The National Park Service and the country’s leading wildlife experts are developing a plan to conserve migrating wildlife as it moves through protected areas, sometimes crossing vast regions of the globe to reach birthing and feeding grounds.

Unveiled in a paper published last week in Conservation Biology, the plan details the need for more collaboration between the NPS, local governments and public landowners.

If migratory species are to survive the slow creep of human development, the plan adds, conservation efforts must begin sooner than later, and the public must have a participatory role.

“Our national parks attract as many people as professional football, baseball and basketball games combined,” said Joel Berger, a professor at the University of Montana and the new paper’s leading author. “Putting this on the public’s radar is a good place to start, so 20 years from now we’re still looking at these species.”

In 2008, the National Park Service reached out to Berger, the Wildlife Conservation Society and other scientists to help frame the challenges facing migratory species, including bird, marine and terrestrial mammals.

From humpback whales that calve near Hawaii and move through shipping channels to feed near Alaska, to shorebirds that breed in the Arctic and migrate to wintering grounds in South America, Berger said the plight is the same.

“Our national parks are increasingly becoming island ecosystems,” he said. “If we don’t do something to connect these islands, migratory species will have a difficult time surviving into the future.”

Berger, who serves as a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, notes the success of past efforts to protect migration routes, including the so-called “Path of the Pronghorn.”

The 93-mile migration – the longest made by any terrestrial mammal in the lower 48 states – connects the Upper Green River Basin in Wyoming to wintering grounds in Grand Teton National Park.

When the NPS contacted Berger for help finding a long-term approach to preserve other migrations, he set out to build a team. Nearly 20 authors helped write the paper outlining a plan of action, 13 of them from non-government entities, including the Instituto de Ecologia in Mexico.

The call for a Migratory Species Initiative began.

“This collaborative effort, both nationally and internationally, comes at a time when the need to conserve key species that move across local jurisdictions could not be higher,” said Herbert Frost of the NPS.

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A century ago, the country’s national parks were criticized for establishing boundaries that failed to provide sufficient range for migrating species. Berger said the parks have received more recent criticism for not doing more to accommodate species that move beyond their jurisdictions.

The paper cites bison in the Yellowstone National Park region as a glaring example of challenges facing migratory species. The animals are largely restricted by humans to staying within park boundaries. When they stray from the park, they’re hazed, captured or shot.

“While migration is an ecological process central to maintaining biological diversity, addressing the NPS’ request required us to consider the attitudes and behaviors of individuals, society and agencies,” Berger said. “Our purpose in sharing our experience is to illustrate opportunities and limitations of conservation approaches.”

Wildlife migration has not been central to NPS management policies, despite recognition by scientists that such migrations are disappearing. Habitat loss, climate change and recreation were identified in the paper as the three leading threats facing migrations.

Nearly 15 percent of species identified in the paper include neo-tropical birds, 11 percent marine mammals, 10 percent raptors, 9 percent ungulates and more than 6 percent terrestrial carnivores.

Gaining the public’s attention and establishing pilot projects were identified as places to begin conservation efforts.

“We’re working on pilot projects that can showcase success, where we work with agencies and landowners to create a cooperative agreement to do this,” Berger said. “If we lose the habitat outside the parks, people won’t see the migratory spectacle, and the animals won’t get to where they need to go.”

The paper recommends launching new conservation efforts directed at high-profile migratory species. Such pilot projects could provide lessons on a larger scale and help win public support within and beyond the NPS, Berger said.

Those behind the initiative believe protection cannot take place within individual NPS units. Rather, it must play out across boundaries and on a regional scale. It also must accept that migration patterns will change with the climate and shifting habitats.

“The NPS is internationally recognized as a leader in managing parks and protecting our wild heritage,” said Steve Zack, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “For migratory species, protected areas are essential but not sufficient.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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