High Country News
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High Country News

A patchwork of lands fragments wildlife migration

New legislation helps connect private and public parcels for wildlife flow.

For generations, elk and mule deer in the remote South San Juan Mountains along the Colorado-New Mexico border have migrated from summer’s alpine meadows down to the grassy lowlands where they spend their winters. Most of the higher portion of this major migration corridor lies on U.S. Forest Service lands — even in a wilderness area — but the ungulates’ path also cuts directly through some of the largest privately owned properties in the region. If those parcels were sold and developed, their loss would cut off the seasonal wildlife flow.

Similar situations exist across the region, where huge ranches sprawl across wildlife habitat at the feet of mountain ranges and sometimes take up entire valley floors. Land-management agencies can help protect the adjoining public lands from development, but they have little say about what happens on these private parcels, which have become critical pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of wildlife conservation.

The little buck at the right of this photo “probably hadn’t crossed many fences before,” says photographer Joe Riis.

This is especially true in the Intermountain West, where population growth and soaring land values have put a premium on undeveloped private lands. Rarely can governments or conservation organizations afford to buy these properties outright. But landowners, land trusts, nonprofits and public agencies can often cobble together enough money to purchase development rights to the land — thereby creating a conservation easement, often at a fraction of the overall property value. The property owner retains ownership but agrees to work with the state to manage the land for ecosystem health.

See the full story and infographic with sage grouse, elk, and pronghorn migration routes here: https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.11/infographic-wildlife-a-patchwork-of-lands-fragments-wildlife-migration

Eric Siegel is an editorial intern for High Country News.

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