Do you ever wonder how wild animals navigate development, freeways or traffic? We did! In fact, Nature Conservancy spatial ecologist Brad McRae works to reconnect wildlife habitat in Washington by studying how animals move and what gets in their way.
As wild animals move to find food, mates or nesting grounds, their paths are blocked by buildings, freeways, fences and more. In the short term, animals risk death by traffic, or miss a mate or a meal. In the long term, this leads to more dangerous encounters between people and wildlife, inbreeding and local extinction. On top of that, animals who aren't able to move will be less able to adapt to pressures associated climate change.
The Nature Conservancy is part of the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group (WHCWG). The name is long, but the mission of this partnership is simple: to provide science and tools that help connect wildlife habitat.
Brad developed high-tech software to map the most important routes for movement between habitats. The technique pinpoints obstacles—roads, mountain peaks, subdivisions—impeding the movement of a species. The software helps land managers prioritize areas that best link up wild lands, and helps developers avoid them, so creatures big and small stay safe.
First up for the group was a statewide assessment of habitat connectivity, followed by a study of the effects of climate change on connected lands. Next, the group honed in their study with an ecoregional analysis of the Columbia Plateau. This collects even more targeted data about the best places to protect for local animals. Data on 11 focal species such as the Western rattlesnake, tiger salamander and Greater sage-grouse represents the many creatures who live in this area and their shared needs.
The results are being put to use by the Washington Department of Transportation. Another partner, the Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project is validating the models by tracking movements of black bears, American martens and other species of the Cascade Mountains. And the Western Governors Association is incorporating the results into its Wildlife Corridors and Crucial Habitat initiative to help states work across borders on habitat connectivity.
Using models that predict electricity flows through circuits, Brad also developed Circuitscape, which identifies weak links in habitat networks. Nature Conservancy scientists have used Circuitscape to map connected habitat along the East coast. It's used around the world by groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and Snow Leopard Conservancy to improve habitat for jaguars, wolverines, chimpanzees, snow leopards and more.
Meet some of the wildlife that need to move between connected habitats in order to survive. Animals like Greater sage-grouse, American black bears and Northern flying squirrels will benefit from the work of Brad and his team of partners. They represent some of the statewide species studied by the WHCWG. You can see them in our slideshow.
Your support can help scientists like Brad develop more cutting edge tools to help animals and lands in Washington and beyond.
Jocelyn Ellis Abood works as a content strategy manager for The Nature Conservancy.