New legislation to establish a national system of wildlife corridors in the United States comes just days after a United Nations (UN) report on threats to biodiversity warned that about 1 million species worldwide are threatened with extinction.
The legislation, known as the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act of 2019, would establish the wildlife corridors system to help native animal and plant species—including protected species—that face habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, or obstructions to connectivity between their habitat areas.
The bill, which was introduced in Congress on 16 May, aims to help restore movement by wildlife and “to provide long-term habitat connectivity for native species migration, dispersal, adaptation to climate and other environmental change, and genetic exchange.”
In addition, the bill would establish a wildlife movement grant program on nonfederal land and water to increase wildlands connectivity. It would also include a wildlife corridors stewardship fund to help manage and protect the corridors.
“A Critical Step to Protect Wildlife”
The legislation is “a critical step to protect wildlife,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who introduced the legislation in the Senate, said at a 16 May briefing about the bill.
“While we are in the middle of a human-caused sixth mass extinction, scientists are raising the alarm. We are almost out of time to save the planet as we know it,” Udall commented, referring to the 6 May UN report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
The report, which was compiled by 145 expert authors, states that the rate of global change in nature during the past half century “is unprecedented in human history.” It also found that the global rate of species extinction “is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating.”
The report calls for urgent “transformative changes” to reverse the situation and states that direct drivers of change in nature that have the largest global impact are, in order, changes in land and sea use, exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and the invasion of alien species. It warns that the future impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are projected to become more pronounced over the coming decades.
Speakers at the briefing said that biodiversity is important to protect not only because species have their own purposes in the ecological web but also because they provide substantial benefits to people.
“If anyone thinks that biodiversity is not crucial to human existence, think again,” Udall said, noting that at least 40% of the world’s economy is based on biological resources and that the diversity of life provides humanity with food, shelter, medicine, and economic development, among other benefits.
“Living ecosystems support us. America’s wildlife is in great jeopardy,” he said. “We must act now.”
No Second Chance After a Species Goes Extinct
Establishing a wildlife corridors system “is something that shouldn’t be about party. It should be about just saving our planet,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who introduced companion legislation in the House. “This is an absolutely critical time considering the UN report on accelerated species extinction rate.”
Beyer, who is cochair of the New Democrat Coalition’s Climate Change Task Force, said that he and Republican cosponsor Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) will be working with the House leadership to get the bill on the House calendar. He also related that Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, has indicated that he wants to push this legislation in that committee.
Beyer optimistically stated that he expects “scores of Republican votes when it gets to the House floor.” No Republicans had signed onto earlier versions of the bill introduced during previous sessions of Congress.
Buchanan, who so far is the sole Republican cosponsoring the new legislation, said in a press release issued by conservation groups supporting the bill that protecting wildlife and promoting biodiversity “are of critical importance” in light of the UN report. “We don’t get a second chance once a species becomes extinct,” he said.
Raising Concern About Biodiversity
At the briefing, Ron Sutherland, chief scientist with the Wildlands Network, a Seattle-based conservation group that supports the legislation, speculated about why concern about biodiversity hasn’t yet caught on as a hotter issue in the same way that climate change has.
“One perspective might be that there was a huge push to protect biodiversity for its own sake in the ‘90s, and I think that that push eventually earned the sort of inevitable fatigue on all the champion for it. Climate change became kind of the new cause, and a lot of young folks have joined into that movement,” Sutherland said. “I think we’re remembering the fact that that we depend on the Earth’s biodiversity. Now, pollinators have become such a huge cause lately. So I think that the pendulum is shifting or at least is broadening again, so that there’s room again to talk about the other environmental challenges that we’re facing. It’s not just climate change. It’s land use change that is causing a huge threat to biodiversity.”
Sutherland noted, “That’s where this bill really could help out here in the United States: by helping repair the landscape to help species to survive and also to respond to climate change.”
Beyer said that his sense as to why the threat to biodiversity hasn’t yet caught on like climate change is because “climate change is so visible” as an immediate threat. “We can have these incredibly sad images of polar bears floating on small little pieces of ice or the incredible forest fires in the West. Just the extreme weather impact, that there are so many ways that climate change is becoming real in our lives right now,” he said. “Biodiversity is a little harder to see. We have to think more from a scientific perspective and the long term because it doesn’t seem to change my life today at all.”
A Political Problem, Not a Scientific Problem
The legislation “is a call to us all to step up and to realize that we have not only a moral and ethical responsibility to stewarding the planet. But it’s our time to recognize that we need to strengthen our bedrock environmental laws, not weaken them. We need to hold ourselves accountable to the future,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO and president of Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group headquartered in Washington, D.C., said at the briefing.
“Human intervention caused this mass extinction crisis. Now human intervention through legislation must reverse the tide,” Udall added. “We already know how to address this crisis. This isn’t a scientific problem. It’s a political one. The science is clear: Corridors help protect our most iconic species.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer