Climate change, development, ranching, and oil and gas exploration tend to get a lot of ink when it comes to threats to wildlife in the Western United States. But wildlife corridors are another vital factor, and one that relates very closely to all the aforementioned variables because they allow wildlife to adapt to changes in their environment while maintaining vital migration patterns. The movement of keystone species, such as cougars, wolves, and bears, through these corridors—or "wildways"—is vital to balancing ecosystems, as well. In fact, the study of these corridors is a fundamental aspect of conservation biology, as Mary Ellen Hannibal describes in her book The Spine of the Continent.
Unfortunately, highways tend to fragment these corridors, as roadkill makes perfectly obvious, and other demands are continually encroaching on these passageways. Conservation biologists are continually working to protect wildways and keep them open. On January 25, wilderness advocate, writer, and adventurer John Davis will set out from Sonora, Mexico, on a 10-month journey along this spine, which is linked through a number of mountain ranges, including the Rockies, from Mexico into Canada.
The goal for this project, dubbed TrekWest, is to drum up attention and improved protections for the waterways and mountain passes along the corridor. Along the way Davis will conduct a sort of moving symposium, meeting with scientists and researchers who are studying the pressures being put on wildlife corridors through development and other demands. He plans to broadcast these interactions via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and the trip is being made possible through the Wildlands Network, which Davis co-founded, and a range of other conservation groups, listed on the route map.
Long slogs and extreme weather are not foreign concepts to Davis. For his TrekEast adventure in 2011, he hiked, biked, and paddled 7,600 backcountry miles from the Florida Keys to Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula.
He says he is motivated to go on these treks both as a way of putting wildways into the national discussion but also for his own fulfillment. "I do this first and foremost because I believe in the value of nature, but also for selfish reasons," he says. "I like to recreate in wild places and I personally lose each time an acre of wildlands are lost."
"The conservation community alone isn't enough [to protect these corridors], we need to get a national consensus on this. The outdoor recreation community is absolutely vital to this," he adds. "I hope to strengthen the ties between conservation biologists and outdoor recreationalists, who should be active in trying to protect these areas. I hope that's one thing my trek will draw attention to."
Davis is beginning the journey in the Sierra Madre range on Friday and the plan is to wrap it up in Fernie, British Columbia, in November, after traveling roughly 5,000 meandering miles to the north. Along the way he'll have the company of river guides and mountain bikers and various groups of researchers and biologists.
"One of the basic questions I was trying to ask for my TrekEast in 2011 was: can we still protect an Eastern wildway?" he says. "I came to the tentative conclusion that it would still be possible, but that we are running out of time." One of the things that surprised Davis during his trek from Florida to Quebec was that while some forest lands, such as the West Virginia Highlands, looked healthy and free of corridor obstructions, they are actually under pressure from an overpopulation of deer. "Eastern deciduous forests are over-browsed and it's because we got rid of the top predators," he says.
In the West, he expects he'll see similar degradation of aspen stands due to over-browsing by deer and the reduced predator population. "We as a people need to learn to live with and even welcome a wide range of animals, even those that we find hard to live with such as wolves, cougars, and grizzlies," he says. "Habitats start to unravel when you take them away."
In the West, however, Davis thinks the opportunities to keep wildlife corridors intact and thriving are better than they are in the East, thanks to the lower population density and larger parklands. Still, highways represent a major threat because many dissect major wildlife crossings. In Florida, wildlife underpasses on I-75 have significantly reduced the number of panthers killed by cars, and a similar approach in the West could open its corridors to saver movements. Constructing these passageways would create jobs and also reduce human fatalities resulting from these run-ins. Slower, more conscientious driving—especially at night—could help to curtail the problem immediately.
David sees TrekWest as a way to observe first-hand what his mentors and teachers, including Dave Foreman (Earth First!-er and Wildlands Network co-founder) and Michael Soulé (widely regarded as the father of conservation biology), have been talking about for decades: the importance of big, wild interconnected habitats.
—Mary Catherine O'Connor