There are few sights as powerful as the movement of thousands of elk across the open plain, as intriguing as a large pack of wolves running silently through the deep forest, or as heartwarming as a grizzly mother and cubs fishing along a riverbank. These patterns of animal activities are critical to the survival of numerous species and are supported by the existence of habitat migration corridors - especially for large animals such as grizzly bears, elk, wolves, mule deer and other charismatic species in North America. These animals have great natural and cultural value, serving as barometers for larger ecosystem health and playing an important role in the traditions and economy of the West. But changing land use patterns and continued population growth and development across the West are threatening big-game and other large species, impacting winter range and migration corridors in sagebrush habitats and other ecosystems. In order to support sustainable populations, landscape-level conservation is required to stitch together a disjointed base of western public lands and prevent further fragmentation that impedes movement, restricts access to food sources, and prevents seasonal migration between summer and winter ranges and to vital breeding grounds.
The single most important federal funding program available to carry out this work is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Only LWCF funds provide public agencies with the means to purchase inholdings to fill in the checkerboard ownership pattern of western national forests and large swaths of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). LWCF funding also supports the purchase of working lands easements for ranching families in national wildlife refuges under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). LWCF provides an array of state, county and local grants for habitat protection, working forest conservation, state wildlife management areas, state forests, and other diverse nonfederal units. Below are just a handful of examples of landscapes and specific LWCF projects that have been completed to provide and expand migration corridors in the Western U.S.
Crown of the Continent
The landscape known as the Crown of the Continent extends from northern Idaho and Wyoming through Montana to the Canadian border along the Continental Divide, linking the Greater Yellowstone and Salmon-Selway ecosystems and including Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks. Widely regarded as the best opportunity for landscape-scale conservation in America and a model for public-private conservation efforts, over the past ten years this region has recently been a focal point of LWCF investment. Through LWCF funding, willing-seller inholding purchases are safeguarding spectacular scenery, critical wildlife habitat and popular public access points along the Flathead River, and the vital grizzly migration routes and dense forest habitats of the Seeley and Swan Valleys.
Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Area
Home to three million acres of large cattle ranches and prime grizzly bear habitat, the Rocky Mountain Front region - located in Montana and Wyoming just to the east of the Rockies - boasts over 150,000 acres of ranches with permanent conservation easements, many of which funded through LWCF. Another 100,000 acres of ranchland is currently “in the pipeline” for future easement protection at the request of willing seller landowers. Recently, the US Fish & Wildlife Service used LWCF funding to purchase a permanent conservation easement on a 12,130 acre ranch – the largest USFWS-held easement in the lower 48 states, ensuring the protection of critical grassland grizzly bear and bird habitat. The conservation of this multi-generational family ranch also protected 17 miles of riparian habitat along the Teton River, extending from the mountains onto the plains. LWCF dollars were matched in excess of two-to-one by private funds -- an investment that will reap continued benefits into the future for the local economy through the continuation of a traditional agricultural operation.
The High Divide
The High Divide straddles the Continental Divide along the Idaho and Montana border between two important western landscapes -- the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Crown of the Continent. Because of its key role in connecting these two critical areas - renowned as strongholds for wildlife that have disappeared from their traditional range - the High Divide is a top priority for protecting migration corridors in the region.In fiscal year 2016, the High Divide received $16 million for 18 projects that conserve a total of 8,715 acres. Taken together, these projects are securing critical wildlife migration corridors in the Centennial and Big Hole Valleys, the Henry’s Lake/Island Park area, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Upper Salmon, Pioneers and Birch Creek regions – all on public lands overseen by the BLM. They will protect seven miles of riparian corridors and streams for Chinook salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout, and 4,520 acres of critical sage grouse habitat. These projects have opened up public access--including for hunting and fishing--to areas that were previously inaccessible. The acquisitions also allow for traditional land uses, including grazing.
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem/Paradise Valley
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the only intact ecosystems in the U.S. and includes 18 million acres of land that surround Yellowstone National Park, protecting the fragile landscape within the park and providing habitat for the species that call it home. The Paradise Valley of Montana is a spectacularly beautiful long, broad valley running from Livingston along the Yellowstone River to the northern section of Yellowstone National Park. Visitors immediately grasp why early explorers thought they had indeed reached paradise - awe-inspiring views of the Absaroka Mountains, paddling down the scenic Yellowstone River, refreshing hot springs, a chance to experience the Boiling River, and wildlife in abundance. The region continues to receive thousands of visitors seeking unrivaled outdoor recreation experiences. As its popularity grows, Paradise Valley is threatened by housing development. The Dome Mountain Project is a land protection effort aimed at stemming the tide of habitat loss and public access exclusion. Located approximately 18 miles north of Yellowstone NP in Paradise Valley, the Dome Mountain Project is a fee title acquisition of 1,109 acres -- part of a larger effort, using additional funding sources, to acquire the entire 5,350-acre Dome Mountain Ranch for inclusion in Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks-managed Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area. This acquisition is key to maintaining Greater Yellowstone Area's ecological integrity, which is threatened by development. This particular area provides forage and cover habitat for the federally-listed endangered grizzly bear and Canada lynx, serves as a migration corridor and critical winter range for world-renowned Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, and filters runoff along approximately 6.3 miles of the Yellowstone River, a world-class fishing destination.
Yampa River/Cross Mountain Canyon Ranch
The Yampa River - part of the larger Colorado River basin - is one of the last remaining unrestricted rivers in the west. It runs free for almost its entire 300-mile journey across northern Colorado from just outside Steamboat Springs to Dinosaur National Monument, where it joins the Green River. The Yampa is renowned as an outdoor recreation paradise for many area residents and visitors and supports a vibrant local economy. Considered a sportsmen’s paradise, Cross Mountain Canyon Ranch is perfectly situated along the Yampa River in western Colorado and boasts some of the best elk hunting and angling in the country. In addition to having one of the largest elk herds in the entire west, this area has excellent whitewater rapids, making it a rafting and kayaking destination. Over $1.8 million in LWCF funding was used to protect public access to the 920-acre ranch and surrounding 88,000 acres of public lands. In providing necessary connectivity, sportsmen and recreationists alike can continue to have uninhibited access for decades to come.
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument
Located in northern New Mexico and administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument was designated in 2013 through the consolidation of numerous existing and popular public land units in northern New Mexico to protect the region’s scenic and cultural values, safeguard public access, and support the local recreation economy. Incorporating such iconic sites as the Taos Gorge, the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, and Ute Mountain as well as vast swaths of open grasslands and forested mountains, the beauty and expanse of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument demonstrate the importance of LWCF to protecting large landscapes that support critical migration corridors. Lying between the San Juan Mountains to the west and Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east, the monument straddles the northern end of the Rio Grande Rift—a 600-mile long tear in the North American continent, which has resulted in most of the geological features you see in the monument. As a result, the monument is an important area for wintering animals, and provides a corridor along which wildlife - including large game like elk and mule deer - move between the two mountain ranges. Over the years, over $9 million from LWCF has been invested in what is now RGDN National Monument, including the permanent protection of Ute Mountain, the Taos Valley Overlook and most recently, 2,500 acres of inholdings near the BLM’s popular Wild Rivers recreation area in the southern portion of the unit. This most recent protection effort used LWCF to prevent potential development and land fragmentation, significantly improve public access and protect important large-herd elk migration habitat through the southern portion of the monument.