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Photo: Seth Bynum, PDZA

Wildlands Network is committed to providing up-to-date information about our on-the-ground efforts to reconnect, restore, and rewild North America. We are starting a new series of monthly newsletters, focusing on a different Wildway each month.

First up is the Eastern Wildway. In this issue you will learn about Wildlands Network’s critical projects in the East as we track elk crossing roads, fight for our last wild red wolves, and develop conservation vision plans for local land trusts. You will also learn about some of the vital work our partners do to support continental conservation, like stopping the construction of pipelines, developing hiking trails into a landscape initiative, and galvanizing support for local wildlife corridors through storytelling. Collaboration is key to Wildlands Network’s success on the ground, so we hope you enjoy hearing their stories as much as we enjoy working them!

You can manage your subscription to these newsletters and other email content by clicking “Manage Subscription” at the bottom of this email.

Editor's Note: This newsletter was prepared by Maggie Ernest, who has energetically served Wildlands Network since 2015 as a Landscape Conservationist and as Coordinator of our Eastern Wildway Network. We're both sad and proud to report that Maggie is leaving Wildlands Network as of the end of May, to pursue new opportunities working on climate adaptation for AFWA, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. We are extremely grateful for her years of hard work building the Wildway Network, not to mention helping start wildlife-road working groups in North Carolina and Virginia. Please join us in wishing Maggie well in her new job helping state wildlife agencies respond to climate change! 

 

The elk herd looking on curiously as one of their own is fitted with a collar. Photo: Emily Blanchard

Why Did the Elk Cross the Road?

Elk once roamed our vast Eastern forests, but overhunting and habitat loss led to their extirpation by the 1700s. In 2001, the National Park Service reintroduced a group of 25 elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located in Western North Carolina.

Since then, elk numbers have risen steadily, with an estimated 150-200 now roaming the national park and surrounding areas. As these elk continue to expand their herd and reclaim their ancestral wilderness, they are increasingly moving outside of the park’s boundary. However, major roads, like Interstate 40, which cuts through the surrounding wildlands, pose a significant risk to their long-term survival. As the population grows and disperses, it is likely that elk-vehicle collisions will happen more frequently and across a broader area in the mountains. The damage inflicted by these collisions is often catastrophic, to elk and drivers alike. Research in Western states has demonstrated, however, that installing wildlife road crossings can reduce elk-vehicle collisions.

This past winter, Wildlands Network, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation began collaring elk with GPS trackers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The ultimate goal of this project is to better understand where these elk are moving, particularly where they may be crossing high-traffic, high-speed roads. Identifying these hotspots can help wildlife and transportation managers better plan and protect the expanding herds. As we begin to receive the movement data from the collars, we are slowly gaining a much clearer picture of the elk herd’s needs in the mountains and are looking forward to working collaboratively with partners on developing strategies to protect this critical species.

 

Red Wolves Could Become Extinct in the Wild (Again)

After being declared extinct in the wild in the 1970s, red wolves were reintroduced to coastal North Carolina in 1987. From a founding population of 14, their population expanded to an estimated 130 individuals by 2006. For a variety of reasons, the population has since drastically declined to a mere 40 individuals or less.

This past April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) produced the long awaited 5-year review of the Red Wolf Recovery Program. Unfortunately, the review confirmed the wild population is in deep trouble and that it is no longer a self-sustaining population. This issue pits those who believe it’s time to give up on the program aagainst others who believe the program simply needs more re-investment. A study by a “Smithsonian-like” entity is planned to develop recommendations on what the next steps for the program should be.

Wildlands Network is very active in the fight to keep this top carnivore on our Eastern landscapes. In a recent Washington Post article, our own Dr. Ron Sutherland commented on the findings of the 5-year review, saying, “We’re disappointed that the … status review appears to take great pains to describe the North Carolina wild population of red wolves as unsustainable without acknowledging the fact that the decision by FWS leadership to functionally abandon the program is what has led to the striking recent declines in red wolf numbers since 2012.” Wildlands Network is continuing to work on-the-ground to monitor the wildlife in the Recovery Area and is working on Capitol Hill to educate lawmakers on the plight of this species.

 

Wildlands Network models for priority wildlife corridors in western North Carolina. Existing protected areas are shown in green with priority corridors shown in yellow and highest priority corridors shown in red. Photo: Wildlands Network

Connecting a Conservation Blueprint in the Blue Ridge

Land trusts are a critical part of conservation, but often their acquisitions for protection are opportunistic and piecemeal. Wildlands Network recently had the opportunity to work with the Blue Ridge Forever Coalition, a group of 10 land trusts representing 25 counties in the mountains of Western North Carolina, on improving their shared conservation blueprint to better incorporate habitat connectivity. The ultimate goal is to enable the land trusts to make sure their conservation actions contribute to protecting a broader network of habitat for biodiversity in the Eastern Wildway.

