Americans support conservation. We have protections for water, air, land and animals, though many of these are now being called into question. The discord mostly arises about details: the what, the where, the how, and — of course — the cost.
So consider this. The year is 2007, the state is Wyoming, and Dirk Kempthorne, the one-time governor of Idaho, sits at the helm of the Department of Interior for the administration of George W. Bush. The head of Agriculture is Mike Johanns. It was then that a little known and yet far-reaching conservation victory was achieved. It is notable for what was accomplished then, and for what has not been accomplished since: the protection of animal migration.
What was protected was the Path of the Pronghorn, the first and still the only federally recognized wildlife migration corridor in the United States. Now that Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke has called for protection of big game corridors across the U.S., the experience of Path of the Pronghorn provides guidance for how to replicate this success.
Tawny and white, pronghorn are a fleet, hoofed survivor of early North America from some 50 million years ago. Lewis and Clark called them “speed goats,” and we now know they can move almost as fast as cheetah. The seasonal migrations of pronghorn are sensational — the longest of any land species between the U.S.-Canada border and Tierra del Fuego. In the Western Hemisphere only caribou migrate further.
Sadly, most pronghorn migrations have collapsed due to habitat loss and fencing, but one special migration survived. In Wyoming, a one-mile-wide and 40-mile-long protected pathway allows these American icons to migrate each summer from the Teton Range in the Greater Yellowstone to wintering areas nearly 100 miles south — a 200-mile round-trip journey that has continued for at least 6,000 years.
Wyoming has America’s first national park, Yellowstone; its first national forest, Shoshone; and its first national monument, Devils Tower. Why wouldn’t Wyomingites want the nation’s first protected wildlife corridor? In the end, they did.
To make the Path of the Pronghorn a reality, a group of ranchers, cattlemen, outdoor recreationists, hunting enthusiasts and state and federal officials collaborated on a conservation plan that later turned into federal legislation, the 2008 Bridger-Teton National Forest Pronghorn Corridor Forest Plan Amendment.
One of us (Joel) initiated this effort with help from partners after meeting several times with then-governor of Wyoming, Dave Freudenthal, to gain advice and support. The group spoke with legislators on Capitol Hill and generated scientific data together with biologist Steve Cain from the National Park Service and our organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, to inform the conversation.
The paramount imperative was respect – listening to people with various views, understanding their perspectives, seeking their support and communicating clearly.
The Path of the Pronghorn can serve as a road map to achieve Zinke’s goal for more big game protected corridors. Success will require: (1) public hearings so that local voices are heard; and (2) plans that are science-based, socially sensitive and robust to unforeseen circumstances such as climate change, floods, or fire.
It is critical to see landscapes through the eyes of animals while ensuring that both local people and the public at large have voices. The Path of the Pronghorn enjoyed wide bipartisan support, while pride of place helped engage local stakeholder support. There is no reason migrations of other species in other geographies cannot be protected through Zinke’s order following the same approach.
Americans have long been keen to protect wildlife. Elementary schools are filled with students fascinated by the living world, even if some know it only via digital media. College students care more about biological diversity and reducing the number of endangered species than ever before. Zoos, national parks and museums collectively attract nearly a billion visitors annually.
Yet 10 years after the creation of the United States’ first federally protected wildlife migration corridor, it remains the only one in the nation. Based on what we have learned from that single shining success, the time is now to develop — and then showcase — other victories: the silent species with no voice that have nevertheless persisted and continue to bring magic to our lives.
This is our American heritage.
Joel Berger is a Senior Scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society and the Barbara Cox University Chair in Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University. Jon Beckmann is a conservation scientist with the Americas program at WCS. Julie Kunen is vice president of the Americas program at WCS.