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Pennsylvania wildlife is under great pressure and needs protection | Opinion

Proposed legislation would study conservation corridors to tackle the problem.

A New Jersey underpass serves as a conservation corridor for reptiles and amphibians
A New Jersey underpass serves as a conservation corridor for reptiles and amphibiansRead moreNew Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

Our wildlife is under enormous pressure in Pennsylvania. The causes are well-known, and not only to state wildlife professionals. Outdoor enthusiasts observe the loss of habitat due to expanding suburbs, exurbs, and generations of road building. The result is fragmentation, which is the dividing of suitable habitat into smaller, isolated patches. Eventually, the patches are too small to sustain biodiversity, which is vital to healthy wildlife populations. How do we address this challenge to support our wildlife locally and across the commonwealth? Recently introduced state legislation gives Pennsylvania the opportunity to start reconnecting our ecosystems.

Conservation corridors are habitat areas that link otherwise unconnected wildlife habitats and are a key conservation strategy needed to protect wildlife as they move about the landscape. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania, as in 15 other states, are working to make conservation corridors a reality. Pennsylvania House Resolution 74, introduced into the Tourism and Recreational Development Committee by State Reps. Mary Jo Daley (D., Montgomery) and Aaron Kaufer (R., Luzerne), provides the legislation to begin the study of conservation corridors in Pennsylvania. A similar resolution (SR 70) has been introduced into the Pennsylvania Senate’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee by State Sen. Katie Muth (D., Montgomery).

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These resolutions would initiate a study of conservation corridors to benefit native plants and wildlife. This legislation would lay the groundwork to enhance current programs for wildlife conservation through voluntary, nonregulatory corridor development. The resolutions align with identified priorities of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Game Commission, and the Fish and Boat Commission. And the studies would help us identify where corridors are located, what areas are a priority to be connected, and any gaps that need to be filled to provide for passage of terrestrial and aquatic wildlife and plants.

Wildlife in Pennsylvania face many obstacles in moving through the landscape, including commercial and residential development, fences, aging culverts, and, especially, roads. These are the obstacles that cause habitat fragmentation and reduce wildlife populations. Animals face many “pinch points” across the landscape where they are hindered in their movement. Minimizing these points and providing linkages between high-quality habitats are important strategies for preservation. These approaches can be implemented from local neighborhood yards to mountain ridges to keep habitat connected for endangered, game, and common species alike.

Connected habitat — including unrestricted rivers and streams, large blocks of forests, and patches of grasslands — is also important to maintain Pennsylvania’s biodiversity. Biodiversity is enhanced by creating a connected ecosystem bigger than the sum of the parts, one that allows animals to move. This movement is necessary on a daily basis for food, or seasonally for den sites. Youngsters must disperse to find territory and mates and to increase genetic diversity within their populations.

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And this movement is complicated by climate change in Northeastern states such as Pennsylvania, which is increasing the occurrence of hotter and wetter weather. Some species will respond by seeking to migrate farther north every year to remain in suitable habitats. Landscapes need to be connected to be resilient to climate change.

A small sample of the animals that could be helped by conservation corridors: The hellbender, the newly designated Pennsylvania state amphibian, is a large nocturnal aquatic salamander that relies on free-flowing, unpolluted streams to thrive. Intact forest corridors provide stepping stones for migratory birds on route to northern breeding grounds. Bobcats prefer large blocks of unfragmented forest. Connecting the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania to the New Jersey Highlands would create a regional-scale corridor connecting currently isolated bobcat populations.

Conserving and connecting open space benefits humans, too. We depend on the benefits that healthy, connected rivers and forests provide, such as fresh water, clean air, flood protection, pollination, food, timber, and, especially, outdoor recreation. Pennsylvania ranks an impressive fifth in the nation in the amount of outdoor recreation spending, generating $29.1 billion in revenue and supporting over 251,000 jobs. These jobs depend on large intact landscapes that people want to explore.

These resolutions are an important next step to conserve the commonwealth’s natural heritage and fit well with emerging state laws to enhance wildlife habitat connectivity in our nation.

Anthony Bastian (Delaware County) and Sally Ann Sims (Chester County) are cofounders alongside Deborah Woodard (Bucks County) of Pennsylvania Habitat Connectivity, an organization dedicated to increasing ecological connectivity at the state and regional level.