Conservation in a Changing Climate
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Wildlife Connections

Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park  Credit: Terry Tollefsbol/USFWS
Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park Credit: Terry Tollefsbol/USFWS

By Leith Edgar, Greg Watson, Matt Kales, Mountain-Prairie Region

As human influence on the natural landscape increases, there is a growing need to secure opportunities for wildlife to move between large blocks of protected public land that provide habitat for valued large mammals like the grizzly bear. In an effort to maintain these wildlife corridors, biologists are working to determine the best opportunities to allow species to move between areas while minimizing mortality risk.

A project supported by the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GNLCC) aims to identify landscape-scale movement opportunities for multiple wildlife species in the Rocky Mountains of Montana and Idaho, and adjacent transboundary areas of British Columbia and Alberta. The project – “Document Fine Scale Linkage Areas and Conservation Delivery in the Northern Rockies of U.S. and Canada” – is one of the first projects approved for funding by the newly-formed GNLCC.

In addition to the need for wildlife to move freely within habitat corridors, the changing climate may alter ecosystems and habitats, resulting in significant changes in distribution of affected species on the landscape.  This project will provide critical information about connectivity between important wild areas in order to better understand the ability of a species to respond to changes, also known as “species resilience”.  Using this information, land managers can efficiently target protection of strategically habitat linkages habitat between large blocks of public land in the northern Rocky Mountains.

“This strategic project will enhance our understanding of species movement and explore opportunities for wildlife to use existing habitat and food sources while minimizing the risk of human encounters on roads, rural and developed areas that can lead to human conflicts with wildlife and inevitable loss to both ,” said Chris Servheen, project coordinator. “We’re seeking connectivity opportunities among existing habitat corridors by identifying fine-scale linkages.”

The project provides critical science for conservation efforts designed to increase long-term viability of wildlife by providing increased opportunities for movement through low elevation areas and across highways. Successful dispersal of species is important for genetic and demographic connectivity and viability which increases the resiliency of wildlife populations to multiple threats and displacement factors, such as expanded development, transportation networks, and climate effects.

Specifically, this project will identify wildlife linkage locations across highways 1, 2, 200, 95 and I-90 in northwest Montana and north Idaho. By focusing conservation efforts on linkage sites, the project will allow more strategic conservation investment in valuable, intact landscapes.   Functional access to seasonally required habitats and maintenance of genetic connections increases resilience to changing conditions.

One of the species most likely to benefit from this study is the grizzly bear. Previous research using radio telemetry on grizzly bears resulted in the identification of core grizzly habitat along the US-Canada border as well as strategic linkage areas. Identified linkage zones – areas linking grizzly bear habitat – allow for increased movement of the species.

The approaches featured in this LCC project have already been applied in areas in British Columbia where important wildlife movement areas allow species to move freely. Linkage management involves habitat protection through easement or in some cases, direct purchase of strategic lands for wildlife movement; refinement of timber harvest and road building protocols in key area to reduce bear mortality risk; and assisting private land owners with ways to minimize conflicts with wildlife as they move through private lands   Applying a similar approach to the key linkage areas in Montana and northern Idaho is an objective of this project.
Partners include: US Department of Transportation; Michael Proctor, Birchdale Ecological, Kaslo, B.C.; Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks; Idaho Fish and Game Department; US Forest Service; British Columbia Ministry of Environment; Montana Department of Transportation, Idaho Transportation Department; The Nature Conservancy, Montana and Idaho; and Vital Ground Foundation, Missoula.


Last updated: November 9, 2012
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