The elk, mule deer, pronghorn, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, Rio Grande cutthroat trout and other wildlife that call the Upper Rio Grande Watershed home don’t recognize boundary lines like the state line between New Mexico and Colorado or those between the Carson, Santa Fe and Rio Grande national forests that together make up one of the best-connected wildlife landscapes in America.
That’s why it is critical that the three national forests comprising almost 5 million acres across Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado coordinate their forest planning and management efforts to protect critical habitat and wildlife migration routes from new road building, mineral extraction and energy development.
The recent release of the Rio Grande National Forest’s final land management plan and the draft plans released last week by the Carson and Santa Fe national forests, reveal some progress and several glaring gaps in the Forest Service’s approach to addressing landscape connectivity in the Upper Rio Grande.
Landscape connectivity is a critical ecological function, and the Upper Rio Grande is an important landscape for many species in the southern Rockies. Connectivity ensures wildlife can access breeding grounds, migrate seasonally, maintain diverse genetics, adapt to human development and respond to range shifts in the face of fire and climate change. A key tool to facilitate connectivity is the identification and management of corridors to support wildlife movement between core areas and across landscapes.
The Carson and Santa Fe National Forest draft plans include important improvements for habitat protection and connectivity, including the Caja del Rio Wildlife and Cultural Interpretive Special Management Area, the San Antonio Management Area and the Valle Vidal Management Area. As some of the most ecologically rich habitats in North America, these areas will help connect a vital wildlife corridor that runs from Colorado to Mexico.
Unfortunately, the Rio Grande National Forest failed to include important special-interest areas, and none of the three plans yet includes strong enough language about prohibiting road building and motorized trails, mineral extraction or energy development in the special wildlife management areas.
In addition, all three forests provide critical habitat for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, an iconic species that has begun the slow process of recovery after years of decline. The Rio Grande, Carson and Santa Fe plans should all include Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep as a “species of conservation concern,” given that bighorn populations remain vulnerable due to habitat fragmentation and loss and the threat of disease.
The Upper Rio Grande Watershed offers a unique opportunity to get it right and provide landscape connectivity, rather than a patchwork of habitat, to allow critical wildlife species to recover and thrive. To accomplish appropriate regional corridors for wildlife, forest plans should acknowledge that coordinated actions between forest administrative units and other stakeholders must occur.
There is still time to improve all three national forest land management plans. With our rapidly developing and ever-changing landscape, it is critical that national forest land management plans are better integrated and create appropriate adaptive management practices to develop scientifically sound and balanced multiuse plans that address the many threats to wildlife while maintaining the important culture and traditions tied to this iconic landscape.
Ken Jones is a retired banker, avid hunter and serves on the board of directors of New Mexico Wild.