Wildlife and working lands

According to public opinion polls, most Americans strongly support wildlife conservation, including the protection of wildlife corridors. Yet conservation efforts by environmental and sportsmen’s groups are often met with resistance by rural stakeholders, often including landowners and local governments. A closer look at current efforts to conserve wildlife corridors can provide helpful insights as to why this happens and how we can find more productive paths forward.

New science and technology are shedding light on the location and importance of wildlife migrations. In response, a suite of efforts is unfolding to conserve wildlife corridors and remove barriers. Unfortunately, these conservation strategies are sometimes designed without the input of local people — particularly landowners — who are often both the most knowledgeable and most impacted. When this happens, conservation strategies can unnecessarily pit wildlife against the needs and interests of working lands and the rural communities they sustain.

The truth is that conserving wildlife and sustaining the economic viability of working lands are both essential. Done right, these things can and should go well together.

There is a reason wildlife is drawn to certain places on the landscape. It’s because those places meet specific needs. If you want to find abundant wildlife, look on a well-managed ranch. If you want to conserve wildlife and wildlife corridors, conserve the ranch. This doesn’t just mean putting conservation easements in place. It means keeping working ranching operations economically viable so the land can be well managed, so the kids can come back home, so rural communities can thrive and in turn sustain the working lands. What we need to recognize is that both wildlife and people depend on public and private working lands for survival. Landowners have to be engaged as primary partners early in this effort, not left out of the conversation, as is so often the case.

Just as working lands sustain wildlife, so should wildlife be helpful in sustaining working lands. Wildlife is an important economic driver in Western states, yet in many places, the working lands that sustain the wildlife see the least economic benefit and often experience the greatest impacts. Forage competition, fence damage, disease transmission, depredation, hunting pressure and more can impact the bottom line in a business where profit margins already are low and getting worse. This lopsided relationship is unsustainable and damaging to all interests.

If we want to change the dynamic, we need to flip the whole approach upside down. Instead of looking first for threats, start by looking at what is working. Why is wildlife using that piece of land? What is going right there? Then figure out how to support what is working. Currently, when a wildlife corridor is designated, it is often received as bad news by affected landowners because they fear restrictions, regulations, increased public scrutiny and potentially litigation. Instead, we need to recognize the benefits of working lands, treat landowners as valued partners and find ways to support rather than penalize landowners for providing that habitat. This can mean a whole suite of things — from simple recognition and appreciation to management flexibility, regulatory assurances, risk mitigation, economic benefits and a greater voice in wildlife management decisions.

At the same time, the agricultural community has much to gain by taking pride in our stewardship and proactively identifying and championing win-win strategies for both working lands and wildlife. We need to demonstrate active leadership in sustaining the entire living community of the land within our care. It’s time to to change the dynamic because, under the status quo, we’re losing working lands, wildlife and the West we love.

Lesli Allison is the executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, a landowner-led network dedicated to the health and prosperity of the American West by working to advance policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species. She lives in Santa Fe.

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