Pam Hackley

We all want our grandkids to inherit a homeland rich in wildlife, with plenty of room for all species to roam. We want to feel safe knowing that our environment can weather the effects of growing human development and climate change. We want to be proud of our natural heritage. We want to know that we have acted responsibly by caring for and sustaining the lands, waters and wildlife that enrich our lives.

As human activity expands, these lands and waters – which provide food and home (habitat) – can be “cut up” into smaller and smaller pieces to the point that a population of native animals cannot sustain itself. This process is called habitat fragmentation.

Much research shows that even our smaller protected areas in the West are not large enough to sustain large-mammal populations.

Many organizations are working in North America to preserve and restore corridors where wildlife can travel the distances required to feed, mate and keep genetic variability strong. All animals – from our lizards and ferruginous hawks to our large mammals like deer, elk and bears – have this need.

The Book Cliffs are part of the “Spine of the Continent” corridor and provide rich and varied habitats for our many forms of wildlife. This area is one of the largest remaining undeveloped land-blocks in the lower 48. But these lands are facing fragmentation as our developments increase.

Carnivores and other wide-ranging species are typically the species most threatened by habitat fragmentation. This problem is manifested in many ways – lack of sufficient habitat or prey, increased human encroachment, elimination of seasonal habitats or barriers between them, and disruption of migration routes.

But carnivores are not the only animals that suffer the effects of fragmented habitats; they are usually just the “first to go” and so tend to be the most noticeable victims.

Further, these habitats already suffer from the effects of a decade or more of drought. Climate models predict our area will likely experience greater declines from warming temperatures and changes in rain and snow supply, according to a 2010 National Park Service study.

As animals try to adjust their habitat range in response to climatic changes by moving up in elevation or latitude, many populations may not be able to make the necessary move if their habitat has been fragmented beyond sustainable levels.

When populations decline, it leads to species inbreeding, low genetic diversity and ultimately, extinction. Preserving habitat for the large mammals helps to protect the species associated with them – including us.

A Utah Department of Wildlife Resources’ fact sheet on mule deer discusses these principles and gives us a deeper understanding for the need to maintain large, undeveloped landscapes.

The ability to migrate is essential for mule deer to travel to, and access, important seasonal habitats. Throughout their range, migrations occur in the fall and spring as animals travel between winter and summer ranges. Migration allows mule deer to avoid deep snow and other harsh conditions during winter and take advantage of high quality forage during summer. Because migration corridors serve as the critical link between summer and winter ranges, they must be unimpeded by physical barriers (such as game-proof fences and roads) and protected from various forms of development and human disturbance (such as housing and energy development).

The DWR further emphasizes that energy development has negative effects on mule deer:

“…research indicates energy development affects migratory patterns… Specifically, deer move more quickly through developed gas fields and sometimes attempt to detour around them. When they have to speed-up their migration, they may no! t be able to track vegetation ‘green-up’ or access critical ‘stopover’ sites. Once on winter ranges with developed gas fields, they avoid infrastructure (roads, well pads), which effectively reduces the size of usable winter range and could result in population decline.

A common misconception is mule deer ‘acclimate’ or ‘habituate’ to energy development, but long-term studies show deer continue to avoid infrastructure more than 10 years after development. [Emphasis added]

… critical winter ranges and migration corridors need to be considered at all land-use planning levels in order to sustain current populations…migration corridors are essential to the long-term conservation of this iconic species. Many corridors exceed 100 miles in length crossing through many different land ownerships and agency jurisdictions. This situation complicates conservation efforts and requires people work together to develop site-specific measures to ensure migrations continue into the future.”

A major road/ utility corridor through the Book Cliffs will needlessly bisect this unique territory.

A National Conservation Area for the Book Cliffs, with an ecosystem-wildlife habitat emphasis, would combine generally accepted wilderness area designations with enhanced protections for adjacent, supporting lands. With Congressman Bishop’s public lands initiative process, we have a great opportunity to maintain and bolster this core area to ensure sustained and vibrant wildlife populations for all to enjoy.

Pam Hackley floated the Dolores River in 1985 and by 1999 found a way to live in Grand County with her husband. She is a grandmom, retired soil scientist and natural resources consulting business owner, and, along with many others, A Friend of the Book Cliffs and Beyond.