Using connectivity models developed by Wildlands Network for black bears, red wolves, Florida panthers, timber rattlesnakes, box turtles, and Rafinesque’s big-eared bats, we created an index of habitat connectivity for the region. From this index, we identified high priority wildlife corridors existing between protected areas. These corridors represent the possible pathways that the target species are likely to use. The highest priority corridors we identified form the essential "backbone" for connecting all of the major protected areas in the North Carolina mountains, similar to how the Appalachian Trail creates the “backbone” of the Eastern Wildway. The land trusts that comprise the Blue Ridge Forever Coalition can now use these wildlife corridor models to plan to protect the most strategic land parcels that provide the greatest value for animal movement. We hope to replicate this process for identifying high priority, local corridors in other regions around the Eastern Wildway.

For more information email Ron at ron@wildlandsnetwork.org. 

 

Highlights from Eastern/Western/Pacific Wildway Partners

Wildlands Network fosters connections between on-the-ground conservation organizations, all of us working toward the common goal of reconnecting, restoring and rewilding North America so that life in all its diversity can thrive. By stitching together the conservation efforts of regional organizations, Wildlands Network is better able to build Wildways across the continent. Here are a few highlights from some of our partners in the Eastern Wildway.

Cow Knob Salamander, one of the species threatened by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Photo: Steven D. Johnson

Pipelines Threaten Virginia’s Wildlife, Lands, and Waters

Wild Virginia has long been an Eastern Wildway partner and is working toward a connected and protected Virginia. This is important now more than ever as 2 pipelines, the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, threaten important wildlife, lands, and rivers in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Currently, both pipelines are under construction. This month, a court ordered that construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline halt because the restrictions against harming wildlife were inadequate to actually prevent harm to wildlife. However, work is still continuing on the pipeline, even though the federal appeals court invalidated this key permit.

This 550-mile pipeline threatens rare species like the Cow Knob Salamander, James spiny mussel, Rusty Patch Bumblebee, Indiana Bat, Northern Long-Eared bat, and Virginia Big-Eared Bat. In addition, the pipeline threatens water quality, fragments habitat (including 13 miles of the George Washington National Forest), degrades scenic and recreational resources, and will negatively impact the communities surrounding the proposed pipeline route. To prevent this, Wild Virginia and partners are leading the fight against these pipelines and is inspiring and activating citizens.

Through a partnership with Trout Unlimited and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Wild Virginia has been recruiting and training citizen scientists to monitor water quality along both pipeline routes.  This will ensure baseline data on high priority streams are collected before construction and that any violations are properly reported. Wild Virginia is also helping recruit and train citizen observers through the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition's CSI program. This program helps ensure strict application of environmental laws and regulations in the construction and operation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. 

 

Liberty sunset. Photo: Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Shifting Perspective: the Appalachian Trail as a Large, Connected Landscape

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is one of the most iconic hiking trails in the world. But those who have experienced the AT know it is more than just an isolated footpath in the woods: the 2,191-mile-long trail joins wild, scenic, and culturally significant landscapes that define a place millions of Americans call home. As part of a new large landscape-scale conservation initiative, the AT Landscape Partnership desires a broader vision of human connection to the Appalachian outdoors. The AT Landscape Partnership—led by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and the National Park Service—seeks to safeguard the values of this exceptional landscape. Wildlands Network is excited to be a part of this coalition and provide expertise on landscape connectivity to the AT community.

The AT Landscape Partnership seeks to connect people along the AT and across its landscape to foster information exchange; collaborate with partners to implement programs that advance conservation within the AT landscape; and communicate the importance of conserving the values associated with the AT landscape, rallying partners and the outdoor community toward a common goal.

The AT Landscape Partnership also exists to conserve lands within the AT landscape that are threatened or that include significant natural habitat, cultural, or historic sites. In 2017 alone, partner organizations completed 15 land acquisition projects, totaling approximately 10,200 acres. A goal this year is to build on that progress and continue land protection efforts through the ATC’s Action Fund Grant Program, which will enable qualified organizations working within the AT landscape to accelerate conservation projects.

For more information, visit www.at-landscape.org.

 

Photo: Essex Editions

Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor

In 2011, Wildlands Network co-founder John Davis published Big, Wild, and Connected: Scouting an Eastern Wildway from Florida to Quebec, documenting his 7,600-mile human-powered trek along the proposed Eastern Wildway.

In late 2017, Davis zoomed down to a local wildlife corridor in his own backyard: Split Rock Wildway in the Adirondacks of New York. Adirondack Park is one of the wildest and most diverse landscapes we have in the East. In his new book, Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor, Davis takes readers through this important linkage between Lake Champlain and the High Peaks, introducing them to the charismatic and enigmatic animals who make Split Rock Wildway their home. From salamanders to sturgeons, raptors to moose, Split Rock Wildway connects readers to the landscape, explaining its ecological and conservation importance, showcasing the natural beauty of the area. A portion of the sales benefit Champlain Area Trails, Northeast Wilderness Trust, and other conservation groups in the area.

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