support the ability of wildlife to move through the landscape as species must for survival.   
Connectivity on-the-ground means linking core wildlife habitats via wildlife corridors or passages, both natural and man-made, in order to restore and preserve biodiversity.  Connecting lands counteracts the fragmentation of natural landscapes, which in Pennsylvania is largely caused by roads, development, and dams.
The National Caucus of Environmental Legislators tracks this approach across the country and reports successes in states as diverse as Georgia and New Mexico, Oregon and New Hampshire. 
Legislation is also progressing at the federal level with the bipartisan Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act of 2019 introduced in the U.S. Congress. 
Assisted by organizations such as the Center for Large Landscape Conservation and Wildlands Network, recognition of the connectivity challenge has led to new science supportive of landscape scale conservation.  
A legislative push for ecological connectivity
In the summer of 2018, Rep. Daley attended an NCEL conference at which she was impressed by the connectivity argument. As a strategy, “conservation corridors” have real potential for restoring and maintaining the Commonwealth’s biodiversity across its diverse landscapes.  
Conservation corridors also have advantages for Pennsylvania's huge outdoor recreation market as well as those communities with vibrant economies based in those landscapes.  
Pennsylvania has the largest, most contiguous forests between New York City and Denver, unique for an Eastern state. Rep. Daley is also aware of the need for coordination among the multiple agencies that have jurisdiction and stewardship over Pennsylvania wildlife. 
These agencies include the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (for  plants), the Game Commission (for birds and mammals), and Fish and Boat Commission (for  fish, reptiles, and amphibians). And importantly, PennDOT, which is responsible for the safety of public roads and building infrastructure.   
The Approach Of HR 670
Pennsylvania’s legislative approach incorporates human community needs in considering ecological connectivity to protect biodiversity by including hiking trails, greenways, and historical paths.  
This community-centered connectivity recognizes a common value  of landscape stewardship.  
The concept of conservation corridors also considers the needs of Pennsylvania’s  many outdoor enthusiasts who contribute greatly to the state’s economy.
Discussions in 2019 led to the House Resolution 670  “Study” Resolution which directs the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to determine and consolidate what is already known about ecological connectivity in Pennsylvania, where the gaps and opportunities lay, what cross-agency cooperation is necessary, and, finally, what recommendations will help move us forward in protecting biodiversity and human connectivity.  
Fortunately, a wide variety of organizations in Pennsylvania embrace the conservation strategy of connectivity and corridors, including trail groups, sporting groups, forestry groups, and environmental groups.  
Our group, Pennsylvania Habitat Connectivity, is focused on the issue and works with the Endangered Species Coalition (Lia Cheek, National Director of Field Campaigns) and NCEL to build a diverse collation to support the legislation and to advance corridors in Pennsylvania.
What it Means For Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania hosts a magnificent diversity of plants and wildlife, including 3,000 species of plants, 400 species of birds, 200 species of fish, 75 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 70 species of mammals.  Including invertebrates and fungi, there are more than 25,000 species documented in the state.   
But Pennsylvania habitats—forests, streams, and meadows—are changing.  Besides the core challenges of habitat loss and fragmentation, additional stressors on wildlife include invasive species, pollution, disease, and climate change. 
These stressors are degrading or eliminating the places wildlife call home, causing them to move to find safe places to shelter, eat, and reproduce. 
Connected habitat-- including unrestricted rivers/streams, large, unfragmented blocks of forests, and patches of grasslands and barrens within a larger landscape-- is important to supporting Pennsylvania’s biodiversity. 
For example, fisher, eastern woodrat, black bear, and bobcat all need large, unfragmented forests for habitat.  
Small-scale connected habitats across the landscape are also important, such as tree hollows, mossy carpets on rocks, leeward crevices on rocky ridges, and ephemeral ponds in deep forests for birds, turtles, frogs, and other smaller animals and invertebrates.
In areas with fragmented habitat, conservation corridors can help our species survive the stressors they face. Corridors take many forms:
-- A parcel of private woodland that connects two state parks allowing black bears to roam to find wild food sources.
-- A stream culvert designed to allow animals and fish to pass under a road.
-- A small wetland strip in a suburban area that allows a box turtle to move to a favorite wet meadow.
-- A trail of milkweed along a utility-right-of-way supporting monarch butterflies and the movement of many other field and forest creatures.
-- An under- or overpass crossing a multilane highway, offering a safe passageway for both small and large wildlife species and reducing wildlife road collisions with vehicles.
Stressors on wildlife are increasing. 
Development, existing roads, invasive species, pollution, and climate change all constrain wildlife movement in Pennsylvania. 
Wildlife face pinch points across the landscape where they are hindered in their movement. Minimizing these pinch points and providing connectivity between high-quality habitats is important at the scale of a residential yard to hundreds of miles of mountain ridges and for many habitat sizes in between. 
Many species would benefit from corridors, including species of conservation concern, game species, and species that are common (to help keep them plentiful in the future). 
Conservation corridors also help keep wildlife populations genetically strong by allowing young to disperse and adult populations to intermix more easily.
House Resolution 670 is that important first step to reconnecting our natural heritage in the Commonwealth.
(Photo: Overpass replaces a culvert to allow the passage of fish in Brentwood, Allegheny County-- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Anthony Bastian works with Sally Ann Sims and Deborah Woodard promoting the connectivity concept in the Commonwealth through Pennsylvania Habitat Connectivity.  Bastian can be contacted by sending email to:
Related Article:
[Posted: February 10, 2020]  PA Environment Digest

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