We must reconnect nature to save nature

The chicken crossed the road because that road divided its habitat into tiny fragments, threatening its existence by giving it less livable land

Meghan Hurley

Photo above: Cathedral Ledge Overlook, Conway, New Hampshire by Allan Harris via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.jpg

Everyone knows the joke with a punchline so mundane that it elicits not even a pity laugh: Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side, of course. Simple and to the point, but little did we know that the chicken can actually tell us a lot about conservation.

You see, the chicken is acutely aware of a problem that plagues many species across the country. The chicken crossed the road because that road divided its habitat into tiny fragments, threatening its existence by giving it less livable land and therefore stacking the odds against its survival.

Okay, this doesn’t exactly apply to chickens, but this fragmentation is certainly relevant to a number of other, more threatened species across the country. For species with smaller, more spread out habitats, large-scale movement and genetic exchange becomes stifled, reducing a species’ biological fitness and making it considerably more vulnerable to disease and other existential threats.

It’s not just roads that are causing these problems. Fences, dams, and other products of human development have also split up animal populations into distinct areas. This means that animals like moose and bears must cross highways to reach other habitats, endangering not only themselves but us, too. Vehicular crashes with large animals like these can be incredibly dangerous — even fatal — both to humans and animals, and there are 21 species across the country whose very existence is threatened by road mortalities. In New Hampshire alone, an estimated 1,200 vehicle/deer collisions occur every year.

The solution to this issue is simple yet innovative and effective: reconnect fragmented habitats. The bipartisan infrastructure bill does just that by providing $350 million over five years to construct wildlife crossings, which connect small and isolated habitats with one another. These crossings can be built above and below highways to allow for the safe passage of these creatures between habitats. 

Additionally, the Build Back Better Act in Congress would provide nearly $10 million for all sorts of wildlife corridors, not just crossings over and under roads. Our recent report, Reconnecting Nature, laid out some of these corridors, ranging from connecting lands in the Northeast from New York to Quebec, to bird and butterfly stopover habitat in Chicago for flyers worn weary from crossing Lake Michigan. The examples of wildlife corridors abound. 

A pair of moose, eating by a roadside. Photo: Dennis Jarvis, Flickr.

For example, the Lakes Region Conservation Trust in New Hampshire is collaborating with other groups to identify and establish climate corridors — networks of wild spaces that animals can move through as climate change forces their liveable range to shift. These corridors create protected pathways for moose and snowshoe hare, who will have to migrate northward as temperatures increase. They need protection from the added threat of busy roads.
Even for animals not travelling quite as far, highways pose a real threat. Those iconic granite cliffs that line New Hampshire’s roads are beautiful, but often leave animals like the endangered Canada lynx with nowhere to go. They can end up trapped. Fortunately, a large-scale project to connect habitats, called The Staying Connected Initiative, already encompasses over 500,000 acres of connected forest. This includes a lot of land in the White Mountains where animals can roam safely.

An elusive Canada Lynx. Photo: Bruce Detorres, Flickr

Dozens more examples across the country and the world exist because wildlife corridors work, and they work well. If the bipartisan infrastructure bill is passed with this critical funding — as it should — then we will see wildlife across the country not only continue to exist, but thrive — as we should.
We need to do everything in our power to protect species and give them the tools they need to survive. The chicken will always cross the road; it’s on us to supply the wildlife corridors it needs to do so safely.


Meghan Hurley

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