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Southern Utes can protect wildlife corridors

Protecting wildlife migration corridors has become one of the hottest topics in the conservation movement.

But the idea actually goes back thousands of years to when indigenous peoples had great respect for big game trails.

Those early people knew what recent science has confirmed: many species of wildlife – including bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn and cutthroat trout – need to move between different habitats in order to survive.

Unfortunately, our modern world has erected many impediments to those migration corridors, including fences, roads, housing developments, and energy extraction.

What makes this work so challenging is the fact that corridors weave in and out of federal, state and tribal lands, as well as private holdings. In order to protect these wildlife routes, representatives from all of these areas need to be at the table.

Too often, however, tribal leaders have been excluded. When former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued the landmark Secretarial Order 3362 last year, designed to protect big game migration corridors in the West, he excluded tribes from strategic planning and conservation efforts. This is not just morally wrong, it’s incredibly short-sighted.

Tribal leaders are on the forefront of collecting data and developing management practices to enhance migration corridors. The Southern Ute Tribe in southern Colorado has been collaring animals and collecting data for more than 15 years. Over the years, the Southern Utes have been an active partner with state and federal neighbors in modeling and mapping how mule deer and elk move across a multi-jurisdictional landscape.

At the Pueblo of Santa Ana outside Albuquerque, land managers have conducted extensive habitat restoration to improve the quality of available wildlife habitats on their land. Part of this work involves protecting habitats along two wildlife corridors that intersect four-lane roadways with high vehicular traffic volumes. Those highways have also become essentially an impermeable barrier to traditionally-important wildlife such as pronghorn and wild turkey. Translocation of these two species across the barrier has been the only viable option for reestablishing their populations on the Pueblo’s land.

It’s likely that soon many other tribes will be increasing wildlife corridor efforts as well. Last month at its annual conference, the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society passed a resolution urging tribal communities to expand management strategies across larger landscapes in order to advance habitat connectivity.

Tribal leaders were also very involved helping to shape Sen. Tom Udall’s federal corridors bill, which was introduced last month. That bill encourages the creation of a corridor network across the country to boost biodiversity, protect ecosystems and help safeguard America’s most iconic species from an extinction crisis. It also includes funding opportunities for tribal, state and federal agencies and private landowners to protect corridors.

In the meantime, tribes have found it difficult, but not impossible, to benefit from the secretarial order for funding corridor work. In early May, the Department of the Interior announced it would award money to a project partnership between the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Southern Ute Tribe and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to construct a wildlife mitigation project in Southwestern Colorado of a wildlife overpass and underpass, as well as associated fencing and jump-out structures. It will greatly enhance habitat connectivity between big game summer and winter range by eliminating one barrier in an extensive migration corridor.

But tribal leaders shouldn’t have to look to the states to for consideration of their wildlife conservation and corridor work. They should be full partners at the table – along with state and federal land managers, elected officials, private land owners and conservation groups – in making sure our wildlife heritage is protected for generations to come.

Glenn Harper is the Range and Wildlife Division Manager for the Pueblo of Santa Ana, in New Mexico. Aran Johnson is the wildlife biologist for the Southern Ute Tribe, in Colorado.

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